Coco Chanel: Nazi Collaborator & Spy

Everyone knows of Coco Chanel as a fashion icon and style pioneer. She is justly respected for her vision, brilliance, and the way she changed the world of fashion. Yet, hardly anyone talks about the other side of the mirror, the Chanel who was the epitome of a cold opportunist, and an amoral, ethically challenged survivor who would claw her way to the top. If that meant — quite literally — sleeping with the enemy, then so be it. Even if that enemy was a Nazi. In fact, not only did Coco Chanel have a high-ranking Nazi lover before and after WWII, she was allegedly also a Nazi spy herself, code-named “Westminster.”

Source: lipstiq.com

Source: lipstiq.com

The whitewashing of history is a sore subject for me, and the case of Coco Chanel, in particular, has bothered me for a long time. Then, a few weeks ago over the recent Christmas holidays, I watched a French film about Chanel’s alleged affair with the famed composer, Igor Stravinsky, in 1920. “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is a gorgeous but problematic account for a few reasons, not the least of which is whether or not there was an actual affair. (Coco Chanel insisted it occurred, Stravinsky’s main lover and second wife insisted that it did not.) Regardless, the story reminded me of the Chanel that so few talk about, the real Gabrielle Chanel, and it brought back all my old feelings.

I won’t get into the details of Chanel’s extremely difficult childhood, or the well-worn territory of her rise to power through the assistance of various lovers. Both periods of time have been amply discussed. I concede here and now, explicitly, that childhood traumas can shape us, determine our character, and are important in discussing a person’s motivations as an adult. Again, I repeat, I concede that point fully.

However, I firmly believe that there are lines, lines which cannot be excused by one’s opportunistic hungers or an ingrained desire to survive. For me, Gabrielle Chanel crossed those lines, badly, and the cultish worship of Chanel as a fashion icon, woman and person needs to stop. There needs to be a more balanced, considered, and critical approach that takes into consideration the two faces of Gabrielle Chanel, a woman who I think resembles Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

"Sleeping with the Enemy," 2011 book cover. Source: Stylemagazin.hu

“Sleeping with the Enemy,” 2011 book cover. Source: Stylemagazin.hu

The primary focus for the following discussion will be a book called Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughn. Mr. Vaughn (who passed away three months ago) was a former diplomat who was also involved with the CIA before he became a journalist. His book was released in 2011, relies heavily on recently declassified French and German documents, and garnered many rave reviews.

The issue of Coco Chanel’s anti-Semitism and war-time collaboration with the Nazis is widely known, though rarely discussed, but the book went much further than that. Based on those newly released documents, Vaughn revealed that Chanel was a Nazi spy. Yes, an actual spy. With a code-name referencing her British lover, the Duke of Westminster, who was another notorious anti-Semite.

PRE-WAR CHANEL:

New York Times‘ book review on Sleeping with the Enemy provides a succinct chronological background to Chanel’s actions at the end of the 1920s, actions that lay the groundwork for some of the events that were to come to pass:

As her personal fortunes rose [in the late 1920s], she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming, most notably, the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), reputedly the wealthiest man in England.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminister. Source: The New York Times.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminster. Source: The New York Times.

Bendor’s — and Chanel’s — anti-­Semitism was vociferous and well documented; the pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many in his circle have long been noted, too. All this, it appears, made the society of the British upper crust particularly appealing to Chanel. As Vaughan notes, after she was lured by a million-dollar fee to spend a few weeks in Hollywood in 1930 — Samuel Goldwyn, he writes, “did his best to keep Jews away from Chanel” — she found herself compelled to run straight back to England, so that she could wash away her brush with vulgarity in “a bath of nobility.” [Emphasis to names added by me.]

Chanel with WInston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source: betterthannylund.blogspot.com/

Chanel with Winston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source: betterthannylund.blogspot.com/

Coco Chanel wasn’t turned into an anti-Semite by her ducal lover. Many sources, including Vaughn, argue that her bigotry had deep roots, going back to her childhood at a convent where such views seemed commonplace amongst the nuns and villagers. What was more significant about the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England and her lover for 6 years, was that he introduced Chanel to Winston Churchill. They became life-long friends, and it was a friendship that would serve her well when the time came down the road. In the meantime, she was living it up in Paris and was one of the wealthiest women in the world, thanks, in part, to the runaway success of Chanel No. 5.

Pierre Wertheimer. Source: newyorksocialdiary.com

Pierre Wertheimer. Source: newyorksocialdiary.com

A little known fact is that Coco Chanel had Jewish partners, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, whose descendents now control the entire Chanel empire. (As a result, the modern-day Wertheimer brothers are billionaires, with a combined net worth of over $19 billion dollars.) Chanel may have been an anti-Semite, but she was an opportunist first and foremost — and she badly needed the Wertheimer brothers in order to make her perfumes a success. I’ll rely on Pierre’s Wikipedia entry for the basic background details, though I’m fully aware that Wikipedia often has serious flaws and should only be used as a starting point in things. Still, the brothers aren’t the focus of this piece, and the Wikipedia account is supported by a site called Funding Universe. So, back to the Wertheimers. In the early 1920s, the two brothers were very wealthy, thanks to their father who founded the French makeup company, Bourjois. (It is still the cheaper arm for Chanel cosmetics to this day.)

In 1924, Chanel sought their financial backing in order to launch her perfume line and, most specifically, Chanel No. 5. In essence, the Wertheimers acted as venture capitalists in a new corporate entity called “Parfums Chanel,” in return for a whopping percentage of the rights and profits. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

In 1924, Coco Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimers creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.”

Chanel believed that the time was opportune to extend the sale of her fragrance Chanel No. 5. to a wider customer base. Since its introduction it had been available only as an exclusive offering to an elite clientele in her boutique. Cognizant of the Wertheimer’s proven expertise in commerce, their familiarity with the American marketplace, and resources of capital, Chanel felt a business alliance with them would be fortuitous. Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store, Galeries Lafayette, had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Pierre Wertheimer to Chanel at the Longchamps races in 1922. […] 

Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer. Source: http://reneeashleybaker.wordpress.com

Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer. Source: reneeashleybaker.wordpress.com

For a seventy percent share of the company, the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. Théophile Bader was given a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations.[4] Ultimately displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” In 1935, Chanel instigated a lawsuit against the Wertheimers, which proved unsuccessful.[5]

Then, war came, and oh, what an opportunity it was for Mademoiselle Chanel. Up to that time, she had been living the high-life in a luxurious apartment at the Paris Ritz Hotel. While that part of her life didn’t change when the Nazis goose-stepped their way up the Champs-Elysees, they brought with them the convenient benefit of Aryanization laws that would target Jewish-owned business.

THE NAZIS & CHANEL:

"Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery)."  Source: Newyorksocialdiary.com

“Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery).” Source: Newyorksocialdiary.com

To quote a New Republic book review called “The Stench of Perfume“:

While her fellow countrymen starved and died, she lived like a queen in the Ritz, surrounded by Nazi officers and enjoying Nazi parties. Berlin ordered that the Ritz was “reserved exclusively for the temporary accommodation of high-ranking personalities,” meaning that Chanel must have made connections with some very powerful Nazis in order to stay there. And there is the matter of her anti-Semitism.

In addition to her collaborations, Chanel spoke loudly and vehemently against Jews, and even tried to take advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish businesses and property. Her world-famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, was owned and produced by the Wertheimers—a rich Franco-Jewish family. Chanel had always been paranoid that the Wertheimers were stealing from her (though her lawyer assured her of the contrary), and during the war, when the family had fled to America, she attempted to take full control of Chanel No. 5. But the Wertheimers had anticipated that the Nazis (or Chanel) might try to steal their company, and therefore they signed it over to a Frenchman for the duration of the war. Chanel couldn’t touch it. The Wertheimers also sent a spy, Herbert Gregory Thomas (under the pseudonym, Don Armando Guevaray Sotto Mayor), to retrieve the chemical formula to make Chanel No. 5 as well as collect all the necessary ingredients. He then brought everything back with him to America, so that the Wertheimers could continue to produce and sell the fragrance.

Chanel may have been thwarted in her attempts to use Nazi Aryanization laws to obtain control of the perfume company that bore her name, but the Nazis still made her rich. Very, very rich. The blog, MessyNessyChic, explains:

Source: MessyNessyChic.com

Source: MessyNessyChic.com

On May 5, 1941, Coco Chanel wrote to the government department in charge of the handling of Jewish financial assets.

These are her words in the letter:

 Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews … and has been legally ‘abandoned’ by the owners. I have an indisputable right of priority. The profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business…are disproportionate.

Ultimately, Chanel was awarded the wartime profits from the sale of her perfume, including share of two percent of sales which amounted to the equivalent of $25 million a year in modern currency.  This made her the richest woman in the world at that time– thanks to the Nazis.

"The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel." Source: NY Social Diary.http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

“The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel.” Source: NY Social Diary. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

Chanel was equally successful in satisfying her voracious sexual appetites. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my disdain stems from her choice of lovers: Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior officer for the Abwehr or German Military Intelligence, who reported directly to Goebbels. Dincklage, who was much younger than Chanel, ended up being the last great love of her life.

Chanel didn’t stop at merely taking on a high-ranking Nazi lover. She became an actual Abwehr spy, with her own number: Abwehr Agent 7124. Her code name was “Westminster,” harkening back to her anti-Semitic ducal lover in England. The basis for Vaughn’s argument: those newly declassified documents from French and German authorities, as well as Nazi documents taken by the Soviets back to Russia and similarly released by that government in recent years.

General Walter Schellenberd, nicknamed "Hitler's Spymaster"

General Walter Schellenberg, nicknamed “Hitler’s Spymaster.” Source: Wikipedia.

Chanel and her Nazi lover sought to recruit wealthy Europeans to the Nazi cause, and Chanel had two actual missions. To be fair, some of Chanel’s wartime efforts were an attempt to secure the release of those she cared about. One mission to Madrid was done partially to secure her nephew’s release from a German POW camp. Some people try to justify her meeting in Berlin with the SS‘s intelligence chief, General Walter Schellenberg, and Himmler‘s right-hand man in the same way. (Yes, she met with Nazis who were that powerful!)

The reason for that meeting was “Modellhut” (or “model hat”). That was the codename for her second mission for the Nazis, which took place in 1943, and sought to counter the turning tide of the war by using Chanel’s friendship with Winston Churchill to achieve a peace with terms that wouldn’t hurt Germany. As a Washington Post book review of “Sleeping with the Enemy” puts it:

When Germany began to falter, the Nazis came to believe that Chanel might be useful in contacting her old friends Churchill and the Duke of Westminster and brokering a possible peace. She didn’t disappoint. She did what she was told to do and, in 1944, she wrote Churchill a letter, referring obliquely to her German connections.

[It didn’t work, but] Chanel continued to live at the Ritz, rub shoulders with Nazis and dine on poularde rotie, even as French families dug through the city’s garbage, trying to fend off starvation. […] 

Parisians foraging for food, via NewYorkSocialDiary.com

Parisians foraging for food, via NewYorkSocialDiary.com. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

As the war ground on and Dincklage came and went from Berlin, convincing his bosses that she was trustworthy, thousands of French Jews were herded to sure deaths in Poland and Eastern Europe. But the glamorous woman with the deft needle and acid tongue was safe. The good life at the Ritz continued to roll on. There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis. Chanel was not among them.

THE LIBERATION OF PARIS & CHANEL:

In the final days of August 1944, after Paris was liberated, retribution for the “collabos” or those who collaborated with the Germans was harsh. Some say about 30,000 to 40,000 people were executed. “Horizontal collaborators” or women who merely slept with the Germans suffered as well, though it was primarily humiliation and ostracism. The punishment was swift and brutal, even though none of them were actual Nazi spies who went to Berlin to meet with Hitler’s spy chief. An excerpt of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in the New York Times gives you a small idea of what happened:

A thirst for revenge gripped the nation in the last days of August. Four years of shame, pent-up fear, hate, and frustration erupted. Revengeful citizens roamed the streets of French cities and towns. The guilty — and many innocents — were punished as private scores were settled. Many alleged collaborators were beaten; some murdered. “Horizontal collaborators” — women and girls who were known to have slept with Germans — were dragged through the streets. A few would have the swastika branded into their flesh; many would have their heads shaved. Civilian collabos — even some physicians who had treated the Boche — were shot on sight. The lucky were jailed, to be tried later for treason.

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source: histomil.com

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source: histomil.com

What did Coco Chanel do? She hurriedly ran out into the streets to give bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs! (You have to almost admire her nerve.) A few days later she was arrested, but Winston Churchill made a phone call, and she was soon released.

Chanel got off scot-free, and for reasons that went much further than Winston Churchill’s intervention. With the help of influential friends, including her ex-lover the Duke of Westminster, she successfully orchestrated a cover-up. She lied about pretty much everything and to everyone. She even went so far as get a former collaborative ally arrested by the French Partisans and, later, to bribe the ailing Nazi spymaster to keep her secret. To quote the New York Times review that I referenced at the start:

She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.)

