Coco Chanel had wanted to develop a distinctly modern fragrance for some time by early 1920. At this time, Chanel's lover was Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov of Russia, the murderer of Rasputin. The duke introduced her to Ernest Beaux on the French Riviera. Beaux was the master perfumer at A. Rallet and Company, where he had been employed since 1898. The company was the official perfumer to the Russian royal family, and "the imperial palace at St. Petersburg was a famously perfumed court."The favorite scent of the Czarina Alexandra, composed specifically for her by Rallet in Moscow, had been an eau de cologne opulent with rose and jasmine named Rallet O-DE-KOLON No.1 Vesovoi.
In 1912, Beaux created a men's eau de cologne, Le Bouquet de Napoleon, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, a decisive battle in the Napoleonic Wars. The success of this men's fragrance inspired Beaux to create a feminine counterpart, whose jumping off point was the chemical composition of aldehydic multiflores in Houbigant's immensely popular Quelques Fleurs (1912).
His experiments with the aldehydes in Quelques Fleurs, resulted in a fragrance that he called Le Bouquet de Catherine. He intended to use the scent to inaugurate another celebration in 1913, the 300th anniversary of the Romanoff dynasty. The debut of this new perfume proved ill-timed commercially. World War I was approaching, and the czarina and the perfume's namesake, the Empress Catherine, had both been German-born. A marketing misfortune that invoked unpopular associations, combined with the fact that Le Bouquet de Catherine was enormously expensive, made it a commercial failure. An attempt to re-brand the perfume, as Rallet No. 1 was unsuccessful, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 effectively prevented public acceptance of the brand.
Beaux, who had affiliated himself with the Allies and the White Russian army, had spent 1917–19 as a lieutenant stationed far north, in the last arctic outpost of the continent, Arkangelsk, at Mudyug Island Prison where he interrogated Bolshevik prisoners. The polar ice, frigid seascape, and whiteness of the snowy terrain sparked his desire to capture the crisp fragrance of this landscape into a new perfume compound.
Beaux perfected what was to become Chanel No. 5 over several months in the late summer and autumn of 1920. He worked from the rose and jasmine base of Rallet No. 1. altering it to make it cleaner, more daring, reminiscent of the pristine polar freshness he had inhabited during his war years. He experimented with modern synthetics, adding his own invention "Rose E. B" and notes derived from a new jasmine source, a commercial ingredient called Jasophore. The revamped, complex formula also ramped up the quantities of orris-iris-root and natural musks.
The revolutionary key was Beaux's use of aldehydes. Aldehydes are organic compounds of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They are manipulated in the laboratory at crucial stages of chemical reaction whereby the process arrests and isolates the scent. When used creatively, aldehydes act as "seasonings", an aroma booster. Beaux's student, Constantin Weriguine, said the aldehyde Beaux used had the clean note of the arctic, "a melting winter note". Legend has it that this wondrous concoction was the inadvertent result of a laboratory mishap. A laboratory assistant, mistaking a full strength mixture for a ten percent dilution, had jolted the compound with a dose of aldehyde in quantity never before used. Beaux prepared ten glass vials for Chanel's inspection. Numbered 1–5 then 20–24, the gap presented the core May rose, jasmine and aldehydes in two complementary series, each group a variation of the compound. "Number five. Yes," Chanel said later, "that is what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman."
Chanel envisioned a design that would be an antidote for the over-elaborate, precious fussiness of the crystal fragrance bottles then in fashion popularized by Lalique and Baccarat. Her bottle would be "pure transparency ...an invisible bottle." It is generally considered that the bottle design was inspired by the rectangular beveled lines of the Charvet toiletry bottles, which, outfitted in a leather traveling case, were favored by her lover, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Some say it was the whiskey decanter he used that she admired and wished to reproduce in "exquisite, expensive, delicate glass."
The first bottle produced in 1919, differed from the Chanel No. 5 bottle known today. The original container had small, delicate, rounded shoulders and was sold only in Chanel boutiques to select clients. In 1924, when "Parfums Chanel" incorporated, the glass proved too thin to sustain shipping and distribution. This is the point in time when the only significant design change took place. The bottle was modified with square, faceted corners.
In a marketing brochure issued in 1924, "Parfums Chanel" described the vessel, which contained the fragrance: "the perfection of the product forbids dressing it in the customary artifices. Why rely on the art of the glassmaker ...Mademoiselle is proud to present simple bottles adorned only by ...precious teardrops of perfume of incomparable quality, unique in composition, revealing the artistic personality of their creator."
Unlike the bottle, which has remained the same since redesigned in 1924, the stopper has gone through numerous modifications. The original stopper was a small glass plug. The octagonal stopper, which became a brand signature, was instituted in 1924, when the bottle shape was changed. The 1950s gave the stopper a bevel cut and a larger, thicker silhouette. In the 1970s the stopper became even more prominent but, in 1986, it was re-proportioned so its size was more harmonious with the scale of the bottle.
