Right in the middle of the Russian trend, Mademoiselle and the Tsars’ perfumer created the French scent – and the most famous number in the world.


This is the story of the most famous perfume in the world, a story no one is tired of telling or listening to: the lucky number, GIs queuing outside the store rue Cambon to buy a bottle for their girlfriends after the Liberation, Marilyn’s ‘few drops’ and Andy Warhol’s serigraphies at the MoMA, and as time went by, how it was worn by the most glamorous figures in the cinema industry: Ali MacGraw, Lauren Hutton, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman, and even Brad Pitt… Chanel N°5 remains a phenomenon and a worldwide bestseller almost a century after its creation. “Preceded by its reputation, its own myth feeds itself. It lay the ground for future Chanel perfumes, and at the same time, it is the symbol of the perfume industry in general,” Olivier Polge, creator for Chanel, notices. “Yet I do not think that we have uncovered all its mysteries. We indeed find the typical mix, i.e. those famous aldehydes combined with white flowers, but Chanel N°5 is mostly a state of mind. Gabrielle Chanel and Ernest Beaux invented the elaborate perfume, an artistic approach to olfactory creation.”

The legend started in December 1919 when the designer learnt about the death of her high school sweetheart, English businessman Boy Capel. As a result of her relationship with him, she had grown into an avid reader. When he died, she reread the books she had discovered thanks to him. Grief fed her intuition: what if one could find a presence again, even when the person is gone? Scents create these links, as does literature. Gabrielle Chanel would drown her sorrow by sketching in her room at the Ritz. The following summer she followed her friend Misia and Misia’s husband, Catalan painter José Maria Sert, to Venice. These vacations inspired her because of the city’s flamboyance, but also because the Serenissima is a nerve centre for East/West commerce, as well as a hotspot for scent trade. The idea of a Chanel perfume took shape after a conversation with Misia and her husband, at a time when fashion designers and perfumers were two different occupations. Gabrielle Chanel was determined to launch this new article in her boutiques.


             “Over the Polar circle”


Upon her return, ‘fate’ put an eccentric man, the ‘Nose’ Ernest Beaux, on her path, by the introduction of her beau, the Great-Duke Dimitri Pavlovitch, a cousin of Tsar Nicolas II’s. The French perfumer was born in Russia where his family had been living since the 19thcentury. His father, Édouard, ran the A. Rallet soap factories, which made products to be found at the royal court. By then, Ernest Beaux had already signed several successful contracts that included “Bouquet de Napoléon” cologne in 1912 – a tribute to the 100thanniversary of the Borodino battle, as well as its female version, the “Bouquet de Catherine,” dedicated to the 300thanniversary of the Romanov dynasty. (The “Bouquet de Catherine” was already aldehyde-based.)

Ernest Beaux had talent and audacity. He was also a charismatic, stylish, fiery man who enjoyed life and its pleasure. He was one of the first to exploit new molecules coming from chemical synthesis. He found a job at Robertet, and moved to Grasse, in the South-East of France. He also received a honourable discharge from the army. His stepdaughter Gilberte Beaux says, “My stepfather was a hero. He received the Order of Saint-Vladimir in Russia, the English Military Cross, and the French Legion of Honour. After he fought alongside the French army, he joined the British army, and then British intelligence. By the end of the war, the Bolsheviks wanted him dead!”

Coco Chanel embraced the Russian wave. She attended Slav cabarets. She housed Igor Stravinsky and Serge de Diaghilev. She adorned her dresses with threads of gold and had her models parade wearing roubachkas– the traditional embroidered Russian blouses. On the other hand, the ‘Nose’ could not forget the scents of the distant lands he visited, especially the Arkhangelsk region, next to the White Sea. Ernest told her about ‘a country in the northern part of Europe, over the Polar circle, known as the land of the midnight sun, and where the lakes and the rivers radiate the scent of the extreme cold.’ They spoke the same language. “My stepfather enjoyed life, art, good food, and the company of women… But their relationship remained strictly professional,” Mrs Beaux continues. “They obviously complemented one another, but I am not sure they really appreciated each other. That being said, two geniuses in the same room often make sparks,” in every sense of the term. Beaux created this extraordinary bouquet where he blended ylang-ylang, Rosa centifolia (“one-hundred leaf rose,” also called the May rose in French), neroli, and an overabundance of those synthetic molecules. These metallic facets remind one of clean laundry and expand the lingering scent. Mademoiselle had now found her ‘womanly scent,’ her ‘artificial perfume, as artificial as a dress, i.e. created.’

Then came the choice of the name. When he showed her his creations (two series ranging from 1 to 5, then from 20 to 24), she picked number 5.  “‘I show my dress collection on the fifth day of May, the fifth month of the year. We shall keep the number it already bears, and this number will bring good luck,’ Coco told me,” Mr. Beaux remarked in an interview. “I have to admit she was right.” The designer also knew her way around marketing strategies. She picked a minimalist glass bottle reminiscent of a flask of vodka – the most famous scent in the world in a naked bottle. In Chanel’s boutique on rue Cambon, the sales assistants were asked to spray Chanel N°5 in the fitting rooms in order to raise the curiosity of the clients. Gabrielle herself would wear it and pose for it. Wherever she would go, she wanted the scent to precede her. Rumour has it that the doorman of the Ritz would call his counterpart at the boutique so he could spray some when she arrived. “Before this perfume, ‘Noses’ would create a violet, a lily-of-the-valley, a jasmine. Gabrielle Chanel and Ernest Beaux created Chanel N°5,” Olivier Polge sums up. “Together they created other perfumes – N°22, Russia Leather, Bois des Îles (literally “Wood of the Islands”) – but their first-born is the one that left a mark for posterity.”


Article originally published in French on August 10 in Le Figaro.