Chanel and Dinklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com via Paris Match & Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Chanel and Dincklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com via Paris Match &
Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

God only knows what the partisans did to a French traitor like the Baron, but it can’t have been anything good. In the meantime, mere days after her questioning and release, Chanel fled to Switzerland. There she remained for 8 years, until 1954, with her Nazi lover, living in style and in the height of luxury. Oh, and taking drugs while she was at it as well. Chanel was a hard-core morphine addict, relying on it daily until she was well into her 70s.

Throughout it all and until her death, she was coldly unapologetic for her actions, which is one of the things that bothers me the most. She may have done some things to survive, but I think she went too far, and, worst of all, she never once felt any regret.

Instead, when asked in later years about her Nazi ties, she coolly responded, “I don’t ask my lovers for their passports.” As for the French, a Portugese site, Fashionatto, quotes her as saying, “The French got what they deserved” and “Not all Germans were bad guys.” No, not all Germans were bad, and yes, the French behavior during the Vichy Government was abominable, but Chanel’s callous dismissal of the details goes a step too far. One of the things that irritates me to no end is her sheer indifference to anything other than herself. There is narcissism, and then there is megalomaniacal narcissism — I’m trying to decide there should be an entirely separate category reserved solely for Gabrielle Chanel.

As even the New York Times puts it,

Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris. And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and élan.

CHANEL’S POST-WAR COMEBACK & THE WERTHEIMERS:

Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source: styleamor.com

Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source: styleamor.com

One of the strangest parts of this whole sorry tale is the behavior of the Wertheimer Brothers after the war. They paid for Chanel to live in the lap of luxury, from her exile in Switzerland until her death in Paris in 1971 at the age of 87. Their generosity boggles my mind. I can understand why they would finance her reestablishment in French society and the re-emergence of Chanel as a business success; that benefits them indirectly and financially. It was a business decision about a corporate entity. But her personal bills? All of them, and until her death? Despite her collaboration and despite how she had treated them personally? That takes the milk of human kindness to levels that I simply cannot fathom. (Yes, I am a much less forgiving person.) Meanwhile, Chanel grabbed the money, and then declared that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me.”

There seems to be the suggestion that Pierre Wertheimer was a long-time admirer of Chanel, and perhaps had a crush on her, but that didn’t prevent the two of them from having a little perfume war while Coco was in exile. There is a site called Funding Universe which has a detailed history of Chanel and her company, and which talks about the conflict over “Parfums Chanel“:

[After the war ended,] Pierre Wertheimer returned to Paris to resume control of his family’s holdings. Despite her absence, Coco Chanel continued her assault on her former admirer and began manufacturing her own line of perfumes. Feeling that Coco Chanel was infringing on Parfums Chanel’s business, Pierre Wertheimer wanted to protect his legal rights, but wished to avoid a court battle, and so, in 1947, he settled the dispute with Coco Chanel, giving her $400,000 and agreeing to pay her a 2 percent royalty on all Chanel products. He also gave her limited rights to sell her own perfumes from Switzerland.

Coco Chanel never made any more perfume after the agreement. She gave up the rights to her name in exchange for a monthly stipend from the Wertheimers. The settlement paid all of her monthly bills and kept Coco Chanel and her former lover, von Dincklage, living in relatively high style. It appeared as though aging Coco Chanel would drop out of the Chanel company saga.

At 70 years of age in 1954, Coco Chanel returned to Paris with the intent of restarting her fashion studio. She went to Pierre Wertheimer for advice and money, and he agreed to finance her plan. In return for his help, Wertheimer secured the rights to the Chanel name for all products that bore it, not just perfumes. Once more, Wertheimer’s decision paid off from a business standpoint. Coco Chanel’s fashion lines succeeded in their own right and had the net effect of boosting the perfume’s image. In the late 1950s Wertheimer bought back the 20 percent of the company owned by Bader. Thus, when Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87, the Wertheimers owned the entire Parfums Chanel operation, including all rights to the Chanel name.

Pierre Wertheimer died six years before Coco Chanel passed away, putting an end to an intriguing and curious relationship of which Parfums Chanel was just one, albeit pivotal, dynamic. Coco Chanel’s attorney, Rene de Chambrun, described the relationship as one based on a businessman’s passion for a woman who felt exploited by him. “Pierre returned to Paris full of pride and excitement [after one of his horses won the 1956 English Derby],” Chambrun recalled in Forbes. “He rushed to Coco, expecting congratulations and praise. But she refused to kiss him. She resented him, you see, all her life.”

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source:  Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source: Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com

There is an interesting interview with the author of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in The New Yorker, where he answers some questions about the Wertheimers, talks about Chanel’s return from exile, and why there is so little discussion about Chanel’s past.

[Q.] As your title makes clear, the book emphasizes Coco Chanel’s wartime life. Why has this story not received much attention over the years?

I have no idea. I can’t figure it out. Either people didn’t want to know or chose not to deal with it. Of course, this story will not please the Wertheimers, one of the richest families in the world. Other than that, I have no idea why not.

[Q.] After the war, Chanel moved to Switzerland. How was it possible that she would ever be able to reëstablish herself in France, as she did in the mid-nineteen-fifties?

The simple answer is Wertheimer money: Chanel was backed by the Wertheimers. But really there was also the fact that, by 1954, most French people didn’t give a damn about who collaborated and who didn’t. De Gaulle had decided that all Frenchmen had been resisters, and all this collaboration business was behind them. And let’s not forget that Chanel was also tremendously talented.

[Q.] After everything Chanel had done to Paul Wertheimer, why did he ultimately agree to finance the reëstablishment of her couture house in 1954? And why did he consent to pay all her expenses—large and small—for the rest of her life?

From the point of view of the Wertheimers, the decision was extremely logical. What they were doing is not buying a business but rather an empire for a lifetime, and indeed that’s what it’s been. Here we are in 2011—can you go to any major city without seeing a Chanel store? It’s the unique mark in the world today.

[Q.] Especially in France—a nation still grappling with the legacy of collaboration—how is it possible that the Chanel brand today bears almost none of the stigma assigned to other brands often associated with Nazi complicity

The work of Robert Paxton never quite rubbed off on our memory of Chanel—and for a simple reason. She is essentially a hard-currency machine. Chanel is an icon, an idol in France—never mind the details of her life, her anti-Semitism, her dealings with the Nazis. Interestingly enough, I should mention that the French have not bought my book—at least not yet. It’s coming out in America and in Britain and in Germany. It’s been translated in Portuguese and translated into Dutch. But the French have yet to buy the book.

Source: entertainment.ru.msn.com

Source: entertainment.ru.msn.com

[Q.] Given Coco Chanel’s wartime past, what do you make of the prominence and popularity of the Chanel brand today? Should anyone still wear Chanel?

I have no feelings against Chanel. You can’t put someone like Klaus Barbie and Chanel in the same category: she didn’t kill anybody; she didn’t torture anybody. Madame Gabrielle Labrunie—Chanel’s grand-niece—said something to me that I found fascinating. She said to me: “You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.” Chanel was, very simply put, an enormous opportunist who did what she had to do to get along. [Format “Q.” insertions added by me for sake of clarity.]

I very much agree with him. I think the primary, driving characteristic of Gabrielle Chanel was opportunism, followed closely by a ruthless hunger to succeed at any or all costs. She was petty, avaricious (she was reported to be notorious for not paying her seamstresses as much as others, and treating them harshly), narcissistic, coolly calculating, and pragmatic. In my opinion, if she had her heart set on something (or someone’s husband), she would stop at nothing to get her way. She would sup with the devil, if need be, and she would do it all without a second thought.

The same thing applies to the consequences for that behavior. If she could get away with something, she would do everything to ensure it, no matter what the cost to others. And Chanel never seems to have paid for anything. By 1954, she undoubtedly realised that passions had cooled and a prosecution would be too risky. Too many unpleasant truths would come out about too many powerful people. Far better to drop it all, and pretend that none of it had happened, much as the French did for other dirty memories of those years. By the 1960s, she was dressing the wife of the French President, Madame Pompidou, and re-emerging as a success.

Yes, she was an anti-Semite, but she never seemed to let that get in the way of making money or climbing the social ladder. That is one reason why I laugh at the company’s attempted defense of Chanel. They weakly offer the “Jewish friends” argument, whimpering that she would not have ties to the Rothschilds or some Jewish friends if she were really an anti-Semite. The Rothschilds, the bloody famous, supremely and galactically wealthy Rothschilds?! Of course she would! Good God, Chanel would probably have peed in public while standing on her head if the Rothschilds had asked her to. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a bigot. I personally happen to believe that she did agree with a number of Nazi beliefs. The idea of a “super man” would very much fit how she saw herself, as well as her snobbish disdain for anyone without power, money, lineage, or some combination thereof. As a whole, though, I think Chanel’s only real, unwavering belief was in the currency and religion of Coco Almighty. Does that excuse her actions? Hardly.

Chanel via The Telegraph and entertainment.ru.msn.com/

Chanel via The Telegraph and entertainment.ru.msn.com/

Two things need to be stated clearly. First, there are very few people alive today who are in a position to truly judge the situation of those wartime years. I did not go through the utter hell that was Nazi occupation, and I cannot know what I would do if I were in Chanel’s shoes. War and desperation can make us do terrible things. I recognize all that, and yet, I can never forgive Gabrielle Chanel her actions. Whenever I read people gushing over her admittedly exquisite taste, her glamourous life, and her luxurious apartments, I think about who she used, slept with, or betrayed. When people talking admiringly about her strong-willed passions and how fabulous she was, I grit my teeth. When people swoon over her exciting love affairs (e.g., a Romanov Imperial Grand Duke, among others), I think instead of her Nazi lover. I simply cannot get past what a vile and loathsome human being she really was.

Second, I want to preempt what is the inevitable response to all this: “genius can be terrible, but it’s still genius.” It is what I call the “Wagner Argument,” and often takes the subtext of “They were a genius, so it’s okay. We can excuse it, or still enjoy their accomplishments.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s actually okay. What I want is a more critical, balanced perspective of Gabrielle Chanel that doesn’t white-wash or excuse her. In short, I want the blind, whole-sale, positively cult-like worship of Gabrielle the woman to stop, even if people continue to enjoy the products or things that she achieved. And yes, I don’t think there is anything wrong with buying something with the name “Chanel” on it.

For me, the corporate entity that exists today has nothing to do with Gabrielle Chanel, and hasn’t in decades. That is one reason why I will never stop reviewing her perfumes or buying Chanel products. Certainly, “Parfums Chanel” was largely owned by everyone but Chanel since 1924. She had a mere 10% stake in the company from its birth, and lost even that after the war. Furthermore, she never made a single perfume herself after 1947; the Wertheimers did. Chanel is a multi-billion conglomerate that capitalizes on the personal mystique and legend of Gabrielle Chanel, and they would be foolish not to. It’s only business, as they say.

Nonetheless, the next time you admire something about Chanel, the woman and person, I hope you will remember the other side of the mirror. She was Janus, with one face that reflected a fashion and stylistic trailblazer, a pioneer whose achievements in those particular, narrow fields has to be terribly admired. I certainly do — enormously. But the Roman god, Janus, also has a second face. In the case of Gabrielle Chanel, it rather resembles Dorian Grey’s portrait in the attic: maggot-ridden, venal, ulcerous, oozing internal decay, and thoroughly diseased with amorality, cruelty, corruption, and the blackest of ethics.

BOOK DETAILS:
If you’re interested in Vaughn’s book, Amazon sells Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War in a variety of different formats. The paperback price is $13.13, while the Kindle price is $10.19. It is also available on Amazon UK and Amazon France. I assume it is available on all the other Amazon country sites, though I have not checked. I know that Amazon Australia only has it in Kindle form.

Perfume Review – Chanel Bois des Iles (Les Exclusifs): Out of Africa

Out of Africa. Smoldering sensuality that purrs like a languid cheetah resting on a sandalwood branch. Sophisticated luxury under the most polite and elegant of veneers. The Chanel signature taken to exotic lands.

African sunset. Source: Tumblr

African sunset. Source: Tumblr

That is essence of Bois des Iles, a spectacular Chanel fragrance with a very feline heart that makes me just close my eyes in the deepest of admiration. I’m not generally a Chanel enthusiast; the typical floral-aldehyde signature leaves me rather cold, and I find that restrained aloofness to be far from my style. Whether green and powdery, floral and soapy, or just plain unobtrusive, Chanel rarely tempts me. But Bois des Iles…. my God, is it good! And I’m just talking about the current eau de toilette version from the Exclusifs line. One can only imagine the smoldering richness of the pure Parfum. And the vintage version would probably bring me to my knees in tears of joy.

Ernst Beaux.

Ernst Beaux.

