Tuesday, January 11, 2011

by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Within the fragance industry, it's known as le monstre: the monster. For ninety-one years, this particular perfume has had a life of its own. Considered to be the world's most seductive scent and bought by millions, Chanel No. 5 is known as the most famous and successful perfume ever created. The brilliant, flawed woman who created it would be unbelievably wealthy until the end of her life.
Gabrielle Chanel grew up as an orphan (her mother had died of tuberculosis) in a convent for girls. It was not a happy time for her, but it would define her future. Here, in Aubazine, France is where she learned to sew, where her keen scent took root (smells of cleanliness and flowers abounded), and where numbers were mystical to her (numerology was embedded in the ancient architecture).
At the age of eighteen, Gabrielle left the small village for the big city of Moulins (near Paris) and began work as a shopgirl and seamstress. She started meeting men who took her out to the cabarets which were pretty provocative. Gabrielle loved the shows so much that she decided to make a career of it herself. Her famous nickname, Coco, would be coined at this time. Soon enough, Coco Chanel would meet the first of many lovers (most supported her financially) who let her open up her own shop making hats and ten years later this less than astute businesswoman would launch Chanel No. 5.
What a terrific story! It's hard to believe that a perfume could be so interesting, but in Mazzeo's deft writing, you can't stop reading. Why the number five was used, how the scent was determined, where the specific elements were to be found, who made the formula and several pages discussing the chemistry of fragrance molecules called aldehydes keeps your eyes fixated on the pages.
While the perfume was exemplary, Coco Chanel was embroiled in controversies. During WWII, she had a Nazi lover and was accused of being a collaborator (Coco was a virulent anti-Semite). How ironic that she would sign away her rights to two Jewish brothers (Les Parfums Chanel) so that the perfume could be marketed in America and elsewhere.
A great tale that is not to be missed.
Highly recommended.