A Stellar Trio of Vintage Perfumes: A Brief History of Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, Joy. A Special Series.

Joy mid-sizeA trio of some of the world’s most beloved perfumes, Chanel No. 5, Joy, and Mitsouko are among the fragrances that have fanned the flames of romance for nearly a hundred years.

For years I worked in the beauty industry; I cataloged thousands of fragrances and created touch-screen programs for Sephora, DFS, Nordstrom and JCPenney stores, work for which I received a FiFi award from The Fragrance Foundation in New York. When I began to write, it seemed natural to write about perfumery. Scent of Triumph, a historical romantic-suspense novel, follows a French perfumer during the 1940s. Perfume and aromas are her professional frame of reference, so vintage perfumes are laced throughout the book.

Today I’d like to feature the background history on three classic perfumes that are still popular around the world. Even if you’ve never worn them, chances are someone you know does. Our olfactory sense—our sense of smell—is the strongest memory trigger we have, with a direct path to the limbic center of the brain, the seat of memories and emotions. While these perfumes might conjure memories of your mother or grandmother, they’re still hot, haute scents for fashion-forward women.

SCENT OF TRIUMPHIn Scent of Triumph, my protagonist, Danielle Bretancourt, has specific memories or encounters with each one of these perfumes. (Without giving the scenes away, I wanted to share the history on each perfume, so when you read Scent of Triumph, you’ll have extra insight as to why these were included.)

Each of these fragrances are different; Mitsouko is warm, elegant and mysterious; Chanel No. 5 is powdery and sophisticated; Joy is rich in flowers and exuberantly feminine. Try them all, but choose the one that speaks to your soul.

Bestselling Perfumes of Yesterday and Today

Mitsouko by Guerlain (1919) – Created on the eve of the Roaring Twenties, Mitsouko reflects the Far Eastern style that became the rage in the flamboyant years after World War I. Third generation perfumer Jacques Guerlain developed Mitsouko for women of passion, intensity, strength, and introspection.

Mitsouko opens with fruity top notes of tangy bergamot and smooth, mellow peach. A lilac blend follows, dissolving into a woody chypre drydown, redolent of vetiver, oakmoss, and amber. Mitsouko is a sensual, voluptuous fragrance, like a dark, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon.

Mitsouko means “mystery” in Japanese and was inspired by a character in the Claude Farrère novel, La Bataille, or The Battle. The story revolved around the ill-fated love of an English officer and the wife of the ship’s commander–a beautiful Japanese woman named Mitsouko. Farrère had mentioned another Guerlain fragrance, Jicky, in one of his novels, so Jacques Guerlain reciprocated the honor by naming his fragrance after a Farrère character. And so Mitsouko lives on, in print and in fragrance. It remains one of the great jewels of the House of Guerlain.

Chanel No. 5 (1921) – Chanel No. 5 was the first fragrance from Parisian couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who was one of the first designers to introduce a perfume. According to Chanel, the secret behind Chanel No. 5 is an extraordinary, powdery blend of aldehydes–ingredients that defy categorization–combined with rich floral and warm amber notes. Take a tip from Marilyn Monroe–when the press once asked what nightwear she wore to bed, she smiled and answered, “Chanel No. 5.” And that was all.

What inspired the numeric name? Chanel once reported that when she asked Ernest Beaux to create a fragrance for her, he presented her with several scents, and she selected the bottle numbered “5.” Coincidentally, her couture collection was scheduled for presentation on the fifth day of the fifth month–May 5. Interpreting this as a good omen, she bestowed upon the fragrance the name of Chanel No. 5. It was the popularity of the early Chanel fragrances that spawned the designer fragrance industry of today.

Joy by Jean Patou (1930) – French couturier Jean Patou had set out to create a fragrance “free from all vulgarity” at any cost, as well as “impudent, crazy, and extravagant beyond reason.” Indeed, the sumptuous scent quickly became revered as the world’s most extravagant perfume and to this day Joy remains one of the costliest perfume to produce, according to the Patou firm.

The dominant notes are absolute of jasmine and Bulgarian rose, two of the world’s rarest and most expensive essences. Each ounce contains the essence from more than 10,000 jasmine flowers and twenty-eight dozen roses.

Jean Patou launched his quest for Joy in 1926 when he took his assistant, cafe society woman Elsa Maxwell, with him to Grasse to work with perfumers on the new scent. Together they searched for a fragrance that would meet the exacting requirements of the best-dressed and most discriminating women of the world. After exhaustive testing they were presented with the formula for Joy; it called for twice the amount of essential oils that other popular perfumes contained. But alas, the perfumer told them it was too expensive to be commercially viable. That cinched it. Hence was born the “costliest fragrance in the world,” and women the world over had to have it.

Love to hear your memories and experiences with these perfumes, or others you adore! This is the first in a series, so stay tuned for more posts on classic perfumes. See also my Vintage Perfume Guide post. Post a comment, thanks!

12 thoughts on “A Stellar Trio of Vintage Perfumes: A Brief History of Chanel No. 5, Mitsouko, Joy. A Special Series.

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  2. God rest her soul, my mother wore Joy perfume. Every Christmas my brothers and I would get together and buy her a small bottle (it still cost a fortune). I remember it as a dark, differently-shaped bottle with a red cap.

    • What a sweet memory, thanks for sharing this, John. It’s not unusual for children or spouses to keep or buy a favorite perfume to remember their loved ones. Our olfactory sense is the strongest memory trigger of all of our senses.

      I’m sure your mother shared her joy with you and your brothers every day. Have a lovely day, John.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Georgina! So many wonderful memories are tied to our sense of smell. My mother loved Shalimar; it was her “special occasion” fragrance. Even today, whenever I smell or wear Shalimar, a sense of “specialness” surrounds me.

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