Bois des Iles (which translates to “Wood of the Isles”) has a long, rich history. Ostensibly the very first “woody” fragrance for women, it was released in 1926 and was the result of collaboration between Coco Chanel and her cohort in olfactory adventures, the great, legendary Ernst Beaux. He was a Russian émigré who created some of the greatest perfumes in history, and an extremely intellectual man who supposedly used both Tchaikovsky and the great Russian poet and novelist, Aleksandr Pushkin, as his inspiration for Bois des Iles. In specific, Beaux is said to have created the perfume while entranced by Tchaikovsky’s opera, The Queen of Spades (“La Dame de Pique”), which was based on Pushkin’s story of love, obsession and madness.

Chanel, however, gives a very different backstory for the perfume on its website, describing instead the Paris of the 1920s, gripped by the fever of Africa and exotic lands:

Josephine Baker who danced at Le Bal Negré and who helped trigger the fascination with Africa in 1920s Paris.

Josephine Baker who danced at Le Bal Negré and who helped trigger the fascination with Africa in 1920s Paris.

The year was 1926. People were discovering the explorer within themselves. They danced at the Bal Nègre. Africa became the inspiration for fabrics, jewelry and earthenware. Mademoiselle Chanel and Ernest Beaux took their turn at evoking distant lands with BOIS DES ILES. It’s all there: the precious woods, the opiate scents and magnificent, languid flowers. The fragrance is a mysterious, faraway continent in itself.

I never even knew Africa was mentioned when I was testing the perfume and, yet, oddly, my notes for Bois des Iles were filled with comments about languid cheetahs, the sizzle of the Serengeti, and opiate woods. There is something about the sandalwood heart of the perfume that purrs not like a pussy cat but, rather, like a large, sleek, jungle cat.

Chanel Bois des IlesIt’s very surprising given the current situation worldwide for real Indian sandalwood. The current Bois des Iles is not the exact same formula used in the perfume created back in 1926. This one was released in 2007 as part of Chanel’s prestige, quasi-niche line, Les Exclusifs, and was created by the line’s in-house perfumer, Jacques Polge, who tried to stick as closely as he could to the original version. Unfortunately, he was hampered by the fact that Mysore sandalwood — the essence of the first Bois des Iles — is now in danger of extinction. So, he constructed an ode to sandalwood that doesn’t use the actual ingredient — and what a spectacular job he did!

According to Fragrantica, the notes in Bois des Iles include:

aldehydes, bergamot, neroli, peach; jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, iris, ylang-ylang; vetiver, sandalwood, benzoin, musk.

The perfume’s start on my skin is not exactly joyous. Chanel’s signature floral-aldehyde combination is twisted from its usual sparkling, frothy, soapy nature into something sharp, bitter, pungent and darkly green. It’s still soapy, but it’s also acrid and, yet, simultaneously, tinged with a somewhat odd sweetness. It is unpleasant, but sheer enough to be easily ignored. 

In less than ten minutes, however, the perfume starts to change. The bitterness and green sharpness start to fade away, as the floral notes start to grow stronger. At first, they are initially just abstract; an amorphous and vague sense of general “flowers,” if you will, with no individual components. Soon, however, they start to take shape with a strong rose note, backed by jasmine, then light touches of orange blossom, lily of the valley, and bergamot. The latter doesn’t resemble Earl Grey’s bergamot but, rather, a lemon-nuanced orange. Florals dominate these opening moments of Bois des Iles; the sandalwood cheetah is still sleeping. Instead, rose, orange blossom and citruses dance under the veil of softly soapy aldehydes.

Source: Wallpapers Online.

Source: Wallpapers Online.

Fifteen minutes in, the sandalwood starts to slowly rise to the surface. It’s so creamy, it almost verges on a coconut note. As it starts to infuse the florals, the aldehydes drop; their soapiness is tamer, softer, milder, adding just a subtle touch to the woodsy notes. At the same time, the resins begin to appear, creating a slow amber purr in the background as if some golden, black-spotted cheetah were sunning himself on the sandalwood branches of a great plain. Chanel’s resins are rarely the sort of molten, viscous, heavy, opaque ambers that you find in other houses or perfumes. Yet, here, there is something deep, rich, almost smoking in the combination of the sandalwood and resin. It’s rich and luxurious — all while feeling very lightweight in feel. It’s a combination that really seems to start at a low burn (or purr, if you will), smoldering quietly in the background until it takes over completely by the end in a blaze of smoky, spiced sandalwood glory.

Source: Coverslike.com

Source: Coverslike.com

But, in these opening hours, the cheetah is just awaking, opening his eyes upon a plain of flowers and woods. The bitterness of that green opening vanished long ago, replaced by vetiver that creates a vision of green and brown: its earthy rootiness is combined with the soft, loamy black earth, and just the quietest hint of musk. The bouquet of florals blooms, sometimes abstract, sometimes with more easily detected individual notes like jasmine or ylang-ylang. And, throughout it all, the sandalwood trees smoke little trails of what almost feels like a light incense. Less than 90 minutes in, the sandalwood has an orange-spice feel that is simply beautiful. It mixed with the much more prominent jasmine which is simultaneously sweet, heady, sheer and light, in a beautiful balance. The jasmine is far from indolic, and never feels over-ripe, sour, plastic-y, or verging on the narcotic. Underneath that beautiful jasmine-sandalwood canopy, there are flickers of citrus, orange blossom, amber and vetiver.

For my personal tastes, I would love it if the combination were richer, spicier, and deeper (clearly, I need to get the eau de parfum!), but Bois des Iles is not meant to be unctuous. It’s intended to be a lighter version that is airy and soft. Even the sillage is moderate, wafting out just a foot (or less) in the opening two hours, before dropping further. Bois des Iles is not gauzy or translucent, but it’s definitely not heavy and thick. It is like a cashmere cardigan on your skin, keeping you warm despite its lightness.

Source: 360doc.com

Source: 360doc.com

By the start of the second hour, Bois des Iles is all creamily spiced, rich sandalwood with lightly smoked resins. It’s as smooth as the gait of the waking cheetah, stalking the spiced woods and its golden fiefdom. That image isn’t wholly figurative; there is almost an animalic, leathery quality to the resinous combination — though it is light and just a subtle undertone. The perfume remains that way for hours and hours, until finally, it turns into a slightly powdery amber-and-smoke combination. People are always talking about how Chanel’s orientals have a “gingerbread” accord in the final drydown, and it’s almost like that here, if you really push your imagination. But, on me, the final touches of Bois des Iles are really just spiced amber with some extremely light hints of powder and musk.

Bois des Iles lasted an incredibly long time on my skin. Ten hours later, I could still detect faint traces of it on my arm. But there were times when the perfume replicated my experience with Chanel’s extremely lovely 31 Rue Cambon by taking on ghostly qualities: it seemed to disappear completely from a certain part of my arm, only to pop back up thirty minutes later. The scent in some parts seemed to wax and wane in strength, sometimes seeming to fade, only to end up even stronger than before. It’s a puzzling thing about some of Chanel’s Exclusifs, and I’m hardly the first one to experience it. I sometimes wonder if that ghostly act — which is particularly bad in the case of 31 Rue Cambon — is the reason why a few people (not all or many, but simply a few) think that the perfume has faded away completely in a brief portion of time. I certainly thought so for Rue Cambon and, after all, how many people spend their day constantly smelling their arm (or having someone sniff their neck)?

Nonetheless, longevity seems to be a problem with Bois des Iles. For once, I was incredibly lucky with how long a perfume lasted on me. In contrast, some people on Fragrantica reported Bois des Iles dying after an hour! The numbers are all over the place: one person gave 12 hours in duration, another 7-8 hours, and one saying 30 minutes with “generous spritzing.” Oh dear.

I don’t think that possible longevity issues should stop you from at least trying this beautiful perfume. It all depends on your personal chemistry, and you may have no problems at all. Plus, you need to see what the fuss is about because, for once, it is truly warranted. Even if you ignore the rave reviews littering the blogosphere, consider the perspective of the perfume critics, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez who awarded it the full 5 stars in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. There, Ms. Sanchez writes:

What Ernst Beaux’s plush Cuir de Russie did for leather, his cozy Bois des Iles did for sandalwood. Though I’ve never worn a sable stole, I insist it must feel like Bois des Iles: a dark, close, velvety warmth, sleepy and collapsingly soft. For once, the marketing material has it right. Chanel says it smells like gingerbread in the drydown, and so it does, sweet with vanillic balsams and spice. But that description doesn’t begin to communicate the depth of the fragrance: there are aldehydes sifting a powdery brightness over all, so that the fragrance feels sometimes like the brunette sibling of No. 5. There is the delicious top note of citrus and rose, with the fruity brightness of cola. It is basically perfect and, though over eighty years old, seems as ageless as everything Chanel did in those inventive years. If you think of all the best Chanel fragrances as varieties of the little black dress — sleek, dependable, perfectly proportioned — Bois des Iles is the one in cashmere.

My experience with the perfume was not really the same as Ms. Sanchez. For one thing, she doesn’t talk about that difficult opening 10 minutes; read any number of comments on Fragrantica or elsewhere, and the subject does come up. For another, on me, the aldehydes didn’t last for long (thank God). I also think the term “fruity brightness” may create a very misleading impression since this isn’t a fruity perfume by any means. Lastly, I don’t think her review conveys — at all — the true feeling of Bois des Iles with its smoldering sandalwood that is stunningly spiced, smoky, creamy, dark and ambered. The elements she describes are brief, fleeting flickers that never seriously impact the feline heart of this perfume. In fact, all the talk of aldehydes and roses almost detract from the basic fact that Bois des Iles is primarily a very sultry, amber oriental.

Where I absolutely agree with Ms. Sanchez is that Bois des Iles is a sandalwood stunner that is incredibly elegant in feel and simply oozes “money” (or “a sable stole”). It is restrained in that classic Chanel way, but you can almost sense that the woman wearing that perfect, elegant dress is sporting the sexiest of skimpy lingerie underneath it — if she’s wearing any at all….

Comparisons are repeatedly drawn between Bois des Iles and other Chanel perfumes. Three names, in particular, come up: Egoiste, No. 5, and No. 22. It’s been a while since I tried all three that I wouldn’t be able to make acute, detailed comparisons, but my memory syncs up with those of general commentators on Fragrantica. Bois des Iles is more refined than Egoiste, as well as softer, less intense, less complex, and creamier. It’s also less spiced than Egoiste which has a strong cinnamon undertone. (My comments only apply to vintage Egoiste, which I adore, and not to the current, reformulated version.) Bois des Iles also differs from Chanel No. 5 which is sweeter, richer, heavier, more powdery and (to me) soapier, though some seem to disagree on that last part. It is, also, more animalic at its heart, and its primary nature is floral. Bois des Iles’ nature is primarily woody, with the florals being mere accentuating touches. As for No. 22, my memory of that one is the weakest, but I recall it as being much yellower, much sweeter, far soapier with the aldehydes, and with significant powder (which Bois des Iles does not have). All in all, I’d say Bois des Iles was like the lovechild of Egoiste and No. 5, combining the best parts of both.

Bois des Iles is both unisex and incredibly versatile. Its moderate sillage makes it perfect for the office, but it is also a perfume that works well on a night out with friends, on a date, or just to curl up and feel sultry at home. It has immediately become one of my favorite Chanel fragrances, tying with (vintage) Coco and the beautiful oriental, Coromandel, Chanel’s ode to incense and labdanum. But something about Bois des Iles feels much more feline to me than those other two perfumes. Try it, and dine with the cheetah….

"Dining with a cheetah" photo by Leombrumo-Bodi, Vogue 1960. Condé Nast via Tumblr.

“Dining with a cheetah” photo by Leombrumo-Bodi, Vogue 1960. Condé Nast via Tumblr.

Details
Cost & Availability: This review applies only to the Eau de Toilette version of Bois des Iles. It comes in two different sizes: $130 for a 2.5/75 ml oz bottle or $230 for a massive 6.8 oz/200 ml. You can find it exclusively at Chanel boutiques or on the Chanel website. (The more concentrated, richer Parfum is $175 for 0.5 fl. oz.) You won’t find Bois des Iles at Nordstrom, Barney’s, or the like, though readers tell me that it is available at select Saks Fifth Avenue Stores (like the NYC flag-ship and the one in Washington, D.C.). It is also apparently available in-store at NYC’s Bergdorf Goodman and the Seattle Nordstrom (which will ship out to you wherever you are). However, Bois des Iles is not listed on any of those stores’ websites, so your best bet if you’re not near one of them is to go through Chanel itself. You can also use Chanel’s Store Locator guide on their website to try to find Chanel boutiques near you. As a side note, bottles are frequently sold for a bit less than retail on eBay. As for samples, you can find them at Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.00 for the smallest vial (1 full ml) of the Eau de Toilette. If you want to try the pure Parfum version, it’s $5.99 for a tiny 1/4 ml, $11.98 for a 1/2 ml, $23.96 for a 1 ml vial, and up.

Perfume Review: Chanel 31 Rue Cambon (Les Exclusifs)

Chanel headquarters

31 Rue Cambon is named after Coco Chanel’s apartment above Chanel’s long-time headquarters at the same address, and was introduced to the world in 2007 as part of Chanel’s six-line prestige collection called “Les Exclusifs.”

