Wednesday May 5, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Chanel No. 5

On this Day:

In 1921, Perfume Chanel No. 5 was released by fashion designer Coco Chanel.

Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume launched by French couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in 1921. The scent formula for the fragrance was compounded by French-Russian chemist and perfumer Ernest Beaux. The design of its bottle has been an important part of the product’s allure. Coco Chanel was the first face of the fragrance, appearing in the advertisement published by Harper’s Bazaar in 1937.

Traditionally, fragrances worn by women fell into two basic categories. “Respectable women” favored the essence of a single garden flower while sexually provocative indolic perfumes heavy with animal musk or jasmine were associated with women of the demi-monde, prostitutes, or courtesans. Chanel sought a new scent that would appeal to the flapper and celebrate the seemingly liberated feminine spirit of the 1920s.

At the age of twelve, Chanel was handed over to the care of nuns, and for the next six years spent a stark, disciplined existence in a convent orphanage, Aubazine, founded by 12th-century Cistercians in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of central France. From her earliest days there, the number five had potent associations for her. For Chanel, the number five was especially esteemed as signifying the pure embodiment of a thing, its spirit, its mystic meaning. The paths that led Chanel to the cathedral for daily prayers were laid out in circular patterns repeating the number five.

Her affinity for the number five co-mingled with the abbey gardens, and by extension the lush surrounding hillsides abounding with Cistus (rock roses).

In 1920, when presented with small glass vials containing sample scents numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24 for her assessment, she chose the fifth vial. Chanel told her master perfumer, Ernest Beaux, whom she had commissioned to develop a new fragrance, “I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck.”

In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the perfume house Bourjois, creating a new corporate entity, Parfums Chanel. The Wertheimers agreed to manage production, marketing, and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive a 70 percent share of the company, and Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette, would receive 20 percent. Bader had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at the Longchamps races in 1922. For 10 percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Later, unhappy with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel. She said that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me”.

World War II brought with it the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property and businesses, providing Chanel with the opportunity to gain control of Parfums Chanel and its most profitable product, Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers were Jewish, and Chanel used her position as an “Aryan” to petition German officials to legalize her right to sole ownership.

On 5 May 1941, Chanel wrote to the government administrator charged with ruling on the disposition of Jewish financial assets. Her grounds for proprietary ownership were based on the claim that Parfums Chanel “is still the property of Jews” and had been legally “abandoned” by the owners.

I have an indisputable right of priority … the profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business … are disproportionate … [and] you can help to repair in part the prejudices I have suffered in the course of these seventeen years.

Chanel was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi confiscations, had, in May 1940, legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist Felix Amiot. At the end of World War II, Amiot returned Parfums Chanel to the Wertheimers.

By the mid-1940s, the worldwide sales of Chanel No. 5 amounted to nine million dollars annually. The monetary stakes were high and Chanel was determined to wrest control of Parfums Chanel from the Wertheimers. Chanel’s plan was to destroy customer confidence in the brand, tarnish the image, crippling its marketing and distribution. She let it be known that Chanel No. 5 was no longer the original fragrance created by “Mademoiselle Chanel”, it was no longer being compounded according to her standards and what was now being offered to the public was an inferior product, one she could no longer endorse. Further, Chanel announced she would make available an authentic Chanel No. 5, to be named “Mademoiselle Chanel No. 5”, offered to a group of select clients.

Chanel possibly was unaware that the Wertheimers, who had fled from France to New York in 1940, had instituted a process whereby the quality of Chanel No. 5 would not be compromised. In America the Wertheimers had recruited H. Gregory Thomas as European emissary for Parfums Chanel. Thomas’s mission was to establish the mechanisms required to maintain the quality of the Chanel products, particularly its most profitable fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Thomas worked to ensure that the supply of key components, the oils of jasmine and tuberose, obtained exclusively from the fields of the valley of Siagne above the French town of Grasse, remained uninterrupted by war. Thomas was later promoted to position as president of Chanel US, a position he held for thirty-two years.

Chanel escalated her game plan by instigating a lawsuit against Parfums Chanel and the Wertheimers. The legal battle garnered wide publicity. The New York Times reported on 3 June 1946:

The suit asks that the French parent concern [Les Parfums Chanel] be ordered to cease manufacture and sale of all products bearing the name and restore to her the ownership and sole rights over the products, formulas and manufacturing process [on grounds of] “inferior quality”.

The Wertheimers were aware of Chanel’s collaboration during the Nazi occupation. Forbes magazine summarized the Wertheimers’ dilemma: “[Pierre Wertheimer worries that] a legal fight might illuminate Chanel’s wartime activities and wreck her image—and his business”.

Ultimately, the Wertheimers and Chanel came to an agreement, re-negotiating the original 1924 contract. On 17 May 1947, Chanel received her share of the wartime profits of Chanel No. 5. Post-war, her share was two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. Her earnings were in the vicinity of US$25 million a year, making her at the time one of the richest women in the world. The new arrangement also gave Chanel the freedom to create new scents, which would be independent of Parfums Chanel, with the proviso that none would contain the number 5 in its name. She never acted on this opportunity.

Chanel’s initial marketing strategy was to generate buzz for her new fragrance by hosting a promotional event. She invited a group of elite friends to dine with her in an elegant restaurant in Grasse where she surprised and delighted her guests by spraying them with Chanel No. 5. The official launch place and date of Chanel No. 5 was in her rue Cambon boutique in the fifth month of the year, on the fifth day of the month: 5 May 1921. She infused the shop’s dressing rooms with the scent, and she gave bottles to a select few of her high society friends. The success of Chanel No. 5 was immediate. Chanel’s friend Misia Sert exclaimed: “It was like a winning lottery ticket.”

In April 1952, Marilyn Monroe appeared for the first time on the cover of Life, and the article mentions her answer to the question, “What do you wear to bed?” and her reply, “Chanel No. 5.” In a photo shoot for an article by Sidney Skolsky in Modern Screen in 1953, a Chanel No. 5 bottle is seen on her nightstand (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Why did Coco Chanel sue a company which came out with its own “No. 5” perfume?

She thought it was a fragrant violation of the law.

Second, a Song:

OK, I know this is an ad for Chanel No. 5, but what an ad!

“I’m a Fool to Want You” is a 1951 song composed by Frank Sinatra, Jack Wolf, and Joel Herron. Frank Sinatra co-wrote the lyrics and released the song as a Columbia Records single. The song has become a pop and jazz standard that has been recorded by more than 100 other performers. Frank Sinatra first recorded the song with the Ray Charles Singers on March 27, 1951, in an arrangement by Axel Stordahl in New York. It was the second song recorded at the sessions that began with “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and ended with “Love Me”. He recorded a second version at the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood on May 1, 1957, arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins, which was released in 1957 on the album Where Are You? This album was Sinatra’s first stereo recording. 

This video follows the romantic paths of Audrey Tautou and Travis Davenport on a night train to Istanbul and is directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.  Music is: “I’m a Fool to Want You”, here performed by Billie Holiday (per and Wikipedia). I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” – Coco Chanel

In response to the Old Man & The Sea Smile, Sandy Weames of Campbell River, BC, Canada writes:

“Thanks David,

I was in two of Hemingway’s favourite spots in both Key West and Havana. 

He surely made an impact in both places. 

Sadly his demons took over him.

Lovely video as well. 

The Old man & the Sea is such an iconic classic.”


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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