Book Review : The Secret of Chanel No. 5

After a long day at work, Gail handed me one of the library’s latest acquisitions, The Secret of Chanel No. 5 by Tilar J. Mazzeo.  I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but after the 2nd chapter I was hooked and went out to the bookstore to buy my own copy.  I found it riveting.  So what is this book all about?  The Secret of Chanel No. 5 is a biography of a perfume that reads like a mystery novel, the main character being Chanel No. 5.

I don’t want to spoil all the fun and reveal the secrets… but suffice it to say that we are far beyond the well-known fact that No. 5 was the 5th of a series of samples.  Ms. Mazzeo starts us off with Coco’s beginnings which became her influences and  then details the fragrance’s connection to Rallet No. 1, the likely precursor to No. 5.  Then she takes us through the marketing (or rather, absence of marketing) of No. 5 and finally Coco’s battles with the Wertheimer brothers.

How much did I learn?  Alot!  Although much is known about the perfume which contains the essence of 1000 jasmine flowers in each 30-milliliter bottle, Ms. Mazzeo expands on what we know with infinite detail and she brings it all together in one beautifully written fascinating read.  A few facts I didn’t know were that when the Wertheimer brothers launched No. 5 in the US, they also launched Chanel No. 1, Chanel No. 2, Chanel No. 7, Chanel No. 11, Chanel No. 14, Chanel No. 20, Chanel No. 21, Chanel No. 22 and Chanel No. 27 along with Rose, Chypre and Ambre.  Over the years, they later added Chanel No. 9, Chanel No. 18, Chanel No. 19, Chanel No. 46 and Chanel No. 55!  It’s a miracle that any of them still exist!  And when Coco Chanel realized that her signature scent was a bestseller in the US and she was only getting 10% of the profits (which had suited her when she signed the initial agreement), she launched her own version of No. 5 and called it Mademoiselle Chanel No. 1 boasting to her clients it was Chanel No. 5 “but even better”.  Coco Chanel might have been known for her good taste but that was tacky.

My only criticism is that some of her facts are a little off… like when she refers to Guerlain’s Jicky as an “oriental reference perfume”.  An oriental?  Jicky?  In which universe?  But then again, I’m a self-proclaimed perfume fascist (must be the librarian in me) so… never mind.

Read it even if you don’t absolutely love Chanel No. 5.

Top image : Vintage movie poster from Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick (1957) starring Robert Bray as Mike Hammer.

Bottom image : Book jacket.

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