Chanel's apartment at 31 Rue Cambon. Source: GirlsGuidetoParis.com

Chanel’s apartment at 31 Rue Cambon. Source: GirlsGuidetoParis.com

The fragrance was created by Chanel’s house perfumer, Jacques Polge, and is supposed to reflect Chanel’s personal taste for the classically simple but, also, the baroque. According to Chanel’s own description, 31 Rue Cambon was

[t]he epicenter of the world of Gabrielle Chanel, a place that harmoniously combined her need for simplicity with her taste for the baroque. It took the complex form of a beautiful Chypre fragrance to capture these contrasting passions, also present in Haute Couture, in a scent. This exceptional fragrance combines the mysteries of both sensuality and elegance.

The categorization of the perfume as a “chypre” raised a lot of debate and discussion when this perfume was first released back in 2007. A chypre is almost invariably something that has oakmoss as its core foundational element; and there is absolutely none here. In fact, the century-plus era of the famous “chypre” family of perfumes being one of the most significant and influential is now over, thanks to the EU and IFRA. (I will spare you one of my rants on that subject but, if you want to read more about what a chypre is supposed to be, feel free to use the Glossary linked at the very top of the page.)

Though Chanel’s description references chypres, Now Smell This states that Jacques Polge himself describes the perfume as an “oakmoss-free chypre.” Whatever the oakmoss issue, in an interesting turn of events, Chanel itself does not classify the scent as a “chypre” at all. Instead, on its page listing all the Exclusifs, it categorizes 31 Rue Cambon as a “Smooth Woody Floral.” That’s just as well, because the description sums up 31 Rue Cambon perfectly, in my opinion.

31-rue-cambonChanel offers no notes for the fragrance on its website but, Now Smell This says that the notes are said to include “bergamot, iris, jasmine, patchouli and labdanum.” Personally, I am tempted to agree with  the commentator, cylob“, on Fragrantica, who believes that the full list of notes are as follows:

pepper, bergamot, orris, narcissus, jasmine, patchouli, ambrette, vetiver, labdanum.

31 Rue Cambon opens on my skin with bergamot and aldehydes. The bergamot reads here as a citrusy lemon and not like Earl Grey tea (as it sometimes does). The aldehydes, to my huge relief, are not waxy and extremely soapy but, rather, light and incredibly fizzy. Moments later, there is the subtle breath of jasmine, light and airy, never indolic, heady or narcotic. When combined with the aldehydes, they really fizz in a way that reminds me, with a smile, of YSL‘s Champane/Yvresse. Here, there is a definite feeling of sparkling champagne, only it’s lemon and jasmine in an effervescent accord. There is a subtly powdery note of iris from the orris and, then, vetiver.

The vetiver is very interesting in this opening stage. It’s fresh, green and more akin to lemon grass than to anything dark, earthy or rooty. Its freshness undercuts any chance that the jasmine could be indolic and adds to that overall impression of bright, green Spring colours, flecked with dollops of bright yellow and white.

Field of NarcissusThe colour image of yellow is enhanced by a sense of narcissus hiding behind the other notes, combined with something that very much feels like the bright cheeriness of daffodil (which is often another name for daffodils). The whole thing is very light and sheer, a gauzy veil of floral notes dominated primarily by lemon and fizzy aldehydes, but the feeling of both the yellow colour and of narcissus is there.

Chandelier reflectionsThirty minutes in, the perfume has subtly changed, almost like light shining on a different part of a crystal chandelier and reflecting different facets. The aldehydes and lemony bergamot are joined by a much stronger note of iris, a touch of a pepper, and a suddenly earthier, woodier vetiver whose rootier characteristic has started to emerge. The iris adds some soft powder, but it’s light and far from the sort of powder you find in Guerlain’s signature Guerlainade. Any fear of powderiness is undercut by the dryness of the quiet pepper note. Like the iris, the jasmine is also much stronger now, though still light in texture and still far from indolic. Also emerging for the first time is the ambrette; it’s a flowering shrub that is sometimes called Musk Mallow and whose parts are often used to replicate the scent of (animal) musk. Here, like the rest of the perfume, its musky touch is light, soft and gauzy.

An hour in, the oddest thing happens. The perfume seems to vanish entirely. I was in disbelief, sniffing my arm like a hyena attacking the first food he’s seen in days. Nothing. Gone. 31 Rue Cambon is often bemoaned for its longevity issues, and it’s certainly not the most enduring in the line, but this seemed to be taking things a step too far. Then, suddenly, there was a hint of fragrance: musky, faintly woody floral notes that were too soft and mild to be more than just a vague hint of something. Then, it vanished again.

At the second hour mark, lo’ and behold, like a Jack in the Box, it popped back up! And not only did it suddenly re-appear but it seemed stronger than it had been before. Strong jasmine and sweetness, accompanied by light powder, green notes and vetiver. I can’t account for it. There are ghostly notes, but an entirely ghostly perfume?! It was the strangest thing, but there is no denying that 31 Rue Cambon decided to leave, return, leave and then reappear to stay quite a few times during the time I tested it. I have to wonder if its mercurial nature is why so many people think the perfume has incredibly short longevity. Maybe they’re not sniffing their arm at the right time when it decides to join the party, so they missed its prima donna return?

Whatever the reason, I have to say that I liked 31 Rue Cambon a lot more than I had expected to. All the oft-told stories about how it barely shows up, the low sillage, and the extremely brief longevity issues — not to mention the whole muddy mess involving chypres/non-chypres/modern-take-on-chypres — had left me frowning a little and anticipating a scent that would be problematic. To my surprise, 31 Rue Cambon was very good. And I attribute most of that to the dry-down because it’s absolutely lovely.

In its middle to final stages, the perfume becomes a soft veil of sweetness and green notes. At first, about four hours in, it is soft patchouli, musk, earthy (but light) vetiver, and an amorphous, generalized “floral” accord. The patchouli note is far from the 1970s dark, dirty, hippie patchouli (which I actually quite adore); it’s just a faint whisper that adds a touch of sweetness to the vetiver. The latter is also just the merest breath of depth and earthiness. Actually, sometimes, the perfume just evokes some sort of “green” note without even seeming like vetiver.

Later, about eight hours in, the perfume simply becomes light amber with just a dab of labdanum. It’s a sweet, almost honeyed scent that is not opaque, thick or resinous. I adore labdanum and the depth it adds to ambery elements. Here, it’s too light to have serious body of its own, but it adds a perfect amount of depth to the amber to stop it from being totally translucent and faint. The whole thing feels a little like being in candlelight or in the soft warmth of afternoon sunlight.

Those final hours are quite a sharp juxtaposition to the fizzy, bright opening notes filled with citrus, aldehydes, iris and jasmine. I wouldn’t say the perfume has turned “baroque” — to use one of the descriptive adjectives applied by Chanel to 31 Rue Cambon — because it’s far too gauzy in texture. No, I think 31 Rue Cambon is best described as a mercurial woman who is lightheartedly playful and teasing in the sharp brightness of the morning, and slightly more weighty, sensuous and serious in the warmer, golden light of the late afternoon.

31 Rue Cambon is not to my personal taste and style, and I would never wear it, but it surprised me. In a good way. I think that, if people go into it without any expectation of a “chypre” and just approach it with an open mind, they too may be surprised. It’s a very Chanel scent and oozes that house’s classique, elegant signature. It’s neither revolutionary nor earth-shatteringly unique — but it wasn’t trying to be. That’s simply not Chanel. But it’s very, very good. 

The only significant problem with 31 Rue Cambon seems to be its longevity issues. On average, it seems to last most people around four hours. Some have said significantly less, with one commentator on Fragrantica saying it lasted a mere 30 minutes! If I hadn’t persisted and kept on smelling my arm, I would have given it an hour. Yet, to my disbelief, I could smell lingering traces of the labdanum at the 9 hour mark! And you know how my body consumes perfume! So, I have to wonder if a miniscule fraction of those people simply didn’t realise that the perfume was still on them, except it was like a teasing ghost that completely vanishes only to flit back on the scene, then to repeat  that annoying act a few more times? Not all, but perhaps for a handful?

Either way, longevity is a definite issue, even if you’re not continually sniffing your arm to detect all of 31 Rue Cambon. The problem might be solved if the fragrance came in the stronger eau de parfum concentration; alas, it is available only in the significantly lighter eau de toilette formulation.

Nonetheless, it’s still a scent worth trying. At the very least, it will let you know what all the swooning is about, because this is one very hyped, much adored fragrance. In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by the perfume critics, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Ms. Sanchez writes a veritable ode to 31 Rue Cambon, awarding it 5 stars and raving orgasmically that “I cannot remember the last time, if ever, a perfume gave me such an instantaneous impression of ravishing beauty at first sniff.” In fact, she states, point-blank, that it is “one of the ten greats of all time, and precious proof that perfumery is not dead.”

I think all that goes too, too far. 31 Rue Cambon is good, but it’s not that good! It’s a beautiful scent which floral, aldehydes lovers will love in the opening, and which Orientalists will love in the closing, but it’s really not a particularly breath-taking perfume of ravishing beauty. It’s just a very typical Chanel that exudes elegance.

By the same token, I also don’t agree with Robin at Now Smell This who thinks this is “the best” of the Exclusifs. Out of those that I’ve smelled thus far, I would grant that title to Coromandel. (My review for that is here.) Perhaps that’s because I’m more of an Orientalist than she seems to be. If I weren’t, then maybe I would prefer 31 Rue Cambon.

Since I’m being contrary, I’ll go to the opposite side of things and add that I absolutely disagree with those few Fragrantica commentators who think that 31 Rue Cambon is a scent suited only to a very old, rich woman. To quote one assessment, written by “shabbus”:

This smells of wealth, but also of age. If you were sitting in the lobby of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach and a wealthy dowager entered and sat down next to you while her driver checked her in and made sure her bags were handled by the bellman, her Hermes scarf would smell of 31 Rue Cambon. And so would the Pomeranian on her lap.

No. Absolutely not, in my opinion. For some reason, the 31 Rue Cambon woman reminds me of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Insouciant, breezy, mercurial, unreliable, fizzy, ditzy, but always elegant and feminine, and with the capacity to be slightly more warm, stable and serious at the end. Or perhaps it would be more like this playful side of a retro-looking Jennifer Garner in Chanel in a photo shoot taken in 2009:

Photo: W Magazine, 2009. Via The Daily Mail.

If I were to agree with anyone, it would be with the assessment at I Smell Therefore I Am whose review really encapsulated the overall feel and visuals of the scent:

For me, 31 Rue Cambon sits somewhere between the floral vanilla of Allure and the deep golden hues of Mitsouko.  It’s a bright fragrance, so shimmering at first, and really for a while, that it was hard for me to classify in any useful way.  Where Mitsouko is somewhat like sunshine through a pane of amber glass, 31 Rue Cambon is like sunlight hitting the beige upholstery of a sublimely cosy couch.  It’s well blended, and more than anything it simply smells like “Chanel” to me.

I think 31 Rue Cambon is the perfect scent for a woman wanting an elegant, discreet, soft woody floral with a slightly opulent edge of sensuality. Its soft elegance makes it never out-of-place — whether you’re at the office or on a date. In fact, its low sillage also makes it an ideal perfume for the office.

In a way, the development of 31 Rue Cambon actually feels a bit like a day at the office. Its restrained elegance and fizzy, bright opening evoke the feel of a bright Spring morning, as you go to work wearing a feminine but perfectly tailored and structured Chanel suit with a crisp white shirt underneath. Its surprising ambered warmth and softly seductive edge during its lovely final period is really akin to what happens, hours later, when a woman prepares to leave the office to join friends for drinks by letting down her hair and opening a few buttons of her shirt to reveal just the faintest suggestion of cleavage.

It’s very elegant, it’s very discreet, it’s very Chanel and, for some women, it may be “ravishing beauty at first sniff.”

Details
Cost & Availability: 31 Rue Cambon comes in two different sizes: $130 for a 2.5/75 ml oz bottle or $230 for a massive 6.8 oz/200 ml. You can find it exclusively at Chanel boutiques or on the Chanel website. You won’t find it at Nordstrom, Barney’s, Saks Fifth Avenue or the like, though I believe it used to be available in-store at Bergdorf Goodman. However, t’s not listed on their site, so your best bet is to go through Chanel itself. As for samples, you can find them at Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.00 for the smallest vial (1 full ml).

Preliminary Review – Chanel Les Exclusifs 1932: Sparkling Jasmine

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Chanel launched her first collection of haute jewelry. It consisted of diamonds set in platinum and was shown in an exhibit entitled “Bijoux de Diamants.” In 2012, on the 80th Anniversary of that exhibit, Chanel debuted a new fine jewelry collection and, in homage, called it The 1932 Collection.

Le-parfum-1932-de-ChanelSometime in early 2013, Chanel will release the perfume that goes along with that collection. It too is called, quite simply, 1932 and it is part of Chanel’s Les Exclusifs line of fragrances. The date for its release seems to be February 1, 2013, though I have read one report of March 1, 2013.

