Older Girl Beauty

Ernest Beaux

Pretend French Vacay, Pt. 5: The History of Beauty: Chanel No. 5

photo credit: Beau Wade

Before any vacation ends, you always have to see the defining monument that is famous to that location. In the case of the city of Paris, it’s always the Eiffel Tower. In the case of French Parisian beauty, it is Chanel No.5. And I was lucky enough to be gifted a bottle for Christmas last year.

From the beginning Chanel No. 5 has always been exclusive. It was first released in 1921 as a Christmas gift to Mlle.’s best customers and was limited to only 100 flacons. When these customers started coming back, asking for more, it was officially launched as “Chanel Nº 5” in 1922. Word is that this scent was the No. 5 bottle out of 10 samples presented to her, and that when asked how she would name it, she replied, “I always launch my collection on the 5th day of the 5th month, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck – therefore, I will name it Nº 5”.

Coco was never a big perfume fan. In fact, it’s said that she thought that “women perfume themselves only to hide bad smells”. Things seemed to change after Coco’s lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, took her to Cannes and introduced her to perfumer Ernest Beaux and toured his lab. It was here that he presented Coco with his 10 samples, numbered 1-5 and 20-24. He became forever known as the man who created Chanel No. 5.

Coco was also known to have said, “I want to give women an artificial perfume. Yes, I really do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made. I don’t want any rose or lily of the valley, I want a perfume that is a composition.” To that end, Chanel Nº 5 became famous for its overdose in synthetic perfumery raw materials, the aldehydes (*don’t worry – I read that, too, and still didn’t understand it either.) in the top note. When the scent was released for public sale, it came in three strengths: Extrait Perfume, Eau de Toilette and Eau de Cologne. (*The Eau de Cologne was discontinued in the 1990’s and replaced with the Eau de Parfum.) Only the Extrait Perfume contains rose oil and jasmin absolute from the Grasse region, and is sealed by hand. So concerned to keep the scent as true as the original, Chanel has signed exclusivity agreements with the largest flower producer in Grasse, the Mul family, to provide them with the finest jasmine & roses.

Now, you might think that having “the world’s most legendary fragrance” (*in a bottle that was created in 1924 by Jean Helleau, that is itself iconic, and has been on permanent display at the MoMA in NYC since 1959 AND made into a poster by Andy Warhol) would make you richer than sin, right? Not so fast. Turns out that in 1924 Coco signed over the rights to No 5 to Pierre Wertheimer and Theophilus Bader, owners of Galeries Lafayette, with the shares divided that Pierre received 70%, Theophilus got 20% and Coco got the last 10% (*they created Parfums Chanel to distribute, hiring Ernest Beaux to be their chief perfumer). Now, that sounds bad, but remember, this was before she became famous for her LBD in 1925 and she needed their connections, money and distribution capabilities. Of course, this ate at her and she felt taken advantage of, so she decided to go back to Ernest and created “Mademoiselle Chanel Nº 1”, to be sold exclusively in her shops. Well, the French government considered that “Counterfeiting” and prohibited it. However, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and Neiman Marcus in Texas, in the US, kept on selling it. After the customers were all puzzled, Pierre ended up raising Coco’s share. They eventually made nice, to the point that when Coco wanted to restart her couture house in 1947, Pierre financially backed her. However, all niceities aside, for the rest of her life she still felt like she had been shafted out of a huge sum of money.

As for the smell, I’m not even going to try to describe it myself, because I have told you guys I am not one to know “notes” or anything like that to be descriptive. I will say that there are legions of fans, including Marilyn Monroe who, when asked what she wore to bed, famously said, “Five drops of Nº 5.” And, I will quote others who have tried to describe it:

According to Luca Turin, author of The Secret of Scent and, with Tania Sanchez, the recently published Perfumes – The Guide: “Those who have been brought up on stunted, suburban fragrances must find it hard to accept the existence of such a regally beautiful thing,” he writes. “The top notes surprise every time: a radiant chorus of ylang and rose floating like gold leaf on the chalk-white background of aldehydes. Curiously, this most modern of perfumes evokes an image of great antiquity, perhaps a Scythian jewel on a white dress. “The drydown fades the way white flowers do, slowly becoming soft and flesh-coloured. And to get an idea of No 5’s quality, smell it on a paper strip after 24 hours. Now try this with whatever else you’re wearing. See?”

New York Times perfume critic, Chandler Burr: “Chanel No 5 hits you like a bank of white-hot searchlights washing the powdered stars at a movie premiere in Cannes on a dry summer night. If you haven’t smelled it in a while, do so again. It’s great to bathe in that light.”

Get it now? It clearly rises above simple description. If you haven’t had a chance to smell this, please take the time to stop by the Chanel counter and take a whiff then come back here and give me YOUR description of this iconic scent. If you have this, what do you think? Do you think the descriptions are accurate? Let me know!

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