All my life I have used my sense of smell to define a memory, a person or a place in time. The scent of baby powder reminds me of my children as newborns, the smell of cut grass is a memory of my dad mowing the lawn on a summer morning, and the fragrance of yellow roses reminds me of a romantic husband who still surprises me with a bouquet for no particular reason.
I have had a long-term relationship with perfume since I was a child. My earliest recollection of fragrance was a perfume called Evening in Paris, with its rich floral, woody scent. I believe my grandmother used it. Who knew this would be the start of my love affair with Paris? The bottle was cobalt blue with a silver cap and the packaging included Parisian landmarks. You could find it everywhere, from the cosmetic counter in the local department store to the local five and dime.
Created in the twenties, Evening in Paris symbolized the roaring era of flapper fashion and luxury, and in the forties, it gave added anticipation to returning World War II soldiers. By the fifties it was considered to be the fragrance more women wore than any other in the world.
As a teenager in the sixties, I was given a bottle of 4711 Perfume by a boy who had brought it back from Germany while on a vacation with his family. Its unisex citrus and light floral scent was perfect for the days of miniskirts and fascination with Twiggy. Perfume became the "it" gift from this same boy when one Christmas, he gave me a bottle of Heaven Sent. The tag line was "suddenly, you are all of the things that you want to be, a little bit naughty, but heavenly . . . with Heaven Sent." It was launched in 1936, and described as feminine: floral, apple blossom, mandarin, lily of the valley and sandalwood. That same boy is still giving me perfume almost 40 years later, but has had a difficult time finding Heaven Sent.
My first management job in retail was in cosmetics in a department store. I became acquainted with hundreds of brands of perfume. This was at about the same time that celebrity endorsements and spokes models changed the industry. In 1974, model Lauren Hutton became the Revlon Girl, and Shelly Hack, wearing "new" designer Ralph Lauren, created an image of the liberated woman with the brand Charlie.
In the nineties celebrity endorsement became the norm. Successful campaigns started with models, and then with movie stars when Elizabeth Taylor started her own perfume company. The concept continues to translate movie glamour into fragrance.
While I continued to experiment with fragrance, my mother’s consistent choice was Chanel No.5. Created with the help of Ernest Beaux, famed fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel launched Chanel No.5 in 1922. She named it to coincide with her usual launch of a couture collection on the 5th day of the 5th month. It was designed as the scent of a woman, rather than the scent of a flower bouquet. Today’s famous bottle was designed by Jean Helleau, while the original was produced by Brosse glasswork in the image of a travel set owned by Coco’s lover, who later died in a car accident. Through the years Chanel No.5 has been represented by stars, from Marilyn Monroe, who answered the question "What do I wear to bed? Why, Chanel No.5, of course!" to Nicole Kidman, who starred in a movie commercial in 2004, directed by Baz Luhrmann, entitled “No.5, the Film.” Andy Warhol made the fragrance a pop sensation when he made nine silk screens of the bottle. Recently there have been several films that have highlighted Coco’s career and given insight into the strength of the designer, who continues to influence generations.
The company estimates that a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold, worldwide, every 55 seconds. It has been available for almost a hundred years, and is considered the world’s most legendary perfume.
In my mind, my mother’s glamour matched Chanel No. 5’s fragrance. During my childhood she had platinum blonde hair, false eye lashes, stylish clothes, and her special fragrance. She definitely wasn’t the mother next door. Mom is nearing ninety; still bleaching her hair and using Chanel. She lives on the other side of the country, but all I have to do is spray myself with her signature scent to feel her near me. The power of perfume is indeed heaven sent.