Secrets of No. 5

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There once was an orphan girl who lived in Aubazine, a convent abbey in southwestern France. She spent her days with her two sisters, reading novels about romance of ladies and gentlemen in high society. The girls of the abbey were to become nuns when they came of age at 18, but this girl longed to live in Paris. Unknown to her at that time, she would create an iconic perfume that would achieve worldwide recognition. Her name is Gabrielle Chanel.

Upon moving to Paris, Gabrielle’s wish was to become a famous showgirl actress. She acquired the name Coco through the two songs that came to be her signature numbers, “Qui qu’a vu Coco” and “Ko Ko Ri Ko”. However she was not particularly talented in her singing so instead, she became a mistress of Etienne Balsan, a rich officer. At the apex of the Etienne’s mistress hierarchy was a courtesan by the name of Emilienne. Coco admired Emilienne, who “never smelled like a courtesan”. There was a clear distinction between the scents of call girls and high class ladies. The former used aromas such as jasmine and musk, which were strongly sensual, while the latter preferred clean and gentle scents such as roses.

Coco knew she could never survive as a mere mistress and requested that Etienne allow her to open a hat shop, which was almost an instant success. Though he wouldn’t finance the expansion of her store, Etienne’s friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel, was willing. With the expansion of her store, Coco was making a name for herself in high society. By the time Boy had died in a tragic accident, Coco had experienced enough success to live comfortably. But Coco was ambitious. She envisioned creating a signature perfume to blur the lines of call girls and proper ladies – something clean but also sensual. Since she had no experience with creating perfume, she turned to books for understanding of the way scents are created and hired Ernest Beaux to bring her vision to life.

He placed 10 vials in front of her based on her instruction. As she smelled each one in turn, she pulled the fifth one aside. That was the one she wanted! She showed it off with her new collection and it became an instant success. Today, Chanel No. 5 is the world’s bestselling perfume and arguably the most coveted product of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Ambition was Coco’s best friend. She once said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” If she decided to follow the norm, Chanel No. 5 would never have been created and she would have lived and died as a peasant girl. No one could’ve foreseen the distance Gabrielle has gone to become Coco. It all started when Gabrielle went to Paris. It all started with a dream.

 Roseanna Chu
Boston College
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