Perfumes: The A-Z Guide

Bee Wilson writes:

Spray a rose scent and you think of roses. A jasmine scent, and you think of jasmine blossom. The representations may be better or worse - you may smell a rose perfume and think: this smells nothing like real roses - but they are imitations even so, however pale. The genius of Chanel No. 5, invented by Coco Chanel in collaboration with Ernest Beaux in 1920-21, is that - in keeping with Chanel’s friendships with Diaghilev and Stravinsky - it was the first abstract perfume: it smelled like nothing else. Chanel No. 5 was not the first compound perfume. Jicky by Guerlain - with notes of lavender, civet, vanilla and herbs - has been in continuous production since 1889. But Chanel No. 5 - first known as Eau Chanel - was the first to move beyond perfume which smelled of something to perfume which smelled of pure fashion. In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which reviews perfumes as if they were works of art (which they are), Luca Turin compares No. 5 to a Brancusi sculpture.

(LRB 7 January 2010)