The Sweet Smell of Success


Tilar Mazzeo's latest foray into cultural history

By Diana McQueen

Every 30 seconds, someone buys a bottle of Coco Chanel’s trademark perfume Chanel No. 5.

The Secret of Chanel No. 5
Tilar J. Mazzeo (English) Harper (2010)

Known to industry insiders as le monster, for its rampaging success, Chanel No. 5 was a product poised on the brink of legend even before its inception. The entrepreneurial Chanel saw that her star as a designer was rising and that only two other designers had entered the perfume market. She recognized the demand for French perfume from consumers in America. Chanel had also lost her lover, in a car accident. She helped create, Mazzeo writes, “a scent that encapsulated both her sense of loss and the story of her life and loves.” 

At the time (it went on sale in 1921) most perfumes on the market were floral scents. “Women are not flowers,” Chanel sniffed. She wanted an artful, abstract scent, akin to the clothes she created. Mazzeo concludes that Chanel No. 5 is more than a perfume, and “part of a larger project of redefining the twentieth-century femininity.”

Chanel had a keen nose, but no experience in the perfume trade. She set out to find that expertise. The perfume’s actual creator, Ernest Beaux, had produced a revolutionary yet commercially unsuccessful fragrance called Le Bouquet de Catherine, named after Catherine the Great. Brought together by Chanel’s Russian-exile lover, the entrepreneur and the chemist crafted a new scent. Chanel selected the fifth variant, No. 5, and the rest is perfume history.

The Chanel No. 5 tale took twists and turns during and after World War II, with Chanel feuding with business partners and even employing Nazi anti-Semitic laws to try to regain control of her company. At one point the creator of Chanel No. 5 even tried to destroy it. But Chanel No. 5 proved indestructible, a genie let out of a perfume bottle.

Chanel No. 5 became—and remains—the iconic luxury product it was designed to be, coveted by many. It has survived 90 years of turbulent world history as well as threats to its existence, image, original composition, and legacy. As Mazzeo writes, “Our participation ... has made Chanel No. 5 a perfume with a life of its own.”

Diana McQueen

 For more than 90 years, Chanel’s signature fragrance has been seen as the most seductive fragrance for women, an industrial juggernaut that has dominated and outlasted countless would-be competitors. But why is a nearly century-old scent such an icon of luxury? Who is Coco Chanel and how did she pull this off?Colby English professor and cultural historian (see also The Widow Cliquot) Tilar Mazzeo deftly tells the story of the perfume and its creator in her new book, The Secret of Chanel No 5. Mazzeo traces Chanel’s humble beginnings in a convent orphanage, her brief stint as an actress, and her time as mistress to a wealthy dilettante on the French Riviera. From this inauspicious beginning, the steel-willed and immensely ambitious Chanel emerged as a fashion celebrity and maven—and the businesswoman who created a perfume empire.


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