Only this commendation I afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but that she is, I do not like her.
Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Act I, Scene 1
I could say the same thing about the most recent flanker to what may be the most iconic and easily recognized fragrance in the world: Chanel No. 5.
Created in 1925, with the addition of aldehydes – not widely used in perfumery at that time – to suggest the aroma and sparkle of clean snow, this floral creation is still the best-selling fragrance worldwide. This wasn’t the first commercial, or even successful commercial, use of aldehydes in a fragrance (those would be Armingeat Rêve D’Or, 1905, and Houbigant Quelques Fleurs, 1912, respectively), but No. 5 is overdosed with them, specifically C10, C11, and C12. As a consequence of its popularity and the growth of aldehydic florals in the industry, the use of aldehydes came to be so closely associated with Proper French Perfume that soap manufacturers began scenting their products with aldehydes, and now we tend to think of aldehydes as smelling soapy.
Full disclosure now: my mom wore No. 5 parfum, the mid-1960s stuff, until her bottle ran out in the early 1980s. It was her “dress-up” fragrance (the everyday one being Jovan Musk for Women, another aldehydic floral musk). My dad bought her a bottle of EdT for Christmas, but she didn’t care much for it. She took to wearing clean florals like Coty L’Effleur and Elizabeth Arden 5th Avenue instead, until recently, and now she is devoted to the No. 5 Crème Velours pour le corps, the body cream. It is truly wonderful on her!
Although I always liked No. 5 on her, I didn’t want it for myself. What young woman wants to smell like her mother? Not this one.
Also: those blinding aldehydes. Klieg lights in the face, dude, at least before the florals pop up. I like them now, but No. 5 has always had that aggressive alde-slap opening, and it takes some getting used to. I’ve never smelled the early-90s Elixir Sensuel version (reportedly focused on ylang, with the aldehydes toned way down), but I liked 2007’s Eau Premiere very much, so I was looking forward to trying the new L’Eau variation, created by Jacques Polge and released this year (2016).
The SA who’s been working at the New River Valley Mall Belk since the mall opened in the late 1980s was there when I popped by last week, and offered me a manufacturer spray sample of L’Eau. L’Eau’s notes are Rose de Mai, lemon, mandarin, bergamot, orange, aldehydes, jasmine, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, cedar and “cottony” musk notes.
I was excited about trying it, and sprayed more liberally than I am wont to do, thinking that it would be a light scent that would need the three spritzes I gave my wrist.
At first sniff, it was recognizably a light, citrusy version of No. 5, with the aldehydes damped to barely-there levels. (Which is fine; I was expecting any new version of No. 5 to be updated in this way.) As the minutes passed, the beautiful mix of florals that is the heart of No. 5 came up and the citrus receded, and it was even prettier. Lighter weight than Eau Premiere, and less rosy, it was more light-hearted and, probably, more wearable for many people.
Half an hour later, the florals were faint and there was an undeniable savor of white musk in place of the attractive woody-rosy-musk drydown of Eau Premiere. Two hours after first spritz, there was white musk, period.
Instead of No. 5’s glorious rose-jasmine-ylang-iris-sandalwood-skin musk, instead of the luminous and lovely Eau Premiere version, L’Eau smells mostly of… laundry. The first 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how much you put on, are really beautiful, a cheerful lighthearted summer-sundressy No. 5 being all friendly, and then? Dryer sheets in attack mode. GAH.
Now listen up. I don’t mind white musk per se; a lot of other reviewers hate it with a passion I don’t share. If it’s the only noticeable note grounding an otherwise-lovely floral, and it starts disappearing into my skin shortly after the florals recede, leaving very little drydown, I’m okay with that.
No, really, I am. Witness my fondness for Chanel’s own 1932, a sparkly citrus-jasmine-iris that ends in musk. (I just bought a decant of the soon-to-be-rolled out EdP version of the Les Exclusifs collection, having recently drained my 5ml decant of the original EdT. See? I don’t hate it when Chanel uses musk in a light floral.) I didn’t like No. 19’s flanker, Poudre, because it stripped out all the Amazonian qualities of the original and made her a Stepford Wife, all her individuality gone. But Poudre is not awful taken on its own merits; in fact, when I think of it as “a greener take on Prada Infusion d’Iris,” I find it cool and calming and very pleasant.
See, I don’t really mind a Chanel frag ending in musk… unless the musk comes across as vapid. And in this case, I think it does. Chanel could very well have sent No. 5 L’Eau in the same direction as No. 19 Poudre: musk, yes, but a nice woody or skinlike one shaped with iris, vetiver, and tonka, a cool smooth drydown very poised, groomed, and collected. Chanel-like. Instead, they gave us a laundromat.
Lasting power on me is about as expected with a light eau or cologne: 3 hours with one generous spritz on each wrist, a little over 4 hours if I follow the Annick Goutal spray-until-wet protocol. Sillage is soft to moderate, again depending on amount applied. I have no complaints for either. I am less happy, however, that the last two hours of L’Eau are so laden with clean, cottony, boring, dull white musk.
No. 5 L’Eau still smells enough like No. 5 that I’m encouraged. There’s no froot, no sugar, very little vanilla. It’s not a disaster. It doesn’t stink. Chanel could have screwed it up in a bazillion different ways. It pays homage without smelling overtly retro, and as such, might convince some young things with disposable income to spend it on Chanel fragrance. Being other than she is, she were unhandsome.
But there’s that laundromat. … and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.