I have a large sample of 1932 already, but there is no official information on the perfume, no press release, no listing on Chanel’s website, and only a few unconfirmed details. So, I set out to discover more about the perfume prior to reviewing it. Two attempts to ascertain notes or details from Chanel were unsuccessful. The only thing that seemed certain beyond all doubt is that 1932 is a jasmine scent that comes in Eau de Toilette concentration. So, I played amateur detective, relying on a photo of a 1932 perfume box, its listed ingredients, and Google. You can read about my efforts in full detail here, but the bottom line is that the only definite notes in 1932 thus far seem to be:

jasmine, iris and musk.

Relying on the perfume box’s list of ingredients and all the sources available to me thusChanel 1932 far, I hazarded a vague guess that the notes may include some or all of the following:

Jasmine, rose or some possible rose enhancers (farnesol), bergamot (or lavender or coriander), cinnamon, cloves, violet or orris/iris, coumarin (hay), musk and possibly vetiver.

Again, you can read all the reasons why I came to that conclusion in the Sneak Peek post.

I am the very first to say that I am no perfume expert, and even less so when it comes to chemical terms and the technical aspect of perfume ingredients. I have tried to do the best that I can, with the limited information and resources available to me, but I’m sure my attempts to translate terms like “hexyl cinnamal,” “linalool,” or “farnesol” may have gone array somewhere.

Nonetheless, I think I have a mildly competent nose (I hope), so I can give you preliminary idea of what 1932 is like. Later, when Chanel releases press information, details of 1932’s notes, pricing and availability, I will do a proper review and include other people’s perceptions or reviews of the scent so that you can get a better, fuller idea as to what it is like.

For the meantime, however, I’m working totally blind on this — much like someone standing before a Mexican piñata while blind-folded, and attempting to hit something accurately. Let’s take a leap into the deep-end together.

1932 opens on me with a strong burst of bright lemon. It’s so fresh and zesty, I feel as though someone just cut into a lemon in front of me and squirted some drops of its juices on my skin. That immediate burst of freshness is followed almost seconds later by a massive dose of aldehydes. (You can read more about aldehydes in the Glossary.) Here, they smell soapy, waxy and candle-like. The lemon quickly melts into the aldehydes, creating the impression of soapy lemon wax. There is also the impression of something floral, akin to rose, but it is almost imperceptible under that thick veil of aldehydes. Along side, there is faintly powdery iris, but, again, the whole thing is subsumed under the sheer force of the aldehydes.

For full clarity, I should note that I tested out 1932 twice to ensure I had as accurate a sense about the perfume as possible. And, with one exception, 1932 was consistently the same throughout. The difference was a slight variation in the opening. The second time I tested 1932, there was a hefty dose of coumarin with its strong notes of sweet hay that appeared almost immediately after the lemon note. (In fact, if I sniff the vial to my decant, the predominant impression is of lemon followed by hay.) Unfortunately, the hay note is a bit of a ghost throughout this perfume. As you will read later, it pops up, vanishes, comes back, flits away, and so on. It is both maddening and quite enchanting, but then I love coumarin. With the exception of coumarin’s appearance in the opening the second time around, the rest of the perfume’s development continued on the same trajectory in both tests.

Two minutes in, the jasmine makes an appearance. It is timid, as if raising its bonneted head above the field of waxy soap and dappled lemon. The jasmine is sweet, light and demure, verging on the insubstantial. How could it possibly compete with those forceful aldehydes? This is probably the time to confess that I am not a particular fan of aldehydic fragrances and that this opening makes me sigh a little, though it is never as extreme or as unbearable as some perfumes. Even for someone like myself who dislikes the note, this is very manageable.

Fifteen minutes in, the jasmine becomes a much stronger player on 1932’s stage. It is heady, but there is a surprising sheerness and airiness to the scent. It is not an indolic or over-ripe scent — and jasmine can be one of the most indolic flowers around! (You can read more about Indoles and Indolic scents at the Glossary.) Indolic flowers can often have a rubbery element to the narcotic richness at their heart; over-blown ripeness that, sometimes, can verge almost on the side of decay. These indoles are the reason why some people get the impression of “rotting fruit,” sourness, urine, plastic, or Hawaiian flowers. Here, I don’t smell anything verging on over-ripe or full-blown; there is no rubberiness, no rotting fruit and, certainly, no decay. However, I do occasionally get faint whiffs of something slightly sour emanating from my arm. It’s extremely mild, never constant, and quite fleeting.

Thirty minutes in, 1932’s aldehydes have faded and jasmine takes full center stage. It is significantly stronger, though still airy, and is now accompanied by musk. There are also faint banana undertones to the scent. I have no idea if they are yet another manifestation of the aldehydes (which can take on a banana accord in addition to the lemon, waxy, soapy one) or if they are the result of something else. Such as, for example, ylang-ylang.

One person who has already tried 1932 says that there is ylang-ylang and sandalwood in the scent. On Perfume Shrine (a blog which first broke the story of 1932 over a year ago in early 2012), a poster by the name of Henrique/Rick wrote the following description this week on the site’s latest entry about the perfume:

Well, in the case of this fragrance, i’m pretty sure that it’s not hedione, since the jasmine used on it has a slightly fruity, yellow aspect on the aroma, while the hedione is more green to my nose. This is a lovely Chanel, very true to the classics. Altough the jasmine is highlighted, this is not a heavy jasmine fragrance. It starts with a exquisite blend of aldehydes, iris and ylang-ylang, then leaving space for the jasmine to shine, and at the base revisiting the jasmine and combining it with a gorgeous woody base of sandalwood supported by some musks. It’s really well done, there was a long time that i didn’t smell a Chanel that i wanted to glue my nose on my arm from the first moment until the last on skin.

Henrique/Rick’s comment is the sole description or impression of 1932 that I can find anywhere on the internet at this point. I agree with him on much of his description, especially the aldehydes. (How could one miss them?!) I also agree on the iris, but I’m not absolutely convinced on the ylang-ylang or the sandalwood. Yes, they could be there. But then again, the banana smell could easily come from the aldehydes; and jasmine by itself can be as heady, ripe and creamy as ylang-ylang.

Henrique/Rick is probably correct that “hedione” (a jasmine molecule first discovered in 1962) is not included here. For one thing, hedione is not listed on the box, though obviously that’s not dispositive. Perfume boxes don’t always list all the ingredients, after all! But the real thing is, one doesn’t have to use hedione to create a jasmine scent. According to a detailed explanation of how to create jasmine scents by Pierre Benard, a Grasse perfumer interviewed on Fragrantica, there are other ways to replicate the flower’s note. One way is to combine “Indol plus Benzyl Benzoate” with some eugenol for a green note. I see the eugenol and Benzyl Benzoate on 1932’s box, so maybe that is the route Chanel decided to take here. I certainly don’t smell the green note that Henrique/Rick attributes to hedione but, like him, a much more yellow, fruity aspect.

We part ways on the issue of sandalwood. If it’s included in 1932, it was almost nonexistent on my skin the first time round. The second time round, I could smell something vaguely approximating it, I suppose, but it was extremely faint. The impression may well have come from another ingredient entirely. I think back to Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s repeated comments in “Perfumes: the A-Z Guide” on just how few sandalwood fragrances actually have sandalwood in them at all these days. According to them, true sandalwood from Mysore, India is so scarce and so prohibitively expensive that most perfumers use Australian sandalwood which is an entirely different species of plant and with an entirely different scent. To the extent that 1932 may have sandalwood in it (of any kind), I think it is completely overshadowed and overpowered by the musk.

In that first hour, there was an unexpected element to 1932 in my first test. For some inexplicable reason, there was a slight earthiness to the scent on one arm accompanied by definite notes of mildew. It was faint but, there is no doubt, I smelled mildew! It’s not musty, so much as faintly moldy and a bit damp, if that makes sense. I can only attribute it to iris note which I’m guessing is from orris root; distillations from the roots of a flower or plant can have a faintly earthy smell, and that is much more the case than when the flower above earth is used. But I’m still not quite sure what causes the mildew note unless it is the combination of the orris root with the musk. The second time around, I didn’t smell mildew precisely, but there was a similarly damp and slightly earthy note. This time, it was faintly musty. Nonetheless, it was extremely subtle and subsumed by the stronger musk note.

1932 remains a predominantly musky jasmine smell for about two hours and then two new players arrive on the stage. The first is bergamot. It isn’t overwhelming but neither is it so faint as to be imperceptible. It’s a bit of a surprise, to be honest, especially for it to show up at this point instead of in the opening. But I definitely smell traces of Earl Grey Tea! It adds a note of freshness and depth to a scent that was essentially quite simple thus far.

The second player is coumarin. As noted earlier, the coumarin note is almost like a playful ghost: it appears with such freshness and sweetness, then it suddenly vanishes entirely, only to reappear and pop back up 10 minutes later, before flitting away again. Its coy disappearing act continues throughout the development of 1932. Each time, however, the coumarin smells exactly like freshly mowed hay! It never has the vanilla undertones that the ingredient may sometimes have. It adds a bit of dryness and a subtle woodsy element to the sweet jasmine; it also tends to make 1932 a scent that some jasmine-loving men could wear as well.

The final hours of 1932 are very simple. It is really just jasmine and musk with an almost imperceptible touch of something woody. It’s soft, light, and silky on the skin like a fine negligée. And that’s about it.

At no time did I smell the cinnamon or cloves which I had guessed might be in the perfume due to the ingredient list on the perfume box. Nor did I perceive any obvious or strong vetiver notes, even though the French Marie-Claire site had stated vetiver was in the perfume. To the extent that vetiver roots can contribute to an earthy element in perfumes, then perhaps that was the cause of the faintly musty, earthy impression that I had at one point. But I highly doubt it; I really don’t smell vetiver! (And I just reviewed Chanel’s vetiver scent, Sycomore, yesterday, so I am familiar with both the note and how Chanel may handle it.) No,1932 is not a green or green-brown scent in any way; it is all yellow and white, with perhaps a little beige from the musk.

ChandelierI have the oddest perception of 1932 as a crystal chandelier. Not all of its prism drops have been properly cleaned, and some have a thin film on them, as if from the remnants of soap. Others prisms, in contrast, are clear and reflect the light, shooting off coloured rays of lemon, jasmine and musk when the sun catches them. It’s overall shimmer is so subtle as to be imperceptible at times. Sometimes, it’s a bit dull and dusty. Sometimes, bright and shiny. But whenever the light hits it, there is a sparkle in Chandelier reflectionsthe reflection, even if it only hits the walls around it. In those cases, the jasmine sparkles with a sort of evanescent glow.

That said, I wasn’t overwhelmed by 1932. It is most definitely not love at first sniff, or even third. It is a perfectly nice, even lovely, scent that oozes very discreet, very expensive, elegant trails behind it. It is simultaneously somewhat heady but, yet, also sheer and light. But it is far too demure, nondescript and soft for me. I don’t find it particularly complex, transformative, or unique. At the same time, however, I think it is undeniably well-blended with ingredients that are obviously of extremely high-quality. It is hugely approachable, and will undoubtedly be a massive hit with those who like soft florals, jasmine fragrances and/or unobtrusive feminine scents.

All in all, it really and truly embodies the classique Chanel woman — though not a very modern one. To me, it calls to mind one of those 1950s aristocratic, wealthy leaders of high-society, or one of Alfred Hitchcock’s icy blondes. Impeccably dressed with pearls and gloves, hair frozen in a perfect coif, and extremely feminine, but also controlled, reserved, haughty, aloof and not-so-faintly superior. It is a fragrance that I can imagine a lot of women wearing every day. It is discreet, while being highly feminine, lady-like, and expensive-smelling. On the other hand, one might argue, it is also simple, boring, predictable, and faintly generic. There is nothing particularly electrifying or charismatic about it.

But you know what? I highly doubt it’s meant to be! This is a scent for the woman (or jasmine-loving man) who does not want to stand out in an ostensible manner. This is not for Maria Callas, Grace Kelly, or any famous person for that matter. This is for the quiet movers-and-shakers behind the scene who abhor the spotlight and who clutch their pearls (or cufflinks) at anything as remotely vulgar as obviousness. Quelle horreur! I think this is absolutely and intentionally meant to be a scent for the aristocratically discreet who want something safe and timeless that screams high-class, restraint and quiet wealth.

1932 accomplishes all that superbly.

