The title of Tilar J. Mazzeo’s “The Secret of Chanel No. 5” suggests that there is some hidden truth behind one of the most famous fragrances in the world. There may be, for all we know. There is certainly a lot of Chanel lore that is unfamiliar to most of us.
The perfume’s formula, for instance, was not entirely original. It was based on a fragrance made in 1914 to honor Russian royalty. More surprising is the fact that, for part of World War II, this paragon of French fragrance was produced in Hoboken, N.J. Most off-putting, though, is the news that the perfume’s creator—who would see Chanel No. 5 turned into a cultural totem in the U.S. by G.I.’s who brought it home from Paris as a fancy gift for their wives and girlfriends—spent the Occupation holed up at the Paris Ritz with a German officer as her lover.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s affinity for the Germans—she made two trips to Berlin during the war—did nothing to dent the perfume’s appeal. Since its launch in 1921, Chanel No. 5 has seemed almost invulnerable to any force that might damage its world-wide popularity. Though its cachet has gone up and down over the years, it remains hugely popular. Les Parfums Chanel doesn’t reveal sales figures, but Ms. Mazzeo says that a bottle sells somewhere in the world every 30 seconds, with annual revenue estimated at $100 million.
What accounts for the continuing fascination with a product that is nine decades old? Ms. Mazzeo explains with a combination of engaging historical detail and at times overwrought drama.
Orphaned at an early age, Coco Chanel grew up in the convent abbey called Aubazine in southwestern France. Ms. Mazzeo contends that the abbey’s scents, aesthetic minimalism and even its numerical patterns—the place teemed with five-pointed stars and pentagon shapes, the author says—made a lifelong impression on the young girl.
Chanel’s entry into business began in 1909 when she set up a millinery shop in Paris. The boutique was a success, prompting her to open a seaside store in Deauville, where she introduced a sportswear line in 1913 that bore the hallmarks of a style—simple and chic—that would turn the Chanel brand into an international fashion powerhouse.
A few years later, upset by a break-up with her wealthy British boyfriend, Arthur “Boy” Capel, and his subsequent death in an automobile accident, Chanel focused her energies on establishing a perfume line. Ms. Mazzeo says, in a typically feverish passage: “The perfume she would create had everything to do with the complicated story of her sensuality, with the heart-breaking loss of Boy in his car crash, and with everything that had come before. In crafting this scent, she would return to her emotional ground zero.”
Chanel was introduced to perfumer Ernest Beaux, who had worked in Moscow for the fragrance house A. Rallet & Co. While there, he had created a scent that was intended to celebrate Catherine the Great. But the timing, Ms. Mazzeo notes, was not right: “A perfume named after a German-born empress of Russia was doomed in 1914.”
Working with Chanel, Beaux used his Catherine the Great formula to capture the qualities that Chanel was looking for in her product: It would have to be seductive and expensive, she said, and “a modern work of art and an abstraction.” A perfume based on the scent of a particular flower—which at the time had the power to define its wearer as a respectable woman (rose) or a showgirl (jasmine)—would not do. “I want to give women an artificial perfume,” Chanel once said. “Yes, I do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made. I don’t want a rose or a lily of the valley, I want a perfume that is a composition.”
The composition she and Beaux arrived at had strong notes of rose and jasmine, balanced by what was, in the 1920s, a new fragrance technology: aldehydes. Ms. Mazzeo neatly explains that aldehydes are “molecules with a very particular kind of arrangement among their oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms, and they are a stage in the natural process that happens when exposure turns an alcohol to an acid.” Aldehydes provide a “clean” scent and intensify other fragrances.
Chanel’s perfume was not the first to use aldehydes, but it was the first to use them in large portions. The innovation led to a new category of fragrance, the floral-aldehydics, that combine the scent of flowers and aldehydes.
The story of how Coco Chanel decided what to name the perfume has been often told: Beaux supposedly presented her with 10 vials of fragrance, and she chose the fifth one. But in Ms. Matteo’s telling, Chanel picked the fifth vial and called her perfume Chanel No. 5 because, if we believe the purple prose, the “special talisman” held all manner of significance for her. Even Boy Capel regarded five as his “magic number,” according to the author.
The fragrance was an immediate success. Changes to the formula “have been only minor and only when absolutely required,” writes Ms. Mazzeo, as when a type of chemically unstable musk used in the perfume was banned in the 1980s.
By then, Chanel No. 5 had long been unconnected to the Chanel business interests: Coco Chanel sold Les Parfums Chanel—an enterprise separate from her fashion house—in 1924 to French industrialists Paul and Pierre Wertheimer, who had a large perfume manufacturing and distribution operation. Chanel, who retained a 10% interest, was seeking a world-wide market for the perfume. That goal was attained, but Chanel came to bitterly regret the decision. At times over the following decades she tried and failed to win back the company, even resorting to disparaging the perfume. By the time of her death in 1971 at age 87 she had reached a settlement with the owners. Corporate squabbles aside, Chanel No. 5 has endured. Remarkably little about it has changed since 1921. And if its history tells us anything, little will.
Ms. Catton writes the Culture City column for the Journal’s Greater New York section.
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