Moment in Time: The Mystery of Chanel No. 5 | Part II
“A perfume such as had never before been made – a woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent.”― Coco Chanel
Vintage Chanel No.5 mini perfume bottles
The story of the legendary Chanel No. 5 has been told time and time again, but the mystery behind the scent and the name of the perfume remains. There are three different versions about the origin of the scent and several hypotheses about the meaning behind the innovative name of No. 5.
Another theory about the significance of the name speculates that the designer knew the numerological significance of the number five, representing the fifth element – the quinta essentia of which the cosmos is made.
Mademoiselle Chanel, however has her own version of the story that does not even mention Beaux. Towards the end of her life she often talked about No.5 as her own creation. Her close friend Claude Delay retells the story, saying that after Boy Capel’s death, a man Coco Chanel loved, she ran away from her grief to the south of France, where “she took refuge on the Côte d'Azur (the French Riviera) where, breathing in essences and the fields of May roses, she invented the perfume – No.5 – which was to obsess the world. The name was a chance, not premeditated. She called it that because it was the fifth bottle and five is a pretty number.”
Coco Chanel also talked about her childhood memories of the intense clean scent at her aunts’ home. The designer remembered the aroma of a place where everything was clean, the floors and furniture was scrubbed and polished and the linen cupboard was fragrant with herbs. “The sense of smell is the only one that is still instinctive. It lives on nostalgia, the subconscious,” she told Delay. “You ought to wear your own, the one you like. If I leave a jacket behind me somewhere, they know it’s mine. When I was young, the first thing I’d have done if I had any money was buy some perfume. I’d been given Floris’s Sweet Peas – I thought it was lovely, the country girl that I was. Then I realized it didn’t suit me.”
Bettina Ballard photographed in Paris
Maybe that was what Mademoiselle Chanel was seeking – a perfume that suits her. The revolutionary for its time blend of jasmine, ylang-ylang, neroli, May rose, sandalwood and Bourbon vetiver, enhanced and stabilized by Beaux’s discovery of the aldehydes was the end of her search. It was “a perfume such as had never before been made – a woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent.” Unlike the rest of the scents produced at the time that had a single very heavy floral note, No.5 was a “bouquet of abstract flowers,” as Mademoiselle Chanel described it herself.
In 1924 Beaux became technical director of Les Parfums Chanel. Despite this fact, when the designer was telling the story of No.5 to her new friend Bettina Ballard (young American editor working in the Paris office of Vogue) she didn’t mention the perfumer’s contribution. “She concocted Chanel No.5 when she was trying to recover in the south of France in the Twenties from the accidental death of Boy Chapel. A maker of flower essences at Grasse let her make her own mixture to divert her. When she tested her fifth attempt, she picked up the plain bottle in which she had mixed it, wrote a number 5 in her own hand, and said, “Now I will sell this,” and she did, all over the world,” writes Ballard.
Mademoiselle Chanel mentioned that one of the inspirations behind the idea of creating a perfume was the smell of dirt she could feel everywhere, even at the most glamorous places, such as Misia’s apartment. Misia was a woman so famous around Paris that everyone knew her by her first name. She was a muse for the artists, the Queen of the city. “I was appalled. It smelt like filth downstairs,” Coco Chanel said remembering her first visit at Misia’s home.
Mademoiselle Chanel photographed at her apartment