Details:
Sillage & Longevity: The sillage and longevity of 1932 is adequate, in line with some others in the Exclusifs line which are said to be thin, sheer, and of short duration. (For example, 31 Rue Cambon or 28 La Pausa.) On me, 1932 had good projection for the first one and a half hours, thereafter becoming close to the skin. As for longevity, it was below-average even for my perfume-consuming skin. It only lasted a little bit above 4 hours, all in all. But, as always, remember that my body consumes perfume. Perhaps others will have more luck. At this time, it’s hard to know for certain what it would be like for the average, normal person.
Cost & Availability: There are limited details on either of these points. Thus far, I know that 1932 comes in Eau de Toilette concentration, but I don’t know if Chanel will release a parfum version as it has for three of its Exclusifs line (Bois des Iles, Gardénia & Cuir de Russie). As for cost, it will undoubtedly be the same as all the other Exclusifs eau de toilette fragrances which currently retail for $130 for a 2.5 oz/75 ml bottle or $230 for a 6.8 oz/200 ml bottle. In general, the Exclusifs line is only available in Chanel boutiques or on their website. At this time, however, I have no information as to when 1932 will be available outside of Chanel’s Paris store, or when it will be available on its website (either the U.S. one or the French one). As noted earlier, I will do a full, proper review with all the necessary information once the perfume officially launches and Chanel releases further details.

Perfume Review – Chanel Les Exclusifs Sycomore: Mighty Vetiver

Close your eyes and imagine you are in the heart of a forest at Yosemite National Park.

Source: Deby Dixon Photography

Source: Deby Dixon Photography

Cypress trees and evergreens intermingle and stretch far before you. The dark, dry earth is sprinkled with pine needles, and a wild boar is rooting at the tall grasses at the base of a tree, his endeavors lifting the smell of the earthy, chocolate-y roots into the air. Icicles hang from the branches where, nestled deep within, are purple juniper berries. In the heart of the forest, campfires burn thick logs of pine and cypress, and there is a smell of peppery smoke intermingling with the burning woods. Someone is cooking caramel, and burning it. You huddle deeper into your coat as the hint of frost brings a chill, but you can’t help but take a deeper breath of the vetiver surrounding you.

SycomoreGreen and brown, smoky and earthy, with a heart of cypress and wood — that is Chanel‘s Sycomore. It is an incredibly elegant smell, luxurious and leaving a smooth, trail of pure class oozing in its green-brown trail. It is richly masculine, with not a hint of florals, but this is silken masculinity in the most sophisticated, elegant of packages.

Sycomore was first introduced to the world in 1930, the creation of Chanel’s very famous, original perfumer, Ernst Beaux. From what I’ve read, it was all violet and tobacco with some support from soft aldehydes and balsamic wood. The original Sycomore vanished in the perfume mists, but it was re-envisioned and re-introduced in 2008 as an eau de toilette and as part of Chanel’s prestige collection called “Les Exclusifs.” It lesExclusifswas created by Chanel’s house perfumer, Jacques Polge, along with an equally famous “nose” in the industry, Christopher Sheldrake.

On its website, Chanel describes the new Sycomore as follows:

A rich-wood fragrance with a noble character — like the Sycomore tree that inspired it — created by CHANEL Master Perfumer Jacques Polge in 2008. At the heart of the scent: Vetiver, with an elegant Sandalwood note and dashes of Cypress, Juniper and Pink Pepper, for an earthy, warm and enveloping, yet subtle presence.

I think Chanel’s description nails it, unlike the Fragrantica‘s entry for Sycomore which seems completely incorrect in my opinion. Fragrantica puts Sycomore in the “Woody Floral Musk” category, and lists its notes as “vetiver, sandalwood, aldehydes, tobacco and violet.” I suspect both the categorization and the notes apply only to the 1930s version of Sycomore.

No, Chanel’s notes for Sycomore are the ones to follow and they are clearly listed by the Perfume Shrine as follows:

Vetiver, cypress, juniper, pink pepper, smoke, burning woods.

To get a true understanding of Sycomore, I think it’s important to elaborate a bit on the notes. For example, vetiver which not everyone is familiar with as an ingredient or as a smell, and which is the main part of Sycomore.  Chandler Burr, the former New York Times perfume critic, gave this extremely useful explanation to GQ:

vetiver-roots

Vetiver Roots.
Source: Herbariasoap.com

In the most basic sense, [vetiver is] a grass native to India that grows in bushes up to 4’x4′. It’s also related to lemon grass, as you can tell when you smell it. The stuff—it’s the grass’s long, thin roots that they distill—is infinitely more interesting though: deep, shadowed, astringent, earthy like newly tilled soil, and balsam-woody. It can be warm like tobacco leaves, it can have a crushed-green leaves freshness, or it can be cool like lemon verbena.

Haiti produces about 80% of the vetiver oil in the world, although sometimes you’ll be putting a bit of Indonesia or Brazil on your arm as well (Haiti’s is more floral, Java’s is smokier). There are folks producing it responsibly, too. When you buy a bottle of Terre d’Hermès, which is loaded with the stuff, you’re supporting around 2,000 Haitian farmers and distillers. […]

Like wine, the scent of vetiver oil improves as it ages: the best of it is made with roots that have been aged somewhere between 18-24 months; the oil costs around $200/kg when it hits the market. American scent maker IFF makes it three ways: with steam (resulting in vetiver essence, which is dryer and lighter), solvent (which produces an absolute and is darker, with the scent of rich dirt), and a new technology called “Molecular Distillation” that uses carbon dioxide to yield a scent that’s extraordinary—strongly grapefruit, fresher, zestier.

The Perfume Shrine says that the vetiver in Sycomore is said to be of the Haitian variety so, under Mr. Burr’s explanation, the more floral kind. I’m not an expert on any of the varieties, so I will take their word for it. All I know is that this vetiver smells exactly as Mr. Burr described: “deep, shadowed, astringent, earthy like newly tilled soil, and balsam-woody.”

Do you know how perfume can sometimes take on a colour aura before your eyes? WeaveSycomore opens on me all brown and green. Not khaki but some interwoven panel of dark green and green-brown. It calls to mind green roots and brown earth. Sycomore starts exactly like that, alongside pink peppercorns and an unexpected but definite note of chocolate. It’s almost like chocolate patchouli with vetiver. It’s so confusing that I go over the notes again and, still, I’m at a loss. So, I look up cypress wood which I’m not very familiar with, and that must be the explanation.

From my reading, it seems that cypress wood has a pungent, woody, spicy aroma that can also be sometimes resinous, coniferous, or cedar-like. Here, the combination of the cypress wood with the earthiness of the vetiver seems to have transformed the sum total into chocolate patchouli. You can smell each individual note, but you also have that strong overall impression.

It’s so striking that I looked to see if others had felt the same way. On Basenotes, one commentator also thought there was patchouli in Sycomore, though she concludes the cause was the combination of juniper and cypress. The Scent Critic blog and some on MakeupAlley also picked up on the chocolate edge. And finally, Victoria from Bois de Jasmin summed it up in her usual elegant succinctness: “The chocolate richness of the root is accented by the peppery and smoky notes. The composition possesses an alluring dark character, which in sensation alternates between the tannic dryness of red wine and the softly worn polish of aged woods.”

The chocolate and patchouli impression in Sycomore is so strong for the first hour that it evokes Serge LutensBorneo 1834 in its opening stages. So much so that I’m utterly bewildered by why people compare Chanel’s Coromandel (also from Les Exclusifs) with Borneo 1834, instead of Sycomore. Adding to the similarities between Borneo 1834 and Sycomore is the latter’s strong opening notes of tobacco and smoke. The tobacco note here is faintly bitter, and it is accompanied by a peppery, biting smoky note that is definitely woody.

I wonder about the “burning woods” note listed on many perfume reviews as an element (though not on Chanel’s website), and I keep thinking of guaiac wood. You can read the Glossary for more details but, in a nutshell, guaiac wood has an aroma that is earthy, smoky, tarry, peppery and similar to burning leaves. Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute is also said to have guaiac wood in it, though its official notes are equally vague and merely reference “rich woods” instead of “burning woods.” Both perfumes share a similarly woody, peppery, smoke note, so I have to wonder.

I do smell some sandalwood in Sycomore but, on me, it’s not strong at any point in the perfume’s development. Others have found it, but it’s just a whisper on me. I have to say, I doubt it is real Mysore sandalwood anyway. Anyone who has read Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s book, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, will be struck by their repeated, insistent comments on just how few sandalwood fragrances actually have sandalwood in them at all these days. According to them, true sandalwood from Mysore, India is so scarce and so prohibitively expensive that most perfumers use Australian sandalwood which is an entirely different species of plant and with an entirely different scent. To the extent that Sycomore has sandalwood in it (of any kind), I think it is completely overshadowed and overpowered in the initial stages by the patchouli impression from the cypress and vetiver.

As Sycomore continues to unfurl, there is an impression of burnt caramel, black cocoa powder, incense and dry earth. This is like the black version of Coromandel, without the latter’s vanilla, benzoin and powder heart. The increasingly peppery and smoky nature of the perfume makes me wonder again if they used guaiac wood to fortify any “smoke” accord, not to mention the weak sandalwood. There are also flickering hints of evergreen from the juniper which add a coolness or chill that counters the smoky earthiness. It’s an incredibly sexy, darkly mysterious perfume.

There is a dryness to the rich, earthy smell that really calls to mind dirt — not rich, dank or loamy, but sweetly dry. I realise that non-perfumistas will recoil at the thought of smelling faintly like dirt, but there is really no other way to truly describe the undertones to the very smoked, rich, woody notes. The comparison to dirt also explains Luca Turin’s comments in his five-star review of Sycomore in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. There, he wrote:

The dream team at Chanel seem to delight in applying superior skills to existing ideas they deem worthy of perfecting: Coromandel was a reorchestration of Lutens’s Borneo 1834…. Sycomore is, in my view, a magisterial gloss on Bertrand Duchaufour’s Timbuktu [for L’Artisan Parfumeur]. The later introduced an Altoids-like idea to perfumery, consisting of a minty-licorice coolness combined with a radiant crackling-wood-fire note. […] Vetiver has both an anisic aspect and a smoky one. Cleverly flank it with Timbuktu’s two companions, add a big slug of sandalwood, and vetiver finds itself in worthy company at last. […] Sycomore [is] … the freshest, most salubrious, yet most satisfyingly rich masculine in years. If putting it on does not make you shiver with pleasure, see a doctor.

I’m surprised that Mr. Turin deems Sycomore one of the few sandalwood fragrance reviews not to warrant his usual comments about how perfumes don’t have real sandalwood in them any more, and I certainly don’t find the same “big slug” as he does, but I agree with the rest of his review. (Minus, his choice of which Chanel perfume to compare to Borneo 1834). I particularly understand his reference to Timbuktu which has often been described as having a dry dirt foundation. Sycomore has both the dirt aspects of Timbuktu and that slightly chilled licorice note underlying the earthiness of the dark patchouli…. er.. vetiver and cypress.

Mogambo 2

Mogambo

Perhaps it’s all that dry dirt and rich green which make me constantly imagine those old movies that explored the heart of an African forest — everything is slightly dark and smoky, mysterious and Tshadowy, all amidst lush greenness and dry red-brown dirt. I keep thinking of Clark Gable with Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner in Mogambo, or Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in African Queen. I could see either man wearing Sycomore, and Katherine Hepburn too (though never ever Grace Kelly or Ava Gardner).

As time passes, there is even greater depth to the impressions of burnt umber, burnt caramel, resins, saltiness, and earthiness — all under the forest’s canopy of green-brown vetiver and wood. The patchouli impression ceased being dominant a while ago; now it is the turn of the juniper. In general, juniper has an aroma that is fresh, sweet, and like pine trees, with a slightly balsam-like, resinous undertone. Here, they make I feel as though I’m walking through an icy forest at wintertime, my feet crunching on evergreen needles, the chilled smoke of winter in the air, as I walk towards campfires of burning pine logs where someone is cooking with dark chocolate and another person is accidentally burning the caramel. There is still the chocolate note, you see, though it is overshadowed by a more resinous, caramel element. There is also an undertone of anise and licorice.

In its drydown and final hours, all those things vanish, leaving mostly sweet, faintly lemony, grass. It is vaguely reminiscent of the lemongrass that Chandler Burr referenced. The sweetness of the grass may be one reason why a number of people smell marijuana or cannabis a few hours into Sycomore. I do not, but the occasional “ganja” comment is something worth noting if you’re tempted to try Sycomore. What I do smell, in addition to the sweet grass, is a sort of creaminess that I think comes from the sandalwood. As always, however, it is faint; even more of a shadow now than before.

There are two things which confused me about Sycomore. One, which I’ve already mentioned, is that it is Coromandel which is compared to Borneo 1834, when I think it should be this Polge and Sheldrake collaboration instead. (At least, for the opening hour. I don’t think Coromandel is remotely like Borneo 1834.) The second is a far more important issue: Chanel’s gender classification for this scent. Chanel has labeled Sycomore as a woman’s perfume and, to me, that is akin to saying M&Ms are only for women. It makes absolutely no sense at all.

Not only is Sycomore unisex, not only is it the furthest thing possible from “girly,” and not only do men adore this, but it is — I would argue — actually a masculine scent first and foremost. It may be a somewhat feminine masculine fragrance, but it is a masculine fragrance at its heart. In fact, women who have not explored niche scents and who are used to the more traditional, conventional or mass-market feminine fragrances — whether of the floral, “girly,” clean, sugary or gourmand variety — may find Sycomore to be overwhelmingly masculine and an utter shock if purchased blind. This is no Marc Jacob Lola, Guerlain Shalimar or Dior J’adore.