The "pocket flacon" devised to be carried in the purse was introduced in 1934. The price point and container size were developed to appeal to a broader customer base. It represented an aspirational purchase, to appease the desire for a taste of exclusivity in those who found the cost of the larger bottle prohibitive.
The bottle, over decades, has itself become an identifiable cultural artifact, so much so that Andy Warhol chose to commemorate its iconic status in the mid-1980s with his pop art, silk-screen, Ads: Chanel.
Ernest Beaux was born in Moscow, Russia, the brother of Edouard Beaux, who worked for Alphonse Rallet & Co. of Moscow, then the foremost Russian perfume house and purveyor to the Imperial courts. In 1898, A. Rallet and Company, with approximately 1500 employees and 675 products, was sold to the French perfume house, Chiris of La Bocca.
Ernest completed his primary education that same year, and from 1898–1900 apprenticed as laboratory technician in the soap works of Rallet. After his obligatory two years of military service in France, he returned to Moscow in 1902, where he started his perfumery training at Rallet under the guidance of their technical director, A. Lemercier. He finished his perfumery education in 1907, earned a promotion to senior perfumer, and was elected to the board of directors.
In 1912 Russia celebrated the centennial of the Battle of Borodino, the turning point in Napoleon's Russian ambitions. For this celebration Ernest Beaux created the fragrance "Bouquet de Napoleon," a floral Eau de Cologne, for Rallet. It proved to be a major commercial success.
The following year, 1913, marked the tercentenary of the founding of the Romanov dynasty. To follow up on his "Bouquet de Napoleon" success, Ernest Beaux created a now lost fragrance, the "Bouquet de Catherine", honoring Catherine the Great. This fragrance is not to be confused with a fragrance from Brocard, Rallet's chief competitor in Russia called "The Empress's Favorite Bouquet", which later evolved into the Soviet version, "Red Moscow."
Bouquet de Catherine was not a marketing success, perhaps due to Catherine the Great's German heritage at a time of rising tensions between Russia and Germany which would lead, in 1914, to World War I. While born and raised in Russia, Ernest Beaux's French heritage brought him into the French army. While it was generally expected that this war would last no more than a few months, he was not released from military service until 1919, having by this time seen service in the infantry fighting against Germany and then as an intelligence officer and interrogator at an Allied prison camp at the Kola Peninsula at the Murmansk Oblast during the Russian Civil War.
While serving in the French military, Ernest Beaux's perfumer colleagues at Rallet fled during Russia's October Revolution to La Bocca, France, to continue working with Chiris.In 1919 Ernest Beaux, released now from the army, settled in Paris but continued to have a relationship with the former Rallet employees at La Boca.
Chanel No. 5
In 1912, Ernest Beaux married Iraïde de Schoenaich (1881-1961), who gave birth to their son, Edouard[ (1913-1993), the following year. During the Russian Civil War, Iraïde escaped from Russia through Finland with her infant son. They reached France by sea following a dangerous two-month-long voyage, during which time Iraïde fell deeply in love with another man. Ernest divorced her and took custody of their son, while Iraïde moved to Nice to work with her lover. Ernest later married Yvonne Girodon (1893-1980), with whom he had a daughter, Madeleine.
Coco Chanel and the N°5
At that time, Joseph Robert was the chief perfumer at Chiris. With little prospect of being promoted under him, Ernest Beaux tried to use his contacts to the emigrated Russian nobility to get new projects. In 1920, with the help of the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia (1891–1941), a companion of Coco Chanel (1883–1971), he arranged a meeting in Cannes late in the summer of 1920, where he presented his current and former works to Mlle. Chanel. Chanel chose the "No. 5" as a Christmas present for her best clients. When Ernest Beaux asked her how she wanted to name that scent, she replied: "I always launch my collection on the 5th day of the 5th months, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck – therefore, I will name it 'Nº 5'".
Initially only 100 flacons of Chanel Nº 5 were produced, which she gave away on Christmas 1921 for free to her best clients. However, soon the demand was such that she decided to launch the perfume officially for sale in her shops in 1922. That year she also launched a second fragrance from the two numbered series of bottles that Beaux had presented her, which were numbered one through five, and twenty through twenty-four: Chanel Nº 22, the bottle no. 22 from the second series. However, since this didn't do as well as Nº 5, it was withdrawn and only relaunched in 1926.
Ernest Beaux left Chiris in 1922 to head a sales agency for his friend Eugene Charabot in Paris. However, Chanel Nº 5 did so well that Bader and Wertheimer, owners of Galeries Lafayette, bought the rights to it from Coco Chanel on April 4, 1924, and founded Parfums Chanel, for which they hired Ernest Beaux as chief perfumer. In his new function Ernest Beaux created many famous perfumes until he retired in 1954; his successor as chief perfumer of Perfumes Chanel was Henri Robert.