One is invisible, liquid and ephemeral, its very enjoyment requiring its annihilation. The other is glittering and so hard it is virtually indestructible.
As forms of adornment, jewels and perfumes seem to be polar opposites, their only common points being the places where they are worn (wrists, neck, ears) and the fact that they are one-size-fits-all.
But the pioneering German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) held another view. Simmel was keenly interested in fashion – in fact, he could be considered one of the founding fathers of fashion theory – inasmuch as its mechanisms and language produced social relationships.
Intriguingly, he defines adornment as both “egoistic” and “altruistic”: though it enhances the wearer’s personality at the expense of others who appear less distinguished by contrast, “its pleasure is designed for the others, since its owner can enjoy it only insofar as he mirrors himself in them; he renders the adornment valuable only through the reflection of this gift of his.”
Simmel rates types of adornment “in terms of (…) closeness to the physical body”, from what can literally not be separated from it, the tattoo, on to clothing which can be further split between the well-worn that has taken on the kinks of its wearer’s body, and the brand-new which retains its impersonality. On this scale, jewelry is the furthest thing from a tattoo: hard and therefore un-modifiable by the wearer’s body, and “whose very elegance lies in its impersonality”.
“What is really elegant avoids pointing to the specifically individual; it always lays a more general, stylized, almost abstract sphere around man which, of course, prevents no finesse from connecting the general with the personality.”
For Simmel, jewelry’s powerful social effect is due not only to its impersonality but to the way “radiates” from its wearer:
“By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer appears as the center of a circle of radiation in which every close-by person, every seeing eye is caught. (…) The radii of this sphere mark the distance which jewelry creates between men "I have something which you do not have." But, on the other hand, these radii not only let the other participate: they shine in his direction; in fact, they exist only for his sake. By virtue of their material, jewels signify, in one and the same act, an increase in distance and a favor.”Surely, then, perfume is the absolute opposite of jewelry? To enjoy it, its wearer doesn’t need a mirror – whether an actual looking-glass or the gaze of others. Unlike jewelry, it changes on the body. And what could be more personal than the choice of a scent?
Not so for Simmel, clearly no great believer
in “personal chemistry”, who classes perfume squarely with jewels on his “impersonality” scale of adornment:
“It adds something entirely impersonal to personality, something that comes from the exterior but incorporates itself so well to it that it seems to radiate from it. It increases the personal sphere by producing an impression similar to the fire of diamonds or the shine of gold. Anyone who comes near it plunges into this atmosphere and is somehow caught in the sphere of the personality.
Like clothing, perfume covers (…) the personal atmosphere, replacing it with an objective atmosphere while drawing attention towards it. One supposes that the perfume created by this fictitious atmosphere will be pleasant to all, that it is a social value like jewels, adornment. It must please independently from the wearer, subjectively be enjoyed by his entourage, while enhancing his value as a personality at the same time.”
Now, if anyone could rival Simmel in his sociological observations on adornment, it would be Coco Chanel, who almost singlehandedly scrambled the codes of 20th century elegance. With N°5, she carried out the program inscribed in perfume as an “impersonal”, “radiant” adornment –the “stylized, almost abstract sphere” Simmel posited as true elegance. She also turned her N°5 into a value as absolute as the gold standard. N°5 isn’t a perfume: it stands for perfume in itself. Witness last December’s “Europe wants to ban N°5” media flare-up: N°5 isn’t the only one threatened, but its symbolic value is so universal nothing could have raised the alarm more efficiently.
Conversely, Chanel’s first foray into diamond jewelry in 1932 turned out to be the very opposite: an esthetic experience almost as fleeting as a drop of fragrance, as we’ll see in Thursday’s review of the new Exclusive, 1932.
Be sure to check back in for a draw of a sample!
Quotes are drawn from a 1950 translation of Georg Simmel’s Sociology, except for the last one, which I translated into English from a French translation in Georg Simmel, Sociologie et Épistemologie, Paris, PUF, 1981. Illustration by Robert Bresson, from the 1932 exhibition catalogue of “Bijoux de Diamant créés par Chanel”, courtesy Chanel.