Over the Christmas break, I read Tilar J. Mazzeo’s engaging biography “The Secret of Chanel No. 5”. I am conducting research for my novel which includes a perfumer during the 1920s, so this book provided fantastic information about the industry and how Chanel No. 5 became a cultural icon of both the past and present. I wanted to share some of the fascinating facts I learned about this delectable perfume with all of you.
The heart of Coco Chanel’s style arises from her time spent at the orphanage called Aubazine in France, a Cistercian order which prized simplicity, cleanliness, and purity. The monks also used perfumes and ointments in prayers and rituals of purification. Although she was deeply unhappy there as a child, she carried it with her always because it was essentially her first home.
One of Coco Chanel’s most influential relationships was with Boy Capel. She liked that he smelled of “leather, horses, forest, and saddle soap”; her memories of him would also be integrated into her famous perfume.
Two million American soldiers were responsible for the success of the perfume industry in France after WWI; they bought perfume to take home as a souvenir, to prove they had been there and to remember – to them Paris was sexy and chic, and perfume was the ultimate symbol of both. The same thing would happen after WWII as well and would make Chanel No. 5 a phenomenal success. During WWII, perfume became a luxury item that helped to make life bearable – there were already shortages of coffee, chocolate, and coveted foods; perfume served as a reminder of another time when everything was not so hard or brutal, so people splurged on it.
Coco Chanel started planning her perfume in 1918, and purchased a famous manuscript of the perfume favored by Catherine de Medici for six thousand francs. Biographers believe the ingredients revealed in this manuscript were added to Chanel’s creation. She set out to make a perfume with the scent of scoured warm flesh and soap in a provincial convent, yet it needed to be luxurious and sensual; she threw herself into conducting research for her creation after Boy Capel’s untimely death in a car accident.
Dmitri Pavlovich, an exiled prince from Russia and a cousin to the last czar, Nicholas II, became Coco’s lover and introduced her to a perfumer from his former court named Ernest Beaux, famous for creating Rallet No. I, a perfume favored by the women of the Romanov dynasty. Around 1920, they began to work in earnest in a laboratory in Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.
Ernest used elements of Rallet No. I as a basis for Chanel No. 5, but he added the clean notes requested by Chanel using aldehydes, scents created in the laboratory.
Chanel held a dinner party (including Ernest Beaux) at an exclusive restaurant in Cannes and scented the air with her new creation to see how passersby would react. People kept stopping to ask “what is that fragrance?” She knew she had a winner (1920); to continue the buzz, she started giving free samples to her clients at boutiques who requested to buy more and shared it with their influential friends.
When she first starting selling her perfume, she only sold it through her boutiques. When she realized that she needed to expand its production and distribution, she signed a large percentage of the rights away to Pierre and Paul Wertheimer – their family owned Borjois who made its fortune selling cosmetics, stage make up, and perfumes to purveyors of the vaudeville stage.
The inspiration for the bottle came from one of Boy Capel’s whisky decanters, and the simple lines of the bottle complimented her perfume perfectly.
The Wertheimer brothers, who were Jewish, fled to America once WWII broke out; it was during this time that Chanel No. 5 went from being a bestseller to becoming an international icon. Once the two brothers arrived in America, they negotiated with the U.S. military to sell the perfume through the military commissaries.
By 1927, it was clear to everyone in the fashion and perfume industry that Chanel No. 5 was the scent to copy.The true secret of Chanel No. 5 and its continued success is us and our relationship to it; a bottle is sold every thirty seconds and it still symbolizes luxury and a glamorous past.
As an added bonus, I found this excellent summary and video about the creation/production of Chanel No. 5 by Lonny Magazine: