Do We Love Chanel No. 5 Because We Are Under the Control of a Cat Parasite?

The state of the universe.
July 3 2012 6:45 AM

The Scent of a Cat Woman

Is the secret to Chanel No. 5’s success a parasite?

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Or maybe, like with the rats, Toxo is changing something about the way the brain processes cat smells, making the men with Toxo find it more pleasant. Could it be that Toxo is the perfumer par excellance, with privileged access to the very seat of smell itself? Is it a coincidence that “le monstre” of the perfume industry and the Bordeaux sauvignon blanc both come from France, a country with one of the highest rates of Toxo in the world?

Why would a perfumer spend her days perfecting aldehydes and tinctures to recreate the smell of water at midnight when she could—if unintentionally—exploit the fact that 45 percent of her French countrymen have parasites in their brains that may be skewing the inner, subjective world of smell?

Musk gives durability and stubbornness to otherwise ephemeral scents in perfumes and almost always comes from the dark nether regions of solitary animals, which is probably why even the New York Times’ perfume critic Chandler Burr balks at the open-air smells of Givaudan, one of the world’s great perfume schools. There are a few options for the perfumer: Musk proper comes from sexual pheromones of a musk deer, castoreum (a musk alternative) from urine-filled castor sacs of beavers, and civet from a sexual perianal gland the civet cat. (The African civet cat is not technically a cat, in the Feline sense, but a Feliformia, a broader class of “cat-like” carnivores that includes both cats and civet cats—though both prey on rats and mark their territory with sexual and urinary pheromones.)

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The history of perfume is an intimate history of animal come-hithers. Despite rampant speculation the human pheromone, like dark matter, has yet to be discovered, let alone bottled (“pheromone parties” in Los Angeles and New York notwithstanding.) So instead we outsource production to animals. But why some over others? It may be a coincidence, but it is nevertheless worthy of note that in ancient Egypt, home of the world’s first perfumers, home of some of the earliest domesticated cats, where the penalty for killing cats was death, where it was a crime to not save a cat from a burning building, Bastet served as god of both perfume and cats.

Clearly most of these ideas are unprovable, a fancy feast of unfalsifiable theory—often both the most interesting and the most useless line of inquiry for the scientist. Do civets and domestic cats use similar pheromones? Unknown. Is Toxo really altering human response to cat odors, like in the rats? Unknown. Do people with Toxo prefer Chanel No. 5 over those without Toxo? We may never know. Chanel stopped using civet in 1998 in No. 5 for animal rights reasons, replacing it with a synthetic version (though you can still buy vintage). No word on if the new No. 5 is any less popular.

As a company, Chanel marks its territory like a cat does its palm fronds. Decades of spokesmodels from Keira Knightley to Audrey Tautou to Nicole Kidman all leave an elegant Chanel No. 5 sillage in their wake long after they leave both the room and their suitors behind. Marilyn Monroe, arch-queen of the human come-hither, claims she wore to bed nothing but “two drops of Chanel No. 5.” Perhaps instead we should think of her bedroom as not her own territory, nor DiMaggio’s, nor Arthur Miller’s, nor JFK’s—but, rather, the extended territory of a lonely civet cat.

Patrick House is a neuroscientist at Stanford University, studying Toxoplasma gondii.