BERLIN — “The Scent of Empires,” a book written by German historian Karl Schlögel, sets out to distill 20th-century history into two iconic perfumes: Chanel No.5 and its Stalinist twin, Red Moscow.
That is the essence of the 200-page tome, recently published by Hanser, which explores the great divide between the East and West caused by the Russian Revolution, the fates of two women — Gabrielle Chanel and Polina Zhemchuzhina, who headed the Soviet cosmetics trust in the Thirties and helped popularize Red Moscow — and narrates the perfumes’ stories, which sometimes have surprising and bemusing entanglements.
When Ernest Beaux, former chief perfumer at A. Rallet & Co. in Imperial Russia, fled the October Revolution in 1917, he brought his earlier compositions for the Bouquet de Napoleon and Bouquet de l’Impératrice Catherine scents to Grasse, France. Based on them, he created new fragrances adapted to the French market. Through his connection to Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, Beaux met Chanel in 1921 and presented her with a batch of 10 samples. She chose No.5, and changed the course of modern perfumery.
Lesser-known is how No.5’s Soviet counterpart, Red Moscow, or Krasnaya Moskva, came to be. While Beaux went to France, perfumer Auguste Michel stayed behind. Like Beaux had been, the Frenchman was Alexandre Lemercier’s student at A. Rallet & Co. and the contemporaries likely knew each other. Michel later joined chief competitor Brocard & Co., where he created Bouquet Préféré de l’Impératrice, launched at the same time and with an almost identical scent to Bouquet de l’Impératrice Catherine.
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While Chanel No.5 began its commercial conquest in the West, Soviet Russia’s former perfumery giants were nationalized and turned into hygiene product suppliers. In an ironic twist, Brocard became “state soap factory no.5” before being renamed Novaya Zarya, or New Dawn. That plant relaunched Bouquet Préféré de l’Impératrice as Red Moscow in 1927.
“The Scent of Empires” is slated for release in English by Polity Books in two years.