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February 1, 2007

"Chanel Six" By Luca Turin

"Chanel Six" By Luca Turin

There has been a change of plans. The world will not end just yet. Some weeks ago, after two long conversations with normally stoic perfumers, I had concluded that great perfumery was essentially over and I might as well take up Tuvan throat singing as my next hobby. Picture this: Serious perfumes used to take at least a year to compose. For major brands, that time is now typically down to three months. Small wonder the greatest perfumers now do unpaid niche work to put a little fun back into their lives.

Then came a divine surprise: Chanel sent me an embarrassingly luxurious package containing six fragrances to be added to their boutique line. I had no idea what to expect. Recently, Chanel’s successes (Chance, Allure Sensuelle) were a bit like Apple’s iPod: nice earners but nothing revolutionary. While Guerlain and Herm├Ęs did confidential lines of fragrances, Chanel held back. But then I thought it typical of a perfectionist family firm to take its time over such things. I had also heard that the brilliant Chris Sheldrake, the nose behind Serge Lutens’s perfumes, had joined Jacques Polge at Chanel. I wondered what was brewing.

As I quickly went through the package, my mood broke through the clouds, going from overcast to what aviators call "severe clear" in minutes. In my opinion, these six permanently change the landscape of perfumery by proving that there is, after all, a modern Grand Manner. They are Coromandel, a soft patchouli in the style of Lutens’s Borneo 1834, but more refined; No. 18, an iris-rose that sits next to the defunct Iris Gris in heaven; 28 La Pausa, an iris-violet named after a house Coco Chanel owned; Bel Respiro, a fresh-aldehydic named for another house; and an Eau de Cologne that goes straight to the top of its class.

Every one of these is as good as it gets, but one gave me an emotion I hadn’t felt for years. It was the thrill of feminine beauty, the pang of pain and longing you get in Rear Window when Grace Kelly breezes in, throws her coat on a chair and saunters over to give James Stewart a kiss. It is 31 Rue Cambon, after Chanel’s Paris address, and the best Chypre in thirty years. With current perfumery restrictions on oakmoss, a new great Chypre had seemed impossible. Remarkably, Chanel used a pepper-iris accord instead to achieve a classical effect in a completely novel way. If you only have room for six perfumes in your life, clear your shelf.