How Chanel No. 5 was inspired by the odor of the Arctic Circle

Jun 19, 2021
How Chanel No. 5 was inspired by the odor of the Arctic Circle

Coco Chanel stood in a laboratory in France, sniffing a series of perfume formulations while her face remained expressionless.

It was the summer of 1920, and the French couturier was looking to launch her first signature fragrance. The mission led her to Cannes, where she’d heard a Russian expat named Ernest Beaux was experimenting with cutting-edge scents.

Upon meeting, Beaux presented Chanel with 10 different perfume vials, and she inhaled each one without comment. When she finished, she looked up.

“Number five,” she said decisively.

Launched on May 5, 1921, Chanel No. 5 would go on to become the most celebrated perfume in history. Marilyn Monroe once quipped that she wore nothing but “a few drops of Chanel No. 5” to bed, and the fragrance’s worldwide dominance helped make its namesake one of the wealthiest women in France. But the formula itself has a surprisingly rich and political history, as told in the new book “The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow” (Polity Press), out now, by Karl Schlögel.

Ernest Beaux fled Russia after the Bolsheviks’ revolution and brought his scent to Coco Chanel.
Ernest Beaux fled Russia after the Bolsheviks’ revolution and brought his scent to Coco Chanel.
Alamy

Beaux was a second-generation master perfumer who had been developing scents professionally since 1902. At first, he worked for his father, who was head perfumer at A. Rallet & Co. — the official purveyor to the Romanov dynasty — but he succeeded him quickly. Born in Moscow in 1881, Beaux grew up during what Schlögel describes as “the golden age of Russian perfumery and cosmetics,” due to immense concentrations of wealth in the country’s thriving urban centers.

But that was about to change. During World War I, Beaux left to fight alongside the French in Europe. When he returned home, the Russian Revolution — in which the Bolsheviks overthrew the monarchy — had begun.

Under the new regime, luxury products were despised for their associations with the uber-rich, and “perfume was branded the very epitome of a bourgeois lifestyle,” Schlögel writes. Beaux, knowing his life was in danger for having worked for the newly deposed — and executed — Romanov family, fled back to France.

He took a perilous route, “crossing the snowy tundra of the Kola Peninsula inside the Arctic Circle,” Schlögel writes. Difficult as it was, the journey also inspired something in Beaux. The crisp odor of the frozen desert landscape stuck with him: “In the northern countries of Europe, beyond the Arctic Circle . . . when the lakes and rivers exude a particular freshness,” Beaux explained in a speech he gave in 1946. “I always remembered this characteristic smell.”

A mixture of jasm ine and other florals with the snowy aldehydes of the Arctic Circle was the inspiration for Chanel No. 5.
A mixture of jasmine and other florals with the snowy aldehydes of the Arctic Circle was the inspiration for Chanel No. 5.
Alamy

When he arrived in France and set up his laboratory, Beaux set out, quite literally, to bottle it.

The Scent of Empires

In Russia, he’d been experimenting with aldehydes: chemical compounds that are released in the process of oxidation, that “intensify the aromas of a perfume and trigger reactions in the nervous system,” Schlögel writes. Because Beaux had such a powerful nose, he knew he smelled aldehydes in the Arctic snow.

The formula he created after escaping Russia — and that Coco Chanel ultimately chose — was a mixture of jasmine and other floral notes, along with aldehydes, which gave it “the stark aroma of snow and meltwater.” The latter distinguished it from previous big-name perfumes, with a distinctly modern flair that was ultimately reflected in the chic, minimalist design of the Chanel No. 5 bottle.

Chanel later described it as “what I was waiting for . . . a perfume like nothing else.”

After she chose the scent, Beaux asked her what it should be called.

“I present the dress collection on the fifth day of the fifth month, meaning in May,” the designer replied.

“So leave the perfume with the number it already has. The number 5 will bring it success.”

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