Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review - The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Title: The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume
Author: Tilar J. Mazzeo
Year: 2010
Page: 304
Genre: Non-Fiction

New to me author? Yes
Read this author again? Maybe, depends on topic
Tearjerker? No
Where did it take place? France, US
FTC Disclosure: ARC from HarparCollins (in exchange of an unbiased review)

Summary (from
In a world saturated with perfume aromas, Chanel No. 5 stands out. For nine decades, this celebrated fragrance has maintained its popularity even against thousands of more recent competitors. In fact, this iconic scent remains the world's bestselling perfume: According to Chanel, a bottle is purchased every 55 seconds. Tilar J. Mazzeo's The Secret of Chanel No. 5 unwraps the package of its captivating history and elusive appeal. Intimate and elegant.

First Sentence:
For the better part of a century, the scent of Chanel No. 5 has been a sultry whisper that says we are in the presence of something rich and sensuous.  

Why did I pick this book?
I was contacted by HarperCollins to see if I was interested in reviewing a few of their upcoming books. I looked through their catalog, and was especially interested in their non-fiction offerings. Now, I am NOT into designer brands, and I don't even use perfume (I work in healthcare, even though I don't have direct patient contact, I see a lot of patients in the hallway / different buildings each day. Due to their conditions, some may be sensitive to perfume smell, so I choose not to wear perfume to work. While our policy does not ban perfume - just can't wear strong scent - I hardly ever smell perfume from others at work either). However, I was interested in reading about the business of luxury products, and I have heard of Chanel No.5, so thought I'd give this a try to see why this perfume is so famous.

My thoughts:
  • As mentioned, I don't really know anything about designer brands, so I learned quite a bit about Coco Chanel. I didn't even know Coco wasn't her real name (it was Gabrielle). I didn't know that after her mother passed away, her father gave her up to the orphanage. I didn't know about her love life, or what her earlier "career" was before becoming a designer. So it was quite interesting to read about that. Even though this book concentrated on Chanel No. 5, it also provided some background of Coco so we understood why she designed to make a perfume
  • Also learned a little bit about the science / chemistry of perfume (e.g. aldehydes are a major component). I didn't know that "nearly 350 pounds of jasmine  -- over a half-million flowers -- go into a pound of jasmine concrete, and in each small, 30ml bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is the essence of more than 1000 jasmine flowers and the bouquet of a dozen roses". Today, a pound of jasmine absolute sells for more than $33,000! (p145)
  • I didn't know back at the beginning of the twentieth century, "there was a noted difference between the scent of a courtesan and the scent of a nice girl. Some aromas -- like jasmine and musk, patchouli and tuberose -- made a woman smell openly sexual, and only an actress or courtesan would dare to wear them. Respectable girls wore delicate floral scents of roses or violets." (p18)
  • What made Chanel No.5 different is that it is a blend of the 2 scents from the 2 worlds - a respectable girl who can also be sexy - using jasmine and roses. I don't even know what Chanel No.5 smells like, but after reading this book, I'll go find a perfume counter at the department store next time I am at the mall, to see if it smells like the way it was described in the book!  
  • Did you also know that a bottle of Chanel No.5 is sold every 30 seconds? (p xvii)
  • Many of you probably heard of the saying, that a perfume smells differently on each woman because everyone has a different skin chemistry? Well, it was actually invented for a Chanel No.5 ad campaign! (p189)
  • The most interesting tidbits, I found, was how Coco decided to test how the public would receive Chanel No.5. She wore it to a restaurant, and tested people's reaction to it. She got this idea from someone else when they were trying to get shelf-space for their perfume - the person went to a department store, and while talking to the manager, he accidentally dropped his perfume so the bottle would shatter. This way, the manager, and the other shoppers in the store, had no choice but to smell the perfume. And because it smelled so good, everyone wanted to know what the smell was! Clever huh?
  • While I did learn quite a few interesting facts from the book, I found the book a little dry and took me over a week to read it even though the actual story was about 217 pages (the rest of the books were notes - yes the author did a lot of research, which I applauded her for).
  • I also didn't quite like the writing style - there were quite a lot of references about what would happen next in a previous paragraph or chapter, before it then went into details what happened. Now I know sometimes this technique was used to entice the readers to keep reading, but when overused, it just took the surprise away and made it predictable. E.g. "Coco Chanel decided that it might be a good idea to place the product in the hands of a talented marketing professionals whose job would be to manage not just its distribution but its image. Soon afterward, she would do precisely that. She would always regret it." (p91);
  • And sometimes it got a bit too repetitive: E.g. it kept referring to the fact that "Chanel had no thought yet of creating a signature perfume" on p14, p15 and p22 (granted, the actual words were not exactly the same, but they pointed to the same thought)!
  • So overall, not a bad read and I am glad I learned a few things. But for someone who doesn't care too much about perfume or designer brands, I think a magazine article on the topic would have been enough. For those who ARE Chanel or perfume fans, you will probably like it. 

    "Suffering makes people better, not pleasure." (p90)

    Rating: 3 Stars

    Have you read this book? 
    If you have, I would love to hear what you think! I'll link your review here if you wish!

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