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February 1, 2008

"Cinq Bis" By Luca Turin

"Cinq Bis" By Luca Turin

There is a fellow in Mexico who inherited a perfume store from his grandparents and has been selling the contents piecemeal for several years. He initially had no idea about fragrance, and tentatively put some pre-WWI Parfums de Rosine unopened bottles up for sale on ebay with a starting bid of 99 cents. They went for about a thousand each, at which point he wised up and understood he was a millionaire. He later left ebay and now has his own website ( Last week my coauthor Tania Sanchez was looking at the stock. She bought, among other things, a small bottle of Molyneux’s Numéro Cinq, a perfume I’d always heard about but never smelled.

There are two mutually exclusive stories about Numéro Cinq, and I do not know which is true. The first is that Captain Edward Molyneux, after losing an eye and gaining a Military Cross in the Great War, opened a fashion boutique in Paris in 1919. He befriended Chanel who had just done the same, and together they hatched the idea of each bringing out a perfume called No 5 the same day in 1921, to see who would win. The outcome of that contest is no longer in doubt, but this version of the story says that Molyneux’ Cinq was far ahead of Chanel’s for several years. The other (recorded in Nigel Groom’s excellent Perfume Handbook) is that Molyneux brought out several perfumes at once in 1925 named after different addresses of the firm: 3, 14 and Numéro Cinq, referred to as “Le Parfum Connu” to avoid troubles with Chanel. Either way, fashion designers clearly had more of a sense of humor then than now.

There is no question that Chanel had a better eye: the Molyneux looks drab. But the fragrance! I expected something dated and derivative, and was taken by surprise: Numéro Cinq is surpassingly beautiful and strange, the only example I know of an iris oriental. Assuming the fragrance wasn’t changed, the uncertainty about its age then becomes as exciting as the discovery of an Egyptian mummy clutching an iPod. 1921 is when the first oriental, Coty’s Emeraude, came out. 1925 is the birth date of its famous successor Shalimar. If Molyneux’ 5 dates from 1921, perfume history needs to be rewritten. If it dates from 1925, then both it and Shalimar were copying Emeraude, and the question is: why did Molyneux’ line die out ? Maybe the joke backfired, and everything would have been different if Captain Molyneux had said “Numéro Six”.