“Only those with no memory insist on their originality” declared Coco Chanel one day. The incredible story of Chanel No. 5, the mythical fragrance, an inspiration to generations of women, provides the perfect illustration to this. It’s creation, as mysterious as its fragrance, is fascinating. Whilst it must be admitted that without Chanel’s name, the fragrance would never have become the emblem that it is today. Yet, Coco Chanel, contrary to what she would have had us believe, played but a minor part in this process.
To trace the origins of Chanel No. 5, we must venture to Moscow, the heart of Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Where we encounter Ernest Beaux, now known as one of the greatest perfumers of the world. Following in the footsteps of his French father Edward, he joined the great Rallet perfumery becoming a laboratory technicain of the great Rallet perfumery company and rising to become a true creator (his cologne Napoleon Bouquet marked the annals in 1912) before taking on the role of technical director of the company, official perfume supplier of the Russian, Montenegro, and Persian courts amongst others.
But during the Bolshevik revolution, the company Rallet, which was bought in 1896 by the great perfume company of Antoine Chiris, was nationalised. In 1917, Ernest Beaux escaped Russia to find refuge at La Bocca, Cannes, with his other French colleagues, where the Chiris company’s head quarters were located. There, Ernest Beaux was assigned his own laboratory, the scene of where his experiments where given birth, amongst others, the future Chanel No. 5. All that remained was a meeting with Coco Chanel.
The French Riviera has long been a favourite destination for sun-seekers, even from as early as the 19th century. From all over Europe it’s elite flock there to enjoy the warm weather a beautiful beaches. As did Coco Chanel, who was well travelled, choosing to spend her holiday time at Monte Carlo.
In the summer of 1920, she took repose with her companion, the Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, cousin of Tsar Nicolas II and descendant of the Roumanovs, a penniless noble beauty. One morning, with newspaper in hand, he happened upon an intriguing article: the famous serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, nicknamed the “Bluebeard of Gambais” had finally been arrested, tracked down thanks to his odor. An inspired visionary, Dimitri Pavlovich suggested to Coco Chanel, at his side, that she should develop a captivating perfume, that would leave a lasting trail behind the passage of each woman.
Having been previously perfumed by Ernest Beaux, the Duke contacts him proposing that he should develop such a perfume, that would later become Chanel No. 5. Together, they meet several times with the renowned perfumer in his laboratory. It is here that at the request of Coco Chanel, amongst the scents of his experiments, the famous Chanel No. 5 was born. Later, when the summer approached it’s end, he returned to Coco with a series of five fragrances, simply numbered from 1 to 5. Being very attached to the number 5, Coco Chanel is immediately seduced by the scent of the last of the series. The fifth fragrance being reminiscent of ‘Quelques Fleurs’, created by Houbigant in 1912, with great success.
Fascinated, she dived into its inception, always supported by her lover Dimitri Pavlovich, who also designed the now iconic bottle. Near the end of 1921, she finally quietly launched her first perfume, of just a hundred copies that were offered to her best customers as Christmas presents.
The quiet unofficial launch quickly bore fruit, spread by word of mouth, the name (and scent) of Chanel No. 5 grew rapidly through out every corner of Paris and to other capitals in vogue, worn by more and more women. To the point that even today, its refined scent is still as popular as ever.