Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Ernest Beaux

Mr No 5 (among many others...) Ernest Beaux - 1920 - 1961

Asked to name the most famous perfumers of all time, it would be pretty safe to assume that Ernest Beaux would not appear on the list, and yet Marilyn Monroe slept with him every night.

She called it Chanel No5, but it was Beaux’s creation. He made a great many for Chanel, the most notable being Gardenia [the version Chanel sells under this name today smells nothing like Beaux’s original - EWB], Bois des Îsles, Cuir de Russie, and No22.

Having served his apprenticeship with the great French house, Rallet, in Moscow before the 1917 Revolution during which time he produced a toilet water in 1912, [Bouquet de Napoleon] to mark Napoleon’s centenary. He returned to France when revolution broke, and gave Chanel No5 in 1921.

Just how many amazing scents are down to Ernest Beaux is uncertain, but definite include the divine evocation of the incense at Notre Dame, Toujours Moi, for Corday, Kobako and Soir de Paris for Bourjois.

To be responsible for both the “classiest” scent in the world, and the “cheapest” is quite a distinction. Like a session-musician, he made other people look good, earned a decent amount, and went home.

Unknown, unsung, to live an ordinary anonymous life. Smiling a secret smile no doubt, each time he passed a woman wearing that scent on his way to the Mètro.

And if he was born to bloom unseen, no way did he waste his sweetness on the desert air.

Of course, to this day, very few perfumers create their own perfume. A brief is sent to one of several companies, all of which have their own house “Nose”. A selection is drawn up and submitted and one is chosen. Rather like certain Presidents who are submitted “multiple choice” solutions to world crises, and asked to tick which solution seems best by the Aides who, having done all the work, researched the issue, drawn up the possibilities, and reached certain conclusions; remain anonymous. The President takes either the glory or the blame. Minions everywhere decide the fate of the world.

Aides, however, do not get assassinated, session-musicians do not get slated in music papers, and “noses” do not risk $millions launching a new scent. So if they lose on the glory, they win on security.

Very often companies do not wait to be asked for a fragrance, they tout one about, unfortunately, very often several houses come up with the same one, which is why, despite minor adjustments, most scents we today seem to smell the same.

Noses are almost always men. There have been a couple of women, though. Notably Germaine Cellier who has given us Jolie Madame, Bandit, and Vent Vert; and Jacqueline Fraysse, who gave us Cassandra and Noir. Jeanne Lanvin’s daughter [the opera singer Marguerite di Pietro, later the Countess de Polignac] suggested a perfume for her mother’s fashion house, and chose Arpège, but that isn’t quite the same.

All five generations of Guerlains have created their own fragrances, but the Guerlains are the Guerlains, and one would expect nothing less.

Still the world's most popular scent: Chanel No5

If anyone was asked to name the most famous perfume in the world the odds-on favourite would have to be Chanel Number 5.

By 1971, 50 years after its creation in 1921, Chanel’s No5 had notched up $15,000,000 in profits alone, and continues to hold its lead as the number one choice of husbands and lovers at Christmas time, and at Duty Free shops world-wide.

Whatever the choice and no matter how limited the range, the average airline or ferry would not dare leave themselves with insufficient stock of the scent which Marilyn Monroe claimed to be the only thing she wore to bed.

Opinions vary as to how this classic scent came into being; some have ‘Coco’ Chanel to ill to choose a scent from the selection brought by her perfumer, asking a friend to wave the samples under her nose, and finally saying: “ça y va!” on the 5th.

It’s a nice story, but how does that explain numbers 1 and 2 which were on sale until at least 1929?

Another has François Coty as one of her lovers presenting it to her[i]. Coty certainly made a few adjustments and put it out as L’Aimant a few years later (but that may have been pure cheek rather than spite) and L’Aimant has been known as the “poor man’s Number 5” ever since.

Another story told by perfumers - who should know – has the great perfumer Ernest Beaux going off to lunch, leaving an assistant to make up the formula, returning to find that the assistant had misplaced a decimal point and added 10 times too much of one ingredient. On such decimal point, lives have been lost and fortunes made.

What is indisputable is that Chanel No5 is Ernest Beaux’s creation.

The idea of having a perfume at all instead of the usual colognes and toilet waters was Chanel’s friend, Misia Sert’s, who also found the classic [square-cut] bottle in which to put it.

If Chanel No5 is the top of the tree, then Soir de Paris (or Evening in Paris) by Bourjois has always been considered to be the bottom.

One of the cheapest scents available, solder over chain-store counters for pennies, first choice for children, pocket money clutched in hot little hands, to buy their mothers for birthdays and Christmas. The unmistakeable deep blue and silver bottle presented in every sort of container from owls to clocks, turtles to lamps, fans to shoes to doors to stars to street-lamps to cigarette boxes; even some in ordinary satin-lined boxes!

It was the scent for the poor, regarded as cheap and vulgar, and “not quite nice”.

It was the scent given by Jean Gabin to Michèle Morgan in “Quai des Brumes”, representing not just their love, but also their poverty.

And yet there is nothing more evocative than that distinctive blue bottle with the silver trim designed after the racing colours of the Wertheimer brothers[ii], and nothing more guaranteed to turn otherwise sophisticated ladies misty-eyed, than that reunion with the uniquely timeless carnation of their youth: for if they are honest, most of them have to confess that “Evening in Paris” was their first ‘grown-up’ scent.

So what can Chanel’s No5 and Bourjois’ Evening in Paris possibly have in common? Like twins separated at birth, one destine to live at the manor house, surrounded by servants, the other sent to the workhouse, they share a common parentage: Ernest Beaux created them both.

Chanel No5 and Bourjois’ Soir de Paris, two opposite sides of the market, one symbolising luxury, the other poverty, share a common father.

And if No5 had been sold at Woolworth’s and Evening in Paris in salons, what then? Is champagne no longer champagne if sold in lemonade bottles? Does a rose no longer smell like a rose if it is called a dandelion? Like the ‘Colonel’s Lady and Kitty O’Grady’, Chanel No5 and Soir de Paris are sisters under the skin.

If a final irony were needed [at the time of writing], Bourjois have now owned Parfums Chanel for over a quarter of a century.

Sally Blake
Date unknown

[i] It’s a pleasant story, but Coco’s preferences were not for men – even François Coty. The simple truth is that Ernest Beaux who created No5, went on to work for Coty.
[ii] “The Wertheimer brothers backed Chanel from the beginning.” Guy Robert in conversation with Sally Blake – 22 November 1990.