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102 Years of Roses and Jasmine

Updated: Sep 16


I was in Normandy a few months ago, walking along a side street in Deauville after dinner and came upon a shop window displaying a poster of Coco Chanel – it was the window of a rented shop between the casino and the Hotel Normandy. The sign is a sketch of COCO CHANEL-- memorializing her first boutique.


Her beginnings were definitely not glamourous, born in the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley, she was born into poverty and sent to a Catholic orphanage at 11, when her mother died. At 18 when she left the Cistercian convent at Aubazine, she took along her valuable lessons in sewing and worked as a seamstress. Shortly there after, she was financed to open a Millinery shop in Paris.


In 1913 she was involved at the time with English aristocrat Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel, who kept his polo ponies for the season in Deauville. Her new casual outfits of extreme simplicity and comfort caught on with the more active lifestyle of the resort. Thus Boy, financed Chanel’s expansion into clothing and the creation of boutiques in Deauville and then in Biarritz in 1915. Her success allowed Chanel to repay Capel all of his initial investment and continued with genuine success. Her shop at 31 rue Cambon is still, today the headquarters for the Chanel Empire.

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During the late summer of 1920 Chanel went on holiday on the Cote d'Azur with her then lover the Grand Duke Dimtri Pavlovich. There she learned of a perfumer, a sophisticated and well-read character called Ernest Beaux who had worked for the Russian royal family and lived close by in Grasse, the center of the perfume industry. Beaux was a curious and daring craftsman. It was then that she had the idea to create a scent that could describe the modern woman she epitomized - it was important to her that it imbue freshness. It took him several months to perfect a new fragrance, but eventually he came up with 10 samples and presented them to Chanel. They were numbered one to five and 20 to 24. She picked number five!


Chanel later said, "It was what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman." The scent, saturated with jasmine, rose, sandalwood and vanilla, was an instant success, partly due to some of Coco's ingenious marketing tricks. She invited Beaux and friends to a popular upmarket restaurant on the Riviera to celebrate and decided to spray the perfume around the table. Each woman that passed stopped and asked what the fragrance was and where it came from? That was the first moment that anybody in the public smelled Chanel No. 5 and it literally stopped them in their tracks.


In the 20's, Gabrielle Chanel was experiencing dizzying heights of success and she firmly reigned over Parisian fashion by imposing her singular concept of elegance on Paris and across the world. And soon she was living the high life with a series of successful boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz with the money was rolling in, so she bought Villa Pausa in Roquebrune on the south coast of France. To top that off, Coco would drive around in her own blue Rolls Royce as a woman of true independence.


Accurately described, Chanel’s fashion house had become a true icon of the fashion world. In the 30s she launch her jewelry collection and went on to Hollywood at the request of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who ran United Artists. He believed that women went to the movies to see the way the women dressed. Goldwyn was looking for new ways to bring in moviegoers—especially women. Chanel’s classic designs on the silver screen weren’t a huge triumph, but her name became synonymous with chic glamour.


In the beginning of WWll Chanel carried on, but when Paris was occupied by the Nazis in 1939, Chanel moved to the opulent Ritz hotel and closed her businesses, except for the small shop that sold her perfume and accessories. I had read biographies about Chanel, but when I read The Parisians by Marilus Gabriel, I was dumbfounded. I continued to research the accusations and now understood why Ms. Chanel retired to Switzerland for 10 years. There was more than a hint of collaboration and Nazi lovers. Lucky for her, she had some friends in high places, that kept things under wraps. She did not return to Paris until 1954 to re-launch her fashion house and she was already 71 years old.


No excuse, but I have always loved the scent of Chanel No. 5 and find it dreamy on several friends, but it never stayed on me. Everyone is different. But the Chanel No. 5 aroma of the roses and jasmine transports you to a lush garden. And more than hundred years later it is still one of the top selling perfumes around the world.


Chanel fragrances are also playing an active role in protecting the legendary heritage of flower production in Grasse. In 1978 Jacques Polge, the head Perfumer made a first of it’s kind partnership with the Mul family, the largest flower producer in Grasse area to insure that the rare heritage roses were available for Chanel. The composition of the No.5 perfume extract, a 30ml bottle of the N°5 Extract contains 1,000 jasmine flowers and 12 May rose flowers. Even today, Joseph Mul and his family have exclusively grown flowers for Chanel in Pégomas, France. The type of rose used is called the Rosa centifolia, which is known for its "cabbage" and multi-pedaled look and the fact that they produce a smell similar to that of honey.


Today, sadly when you visit Grasse you will be told most Perfumers use synthetic oils, but not Chanel!


At the liberation in Paris, a line of American soldiers could be found snaking along the Chanel boutique on rue Cambon to ensure that they had a bottle to bring home to their wives. Wonder what they would have thought, if they knew the true story of Coco Chanel.





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