Writing about Chanel No. 22 is difficult because if you want to describe what the fragrance smells like, then you have to describe what aldehydes smell like. I have been struggling for months to find the right words, until I realized a few days ago that aldehydes are less of a smell and more of a physical sensation.
Aldehydes erupt into the air with such force that they change the shape of the air molecules before your very nose. It is somewhat akin to the air change that occurs when you pull a tab on a can of soda, your nose right on the lip of the can. Actually, correction: aldehydes smell like the excitement in the air just before you release the tab – like the air itself is being pulled back in a slingshot and about to be propelled forward.
The massive amount of aldehydes stuffed into Chanel No. 22 means that, for me, the perfume is an exciting and uplifting experience. The buzzing, fizzing start invariably reminds me of the joy of anticipation I felt as a child, smelling the change in the air right before the first snow of the season fell or the way I felt in the church right before Midnight Mass began on Christmas Eve, as the priest lifted the censer and the hush descended. If anticipation has a smell, then that smell is aldehydes.
Underneath the sparkle of aldehydes lies creamy white florals – mainly neroli and orange blossom, but also a hint of tuberose. There is a light touch of incense in the base too, with smoky vetiver root and nutmeg acting in consort with each other to conjure up a phantom note of snuffed-out frankincense. However, recently a friend of mine pointed out that the incense smoke could well be a result of the aldehydes interacting with the florals, vanilla, and woods in the base. This makes sense to me, too. After all, aldehydes define Chanel No. 22 and mark it from top to bottom – there is no stage at its development that I do not feel their energizing effect.
I don’t understand why some people paint No. 22 as a starchy, old-fashioned relation of No. 5. To me, Chanel No. 22 is full of movement, excitement, and bristling happiness. It is also considerably more streamlined and legible to me than Chanel No. 5, which remains, for me, a beautiful but overly abstract expression of what luxury is supposed to smell like. Chanel No. 22, in contrast, doesn’t come to the table with any such grand aspirations – it exists merely to show you how a perfume can change the shape of the air in front of you.
Recommended for anyone who wishes to remember what it felt like to stand outside in the cold, waiting with your tongue out to catch the first snowflake as it fell from the sky.