Reading Aloud: The Secret of Chanel No. 5

The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume

The author, Tiller J. Mazzeo, makes the objective of the novel clear: this is not the biography of Coco Chanel.

This is the story of her creation that would exceed her expectations for success. The magical scent contained in a simple pharmaceutical flask.

Over time, the bottle would go under changes. The original bottle had rounded edges, but in an effort to be more streamlined, the edges became perfectly linear. The material changed from crystal to a hardier glass. These changes also represent the transformation of Coco herself. Working in competitive perfume and fashion industries hardened Coco into an assertive visionary.

Chanel sold her perfume to the Wertheimer brothers shortly after releasing it. Had she known that No. 5 would become a cultural icon, she would have undoubtedly kept the rights to it. Chanel fought for decades to win back the perfume by attempting to amend the contract between her and the Wertheimer brothers–she wanted to renegotiate her 10% share in Chanel Perfumes Co. compared to the Wertheimers’ 70% share.

Chanel would have succeeded in gaining control during World War II if not for the Wertheimer’s idea to temporarily put an acquaintance in charge while the brothers fled to the United States.

The best trivia to be taken away from this novel is that Chanel No. 5 was produced in Hoboken, New Jersey during World War II. A business associate managed to bring over the signature jasmine from the plantations Grasse, France and maintain the authenticity and quality of Chanel No. 5. Meanwhile, in Europe, Chanel had taken a Nazi officer as a lover and traveled to Berlin to initiate peace talks.

During the war, soldiers–German and American– stationed in Paris would wait outside 31 rue Cambon to purchase bottles of Chanel No. 5 for their girlfriends or wives back home.

As Chanel the designer and visionaire disappeared from view, her perfume only grew more popular. By the time World War II ended, Chanel No. 5 was a luxury commodity every woman wanted. It had come to symbolize hope that normalcy would return to their lives–and things did turn back around. The development of the middle class in the United States brought consumerism to a whole new level as people began to yearn for fine, foreign luxury.

Even as the war, the lawsuits, and the people came and went, Chanel No. 5 remained as a permanent haunting in Coco’s life. The Chanel No. 5 epidemic was out of Coco’s hands no matter how hard she tried to ruin the perfume’s reputation. It was only until her old age that she could learn to accept her loss as a woman and a designer.

Chanel No. 5 symbolizes lasting glamour. Eternal beauty. One woman’s loss.

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A Francophile based in coastal New England

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