Prof. writes book on Chanel No.5
Associate Professor of English Tilar Mazzeo, who is currently on sabbatical, writes about the luxurious, sensual mystique of the French Riviera in her new book entitled: The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.
Mazzeo’s newest work of creative non-fiction delves into the complex life of Coco Chanel and the creation of her famous perfume, Chanel No. 5.
The Chanel No. 5 project began in 2008. Upon smelling a bottle of perfume in her friend’s house, Mazzeo was able to name every ingredient in it. “I have a good nose,” Mazzeo said. “Perfume and wine have similar aromas, and since I had done all this research on what makes great wine, I began to wonder, what makes a great perfume?”
Chanel No. 5 is the most prominent perfume in the world, so Mazzeo decided to begin her research focusing on this particular scent. This eventually led to a detailed study of its creator’s fascinating life story. “The business behind the No. 5 story is interesting and complicated,” Mazzeo said. “I studied the archives at Chanel, old newspaper ads from the New York Public Library and interviewed the perfumers at Chanel and around the world.”
Mazzeo said that working with a Perfume Professor at ISS Perfume Manufacturing was the most fun part of the research. She traveled to Grasse, located on the French Riviera, where the finest roses and jasmine aregrown as ingredient for the perfume. Chanel owns 99 percent of the harvesting spots in Grasse.
Working with Sissel Tolaas, a renowned perfume and odor expert, provided Mazzeo with additional information, adding another dimension to the book. Tolaas also works with the experimental art psychology of scent, and explained how scent and memory are connected. “It was a lot of detailed academic research, probably the hardest I’ve ever done,” Mazzeo said.
In the book, Mazzeo describes the fascinating study of perfume and the biological study of why consumers are drawn to certain types. A study by a notable biological researcher, Claus Wedekind, discovered the implications of a Major Histocompatability Complex (or MHC) that determines mating preferences in humans. The particular perfumes humans choose highlight their immune systems as a means of advertising their MHC.
Mazzeo also explains what puts Chanel and other high quality perfumes in a league above other less expensive products. Mazzeo said that a rose is composed of about 1,000 molecules, and only two of these are enough to give the impression of a rose’s scent. Companies like Bath and Body Works use the synthetic impression of roses in their products by using only these two molecules, whereas Chanel uses natural products and about 998 molecules to give it a rich, complex scent. “The accords within perfume are like chords in music,” Mazzeo said. “Great perfume is like a great symphony, in that it does an amazing thing with chords. No. 5 blends accords and heavy musks and aldehydes in a way that is structurally brilliant.”
Aldehydes are chemicals that emit a clean smell and were virtually unknown in the 1920’s. This can account for why Chanel No. 5 was such an incredible success. “No. 5 lifts musks and balances them with aldehydes in a sort of tightrope act, one step one way would kill the balance.”
Tilar Mazzeo’s book The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume is in stores now. She will return to the Hill in the fall.