Fire at the Circus Ball

Sometimes it can be difficult to say what a perfume smells like. It can change from when it’s worn to on the smelling strip, from one time to the next, how much you spray on, the seasons; many things can influence the way a perfume smells.

But there is another factor, one that is more objective, the concentration of the juice - which can vary in composition as well as strength. Take the case of No5. In their seminal work Perfumes : The A – Z Guide, Turin and Sanchez review it three times, once for the Eau de Parfum, once for the Eau de Toilette, and again for the Parfum. The reason being, each version was composed with a different formula.

And this was not just a whim of Ernest Beaux. For many years it was common for higher end perfumes to be offered in different versions. They were variations on a theme: lighter, heavier, day and night versions, which together presented a coherent range of products. This phenomenon can also be seen in classical music, where there are well known 'variations on a theme' of works by Haydn, Paganini, and Thomas Tallis.

In her new book Le No5 de Chanel, Marie-Dominique Lelièvre relates an incident that happened at a Grand Ball in Versailles. Coco Chanel was one of the guests and she went disguised as a fern. Her deadly rival Schiaparelli was also there, dressed as an ant. Jealous of the fact that the Italian’s dresses were numerous, and stealing the limelight from Chanel's, Coco went up to Schiaparelli and asked her to dance. And soon after, as they were dancing, Chanel manouvred the couple under a chandelier - where the ant’s feelers caught fire. Fortunately, waiters were on hand to extinguish the blaze with jets of soda water.

Perhaps this had nothing to do with the fact that, just like No5, Schiaparelli’s Shocking was released in three different versions. These were composed by Jean Carles, who himself was something of a joker and would, no doubt, have relished the scene - had he been there to witness the fire at the Circus Ball.

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