No, Sycomore has consistently been compared to men’s colognes. In fact, commentators on both Basenotes and Fragrantica find it to be an exact duplicate of Lalique‘s L’Encre Noire for Men (2006). A few people even bring up Hermès‘ men’s cologne, Terre d’Hermès — though most people on Basenotes find that much more citrus based and without anything close to the same degree of vetiver in it (no matter what Chandler Burr may think). I agree with that. I’ve got Terre d’Hermès and like it. But, like many on Basenotes, I find them to be very different perfumes and don’t think Terre d’Hermès is a predominantly vetiver scent. As a point of interest, in a Basenotes thread asking for people’s preference as between Sycomore and Terre d’Hermes, a monumental majority chose Sycomore as the better, more elegant, and truer vetiver fragrance.

All in all, Sycomore is an incredibly lovely fragrance and as smooth as silk. It is magnificently blended, such that everything folds into one rich layer upon another. There is a paradoxical coolness to its warmth, but it is never a chilly or aloof scent. It has too much earthiness in its beating heart, radiating its fire with every thump, thump, thump. It is never cloying, and there is not a single, synthetic, cheap note anywhere to be seen. It is truly as masterful and brilliant as so many thing. It is also a very approachable fragrance; it is not one of those edgy, discordant scents that can be worn only infrequently and are to be admired mostly on an intellectual basis as works of olfactory art. I can see men wearing this almost daily and some women frequently.

And, yet, it is not a fragrance for me. For the longest time, I could not pinpoint why. I like vetiver, I wear men’s cologne, and I like smoke and resinous scents. I find it an extremely elegant perfume and, really, it should push all my buttons. In fact, its opening led me to say “Wow” and I couldn’t stop sniffing my wrists for the first ten minutes. But, at the end of the day, it was simply too much vetiver and its dryness could well be described as bone-dry. Sahara dry. For my personal tastes, Sycomore simply veers too much into the masculine without any real sweetness to accompany it.

Nonetheless, if you are a fan of vetiver, woody and/or dry scents, I highly encourage you to test out Sycomore. If you’re not a fan of either of those three categories, then you may like the sweeter, softer Coromandel. (It is my favorite of the 3 Exclusifs that I’ve tried thus far). But if you’re not a fan of patchouli, benzoin or frankincense, then I fear you should skip that one too.

Have you tried Sycomore? If so, was it love at first sniff or simply not your cup of tea?

Details:
Sillage & Longevity: The sillage and longevity of Sycomore is impressive, particularly given that most of the Exclusifs line (with the exception of Coromandel) are said to be thin, sheer, and of short duration. On me, Sycomore had good projection for the first 3 hours, and only became close to the skin after 5 hours. As for longevity, it was above-average for my perfume-consuming skin. I could still smell faint traces of it after 9 hours. On others, I’ve read reports of it lasting almost an entire day.
Cost & Availability: Sycomore only comes in Eau de Toilette concentration and costs $130 for a 2.5 oz/75 ml bottle or $230 for a 6.8 oz/200 ml bottle.  The Exclusifs line is available only in Chanel stores or on their website. I have read numerous comments from people who have tried it at Selfridges in the UK, but did I not see a single Les Exclusifs fragrance on the Selfridges website. Nor have I found it on any U.S. department store websites. It’s not on Lucky Scent either. It is, however, available on Surrender to Chance which is where I obtained my sample. Prices for the smallest vial (1 ml) start at $3.

Sneak Peek – Chanel’s 1932 Collection: Fine Jewels & The 1932 Perfume

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Chanel launched her first collection of haute jewelry. It consisted of diamonds set in platinum and was shown in an exhibit entitled “Bijoux de Diamants.” In 2012, on the 80th Anniversary of that exhibit, Chanel debuted a new fine jewelry collection and, in homage, called it, quite simply, The 1932 Collection.

In February 2013, the perfume that went along with that jewelry launch will be released. It too is called, quite simply, 1932 and it is part of Chanel’s Les Exclusif line of fragrances. I have a sample of it already and will do a review sometime in the next 10 days but, in the meantime, I thought I would share some lovely photos I came across from Elle magazine as well as information first posted exclusively by the blog, The Scented Salamander.

THE JEWELS:

coco chanelElle‘s October 2012 article states:

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the exhibit, Chanel has created a new collection of diamonds, pink sapphires, pearls and more, called the 1932 Collection. Though the gorgeous high-end baubles aren’t on display to the public—Chanel built a giant dome outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York to house the display starting next week (and for one week only)— you can view part of the collection right here. ELLE.com has a sneak peek at the goods and a look back at Coco Chanel’s (pictured) original exhibit from 1932.

You can see the full 42 photos of the original Chanel jewels on the Elle website (linked up above), but I thought I’d share a few of them here:

1. Star-themed jewelry on display at “Bijoux de Diamants” in 1932. Coco Chanel was often inspired by celestial motifs.

The Comète necklace created by Coco Chanel in 1932 for her “Bijoux de Diamants” exhibition. The 80th anniversary collection plays hommage to many of the same motifs which inspired Chanel, including stars, comets, and moons”:

“From the 1932 collection, the Cosmos watch in 18K white gold set with 537 brilliant-cut diamonds, 29 fancy-cut diamonds, and 31 princess-cut diamonds”:

“The Céleste brooch uses Coco Chanel’s heavenly motifs and showcases the solar system at work. Set in 18K white gold set with 881 brilliant-cut diamonds, 24 baguette-cut diamonds, a 79.3-carat Australian baroque cultured pearl, three Indonesian cultured pearls, and 15 Japanese cultured pearls”:

THE 2012 COLLECTION

“The 2012 Comète necklace—which references the original 1932 piece—comes in 18K white gold set with a 14.8-carat round-cut diamond, 823 round-cut diamonds, and 34 princess-cut diamonds”:

2. Diamonds necklaces on mannequins. First up, the “Noeud Papillon necklace, displayed on a mannequin. Using wax busts instead of jewelry trays was considered revolutionary in 1932.

3. Random pieces that you can read more about on the website but which caught my eye:

You can see the remaining photos of past and present fine jewelry at the Elle website.

THE PERFUME:

Onto the perfume! On February 1, 2013, Chanel will launch a new perfume as part of its Les Exclusifs perfume line. This one will be called, quite simply, 1932.

[UPDATE: I have now posted a preliminary, but long, review of 1932.]

Le-parfum-1932-de-Chanel.jpg

MimiFrouFrou at the Scented Salamander seems to imply that February 1st launch date will apply only to Chanel’s Paris store. She states: “Chanel will launch a new perfume called 1932 from February 1, 2013 in France in their boutique collection created in 2006 entitled Les Exclusifs.” [Emphasis added]

I don’t know if the perfume will launch in U.S. Chanel boutiques at that time, but I do know that the perfume is already being sold over the internet with photos being posted on random sites. I’ve also read that Chanel handed out sample bottles of “1932” to guests at a special VIP showing of the special 1932 jewelry collection. I obtained my 10 ml decant from my eBay secret weapon, Deborah, who got it as part of a split with a friend in Michigan.

I haven’t tried my decant yet, as I prefer not to test out perfumes until I’m ready to focus on them in-depth for a full review. I also wanted to get some background on it beforehand from Chanel. So I contacted Chanel twice to ask them about the notes in the perfume. The responses indicated that either the Chanel representative had absolutely NO idea what I was talking about and had never heard of 1932, or that she couldn’t talk about it prior to its official launch. Despite my very clear question, I was simply given a run-down of the perfume notes in all the existing perfumes in the Les Exclusifs line. There was no reply to my more pointed follow-up question and email about 1932 in specific. (I’m a lawyer. I know how to ask follow-up questions that are pretty damn clear.) Silence and no response.

So, I set out to try to hunt down more information and do a little detective work. I had read that the perfume would center around jasmine and powder, but the Scented Salamander has much better and more detailed information:

In 2012, Chanel issued the high jewelry collection entitled the 1932 Collection featuring 80 pieces reprising this galactic inspiration to fête the 80th anniversary of the diamonds exhibition.

The Eau de Toilette follows this year; inspired by this homage to a forgotten chapter of the Chanel legacy it is described as a delicate powdery floral.

1932 centers on the ingredient jasmine, for which the house of Chanel is reputed to hold particularly exclusive harvesting rights in Grasse. The floral accord is said to have been worked upon, petal after petal, chiseled thanks to that other luxurious floral, iris. Vetiver and musks anchor the perfume.

Price: 130€ for 75 ml.

Via Marie-ClaireElleElle France

A bottle of 1932 was recently offered for sale on eBay. Here is a photo of the ingredients listed on the box:

Chanel 1932

The box adds to the possible list of ingredients. Between the notes mentioned on the Scented Salamander and those from the box, we seem to have:

Jasmine, vetiver, musk, coumarin, cloves (ie, eugenol), cinnamon (?), citrus (lemon and lime?) and some other technical things.

Those are some interesting notes. Some, like eugenol, I was previously aware of but the rest were too technical to mean anything to me. So, I decided to do some further detective work. From my understanding, eugenol (an essential oil found in cloves) is one of the main foundations of my beloved Opium and its use has been strictly limited in terms of quantity due to fears of it causing health problems in high doses. The Reuters article that was the foundation of my post on 2013 perfume changes, IFRA and the EU stated:

When it was launched in 1977, the original Opium was full of eugenol and also contained linalool, and limonene found in citruses. In large doses, Eugenol can cause liver damage, while oxidized linalool can cause exzema and prolonged exposure to pure limonene can irritate the skin.

Obviously, no perfume in 2013 will have any of those ingredients in anything remotely close to dangerous quantities. Not a chance in hell. Still, it’s interesting that Chanel’s 1932 will contain at least 3 of Opium’s more iffy notes: eugenol, linalool and limonene. Frankly, and speaking only for myself, I couldn’t care less if it means that 1932 will smell something like Opium!

Farnesol seems to be a similar target of IFRA attention. According to the Lisa Lise blog, it is one of those ingredients that IFRA is concerned enough by to mandate a sort of disclaimer notice on perfumes containing it. She states that farnesol is:

One of the 26
In perfumery, farnesol is used to anchor and enhance the components of a perfume. Because it is a key ingredient in perfumes (and therefore a possible allergen), it is one of the 26 specific fragrance ingredients that have to be declared according to the EU cosmetic directive.

[…] [Y]ou’ll find it in as a component of citronella, lemongrass, tuberose, rose (and more). It’s a versatile, controversial and complex ingredient.

Cinnamyl alcohol is another substance that, like bergamot and other ingredients, IFRA restricts in terms of quantity. According to Wikipedia, it can come from peru balsam, storax or cinnamon leaves, and its smell is “described as ‘sweet, balsam, hyacinth, spicy, green, powdery, cinnamic.'”

Alpha-isomethyl ionone is yet another IFRA-restricted ingredient that needs to be mentioned. I read on a number of sites that IFRA banned its use in perfumery, but research seems to indicate that that is an incorrect claim. Instead, as a few people have noted, it’s only its quantity which has been restricted. One Basenoter, Irina, also states that its use is permitted so long as there is a disclosure or notice on the box. She mentions that it is “a wonderful violet and orris root smelling material.”

Going down the list of ingredients, linalool is an essential oil which the Aroma Library classifies as a floral scent. It describes linalool as: “Fresh, floral, lavender, bergamot, coriander. Used in a wide variety of perfume’s. [sic] floral bouquet.”

According to the BASF, geraniol is an “aroma chemical for a floral and deep scent with a warm rose note.”

So, if you’re still with me, it seems that — based on all the various sources — the notes to Chanel’s “1932” are possibly:

Jasmine, rose, some possible rose enhancers (farnesol), bergamot (or lavender or coriander), cinnamon, cloves, violet or orris/iris, coumarin (hay), musk and possibly vetiver.

Again, I’m not going through the ingredients because I am personally concerned about allergens. I’m not. For myself, not even remotely. Plus, to me, learning the chemistry terms and the technical details of perfume is a bit like finding out how a sausage or hot-dog is made; I prefer just to eat it. In short, I’m merely trying to get a bloody clue of what’s in the damn perfume since Chanel refused or failed to answer my questions.

That said, I have to admit, I find it incredibly sad how many wonderful and key ingredients are the source of IFRA restrictions. Yes, they haven’t banned the use of the ingredients flat-out, but the quantities are so reduced nowadays that one has to wonder what “1932” would have been like if it had been made in…. well, 1932.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the sneak peek at Chanel’s magnificent diamond jewelry and at “1932,” along with my attempts at playing amateur perfume detective. If you’re interested, I can get the perfume review up sooner rather than later and without waiting for some sort of official press release on the subject. Have a good week!

[Update: My review of 1932.]

Perfume Review – Chanel Les Exclusifs Cuir de Russie: The Legend & The Myth

Some legends are perhaps better left untouched. Or unsniffed, as the case may be. Because, sometimes, the legend is closer to a myth. That was, unfortunately, my experience with Cuir de Russie, the legendary Chanel fragrance that is now part of its Les Exclusif line of perfumes. Cuir de R

Cuir de Russie (or “Russian leather”) is one of those scents that perfume junkies would talk about in hushed tones of reverence and awe. The vintage, original Cuir de Russie always seemed to me to be some sort of mythical animal, the perfume equivalent of a unicorn. Its name would shine in haloed light above distant snowy mountain tops and I almost expected a choir of angels to burst into rhapsodic song at its very mention.

Coco Chanel & her imperial Grand Duke.

Coco Chanel & her imperial Grand Duke.

Cuir de Russie was inspired by Coco Chanel’s passionate affair with a Russian Grand Duke, His Imperial Highness Dimitri Pavlovich Romanov, a cousin to the last Tsar. According to Wikipedia, Chanel’s biographer considered Cuir de Russie to be the “bottled … essence of her romance with the Grand Duke.” It was created by Ernst Beaux, Chanel’s then perfumer, sometime in the 1920s when Paris was flooded with Russian emigrés, both royal and common, who had escaped the Bolshevik revolution. (Chanel’s website gives the date of the perfume’s release as 1927, but I’ve always read it was in 1924.)

The Chanel website majestically declares Cuir de Russie to be an “imperial fragrance” and a “leather oriental” before adding:

The Grand Duke in his uniform.

The Grand Duke in his uniform.

The Russian influence at the heart of Mademoiselle’s creations was born from her encounter with the Grand Duke Dimitri, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. Cuir de Russie, launched in 1927, is the fragrance of wild cavalcades, wafts of blond tobacco and the smell of boots tanned by birch bark, which the Russian soldiers would wear.
This sensual fragrance reveals the dark and musky scents of balms, Frankincense and Juniper Wood. Fruity zests of Mandarin Orange and Bergamot add a touch of insolence before giving way to the grace and fragility of eternal flowers: Rose, Jasmine and Ylang-Ylang. A ‘thoroughbred’ fragrance with a strong character, it holds within it the ambiguous secrets of femininity…

Somewhere in the decades following its release, Cuir de Russie seems to have faded into the mists of legend. I can’t determine when it was discontinued or why, but it just became that mythical perfume unicorn. Then, in 1983, Chanel brought it back. Trumpets blared, perfumistas fainted, and all wept with joy as the heavens burst forth in song. Chanel’s in-house perfumer, Jacques Polge, re-worked it slightly, toning down its legendary leather notes and increasing the iris for a more powdery note, but it was back and that is all anyone cared about.

The return of Cuir de Russie was hailed as a massive triumph by even that most ascerbic and disdainful of critics, Luca Turin. In his book, Perfumes The A-Z Guide, his five-star review states:

There have been many other fragrances called Cuir de Russie, every one either too sweet or too smoky. This one is the real deal, an undamaged monument of classical perfumery, and the purest emanation of luxury ever captured in a bottle.

[All] sumptuous leather, light and balsamic, forgoing any sugary compromise, Cuir de Russie regains its place at the top of this [Leather] category, right next to the rather more jovial Tabac Blond. […]Cuir de Russie is a striking hologram of luxury bygone: its scent like running the hand over the pearl grey banquette of an Isotta Frashini while forests of birch silently pass by”.

(First quote taken from Perfume Niche, and the second from the Perfume Shrine.)

Luca Turin is not alone in genuflecting before the shrine to the most holy of leather perfume holies. If I were to provide mere snippets of the adoring praise for Cuir de Russie — even a minute fraction of them! — I suspect I would writing this review until sometime in the year 2018. There are reviews on Fragrantica which expound for paragraph after paragraph about:

Coco at her Ritz apartment.

Coco at her Ritz apartment.

Cossacks on horseback on the steppes of Russia; semi-erotic imaginings involving the seduction of a languid Coco by her sweaty, horse-riding royal lover amidst the plush decadence of her Paris apartment at the Ritz; and about olfactory masterpieces involving the very scent of Coco Chanel’s sex and sweat-infused bedsheets. There was one from a fellow perfume blogger whom I deeply respect and admire which made me want to go take a cold shower, or find some ermine and jewels in which to roll around naked.

All of which makes me feel completely insane for not loving it. But I don’t. On me, it is none of the things described above, and I am crushingly disappointed by a scent that is, at best, average and occasionally pleasant. At worst, it is a barnyard filled with horse manure under a layer of soap. In short, I am one of the very few freaks in this world who   finds the legend of Cuir de Russie to be a mere myth.

The notes listed in Chanel’s description up above are the same ones listed on Fragrantica. Elsewhere, however, I’ve read a significantly larger and fuller list. I assume that the notes are essentially the same in both vintage and modern versions, with only the amount of certain ingredients differing. If so, then the full notes for Cuir de Russie are:

aldehydes, orange blossom, bergamot, mandarin, clary sage, iris, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, cedarwood, balsams, vetiver, styrax, incense, cade, leather, amber and vanilla.

Cuir de Russie opens on me with an explosion of aldehydes. (You can read more about aldehydes in the Glossary.) On me, it is a waxy, lemony, floral impression that is first and foremost soapy, and without any of the fizzy aspects that I often read about with aldehydes. As many of you know, I loathe soapy scents. And I suspect my dislike of the soap accord in aldehydes is why I dislike Chanel No. 5, and one of the reasons why I’m far from enraptured by Cuir de Russie. (Christ, I’m admitting that I don’t like the two most legendary Chanel perfumes ever. I may need to hide in witness protection. Mea Culpa.)

Initially, the burst of soap is like a thick lens, clouding and obscuring the citrus notes, but about five minutes later, I suddenly smell soapy leather. Specifically, I get a strong impression of a riding saddle and stirrups lathered with sweat. There is a strong smell of sour, sweaty horse. I shudder faintly, and wonder momentarily if the heinous soap smell was better. I should have enjoyed the sweaty saddle fragrance while it lasted because, suddenly, waves of horse manure (cow dung?) and soap are emanating off my arm.  I…. I… am stunned, and have no idea what to do. I quickly turn to Google and, there, on both Makeupalley and Basenotes, amidst the legions of gushing, cooing, almost delerious praise, I find a few rare nuggets of comfort. I am not completely alone or totally crazy.

Snippets of those rare (very rare!) criticisms of Cuir de Russie are as follows:

  • It was an overwhelming animalistic scent, like the smell of entering a barn and having the smells of animals and their droppings mixing with straw and leather.
  • This leather is more of the fecal farmhouse animal stench variety and is somewhat difficult to tolerate. […] Luckily, the barnyard aspects of the scent recede in the base notes. […] The opening of Cuir de Russie edt was difficult from the get-go and did not portend to good things to come. I tend to be quite sensitive to fecal aspects in scents (like my problem with Jicky, for example), and as such the heart notes with their fecal smelling leather and powdery iris were really not to my taste at all. If things stopped there this would be a definite thumbs down for me. What saves Cuir de Russie edt somewhat is it has a very nice dry-down that easily is the best part of the scent.

And, that’s basically it — because even those who can smell the fecal aspect of Cuir de Russie love it. As it is, that last quote came from someone who ended up giving Cuir de Russie a neutral rating due to the “nice” dry-down that she mentioned. Other than a few negative criticisms involving dirty ashtrays (not a frequent impression), almost no-one who smelled the barnyard scent or “cow patties” hated it. Seriously, they didn’t!

  • Cuir de Russie, however, was love at first sniff. It opens with a dirty animalic note that’s borderline fecal, but the soft, creamy, spicy florals seep in and smooth out this animal’s shaggy fur until Cuir de Russie becomes this heart-achingly beautiful blend with an undercurrent of barely-bridled danger; a lady in leather and lace, a sleek panther at repose in a meadow.
  • I really love the opening, when a true leather unfolds, bitter, dry, almost harsh, even a briefly passing “faecal” note, all in all, it smells like the inside of a fairly new, precious leather bag, that’s containing some scented cosmetics in its depths. But all too soon, this stage is fading away, moving over into a softer, creamier leather, which is still fine and very likeable.
  • All I can say is — poop. This stuff smells like poop. But in a really kind of good, fascinating way. Seriously, that’s the genius of Chanel. It’s like the poop of some delicate animal who’s only grazed upon a field of violets. I’m not sure I want to wear it, but I simply could not stop smelling the crook of my arm all day after my spritz! Pretty awesome.

There was even a review on MakeupAlley upbraiding Chanel’s perfumer, Jacques Polge, for toning down the original scent and demanding that they bring back more of the leather and barnyard!

Clearly, I am alone in disliking “the poop of some delicate animal who’s only grazed upon a field of violets.” (It is not a “delicate” animal, by the way, and I could only wish it had eaten bloody violets!) I certainly don’t want even more of this opening that so many adore and wish were as intense as it used to be.

As I try to figure out how I landed in a pile of horse manure, I come across a really interesting explanation on Perfume Niche. Apparently, it’s the birch wood that helps creates that leather tannery and barnyard scent:

Rectified birch tar is the smoky resinous note which makes Cuir de Russie, and most leather scents, smell like leather. It is, in fact, the dry-cooked resin from the bark of the birch tree and has been used for centuries to cure leather, and to “dress” it, as in polishes for military leather boots. […]  [Then] after the florals subside, Cuir de Russie conjures the uber-male, becoming a sexy masculine scent. That raw edge – the funky animalics, civet and castoreum – mix with the smoky leather, balsam and woods , giving Cuir de Russie an erotic, brutish quality.

I’m afraid I don’t see any “erotic, brutish” quality in Cuir de Russie. I would undoubtedly like it a lot more if it were half as interesting as all these descriptions would seem to convey. I keep wondering what the legendary vintage version must have been like if the current eau de toilette toned down the leather. Perhaps I should try to hunt down the concentrated extrait de parfum version which is supposed to be more intense, more “brutal,” heavier and thicker? I consider the downsides of a heavier version of soapy horse feces, and quickly change my mind.

About 30 minutes in, Cuir de Russie is already incredibly close to the skin. Apparently, it’s supposed to be. However, with the way my skin consumes perfume, it makes it difficult to assess its full range and development properly, so I start from scratch. I follow the advice of a Basenoter and put on triple the previous amount (on some clean skin). I have the same experience as the first time round, but this time, the perfume’s sillage is much better. (Apparently, I need to empty just over half the vial on me if I want to smell the dry-down properly.)

Unfortunately, I don’t get much of the lovely middle or bottom notes that others do. On me, it goes from: citric soap; to horse manure, sweaty saddles and soap; to a middle stage that is essentially a basic floral scent of strong jasmine, with bergamot, rose, powdery iris, and leather turned into soft suede. (The soap is still there too, though it’s a shadow of its former strength.) The jasmine part is lovely, and the rest of it is pleasant, but I shrug. Soon, the dry down begins: the suede impression is joined by a light touch of cedar, an even heavier dose of dusty powder from the iris, some definite musky notes, and a soft smoke and incense touch that is, I admit, lovely. There is also a note that strongly evokes hairspray. And, every CamillaPBnow and then, flitting back and forth, I smell something faintly horsey — though it is more leather saddles now than feces.

I feel like Camilla Parker-Bowles, Prince Charles’ horse-mad second wife, and recall the oft-repeated stories of her younger days. Rumour has it that, after a long day at the hunt, she would make a mad dash straight off her sweaty horse and into the house where she would tumble into a dress for a cocktail party, with nary a shower in-between.

I realise that my views are “sacrilegious,” to borrow the word of one fearful commentator on Basenotes who barely dared whisper the words “fecal” before rushing off to join in all the praise. If I could smell what Mick Jagger smells when he wears this (and he does); if I could see “The Ballet Russes, polished samovars and dangerous Cossacks with leather riding boots;” if I could conjure up Imperial Grand Dukes leaping off their black stallions to lasciviously and forcefully seduce me; if I could feel like a “virago” femme fatale or ultra-posh bombshell with hidden bondage tendencies– then I would probably genuflect at the alter of Cuir de Russie, too.

Until the time when all that magically occurs, I shall continue to think that Cuir de Russie is a perfectly pleasant, completely average floral musk with some suede notes under a strong head of horse manure. Literally.

DETAILS:
Target group: Unisex. Men love this as much as women.
Sillage & Longevity: As a rule, this is meant to be close to the skin, so the sillage is far from enormous. With regard to longevity, there seems to be a complete and total split in views, with some saying it lasts 10-12 hours, while others say it never surpasses the 4 hour mark. On me, it took 30 minutes or less before the perfume faded to the point where I had to forcefully inhale my arm to smell the notes. The whole thing lasted no more than 2.5 with my regular amount, but 4 hours with the triple dosage. Again, as always, my longevity issues are far from the norm as my skin rapidly consumes perfume.
Cost & Availability: Cuir de Russie is available exclusively in Chanel boutiques or on the Chanel website. The standard, basic Eau de Toilette in available in two sizes: the 2.5 oz./75 ml bottle is $110, while the 6.8 oz/200 ml. bottle is $220. It is also available in Extrait de Parfum form for $175 for 0.5 oz.