Coco Chanel stood in a laboratory in France, sniffing a collection of fragrance formulations whereas her face remained expressionless.
It was the summer season of 1920, and the French couturier was trying to launch her first signature perfume. The mission led her to Cannes, the place she’d heard a Russian expat named Ernest Beaux was experimenting with cutting-edge scents.
Upon assembly, Beaux offered Chanel with 10 totally different fragrance vials, and she or he inhaled each with out remark. When she completed, she seemed up.
“Number five,” she stated decisively.
Launched on May 5, 1921, Chanel No. 5 would go on to change into the most celebrated fragrance in historical past. Marilyn Monroe as soon as quipped that she wore nothing however “a few drops of Chanel No. 5” to mattress, and the perfume’s worldwide dominance helped make its namesake one of the wealthiest ladies in France. But the formulation itself has a surprisingly wealthy and political historical past, as instructed in the new ebook “The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow” (Polity Press), out now, by Karl Schlögel.
Beaux was a second-generation grasp perfumer who had been growing scents professionally since 1902. At first, he labored for his father, who was head perfumer at A. Rallet & Co. — the official purveyor to the Romanov dynasty — however he succeeded him rapidly. Born in Moscow in 1881, Beaux grew up throughout what Schlögel describes as “the golden age of Russian perfumery and cosmetics,” because of immense concentrations of wealth in the nation’s thriving city facilities.
But that was about to vary. During World War I, Beaux left to struggle alongside the French in Europe. When he returned dwelling, the Russian Revolution — by which the Bolsheviks overthrew the monarchy — had begun.
Under the new regime, luxurious merchandise had been despised for his or her associations with the uber-rich, and “perfume was branded the very epitome of a bourgeois lifestyle,” Schlögel writes. Beaux, realizing his life was at risk for having labored for the newly deposed — and executed — Romanov household, fled again to France.
He took a dangerous route, “crossing the snowy tundra of the Kola Peninsula inside the Arctic Circle,” Schlögel writes. Difficult because it was, the journey additionally inspired one thing in Beaux. The crisp odor of the frozen desert panorama caught with him: “In the northern countries of Europe, beyond the Arctic Circle . . . when the lakes and rivers exude a particular freshness,” Beaux defined in a speech he gave in 1946. “I always remembered this characteristic smell.”
When he arrived in France and arrange his laboratory, Beaux set out, fairly actually, to bottle it.
In Russia, he’d been experimenting with aldehydes: chemical compounds which might be launched in the course of of oxidation, that “intensify the aromas of a perfume and trigger reactions in the nervous system,” Schlögel writes. Because Beaux had such a robust nostril, he knew he smelled aldehydes in the Arctic snow.
The formulation he created after escaping Russia — and that Coco Chanel in the end selected — was a mix of jasmine and different floral notes, together with aldehydes, which gave it “the stark aroma of snow and meltwater.” The latter distinguished it from earlier big-name perfumes, with a distinctly fashionable aptitude that was in the end mirrored in the stylish, minimalist design of the Chanel No. 5 bottle.
Chanel later described it as “what I was waiting for . . . a perfume like nothing else.”
After she selected the scent, Beaux requested her what it must be referred to as.
“I present the dress collection on the fifth day of the fifth month, meaning in May,” the designer replied.
“So leave the perfume with the number it already has. The number 5 will bring it success.”