At last, in mid-August, Coco hears from Ernest Beaux. The perfume samples are ready for inspection. Exchanging childishly solemn promises with Igor, she takes off almost immediately, traveling first class by train down to the south.
There are scores of perfumers in the town of Grasse. The whole region reeks with sweetness, flavoring the landscape for miles around. Just as it attracts many people out of curiosity, though, so many blameless residents have also left the town. Not everyone enjoys the olfactory onslaught that assails the houses night and day. A cloud of cloying odors hangs in a permanent pall over the streets, stretching in an invisible film over the roofscapes. There is little wind to relieve the region. And when a freshening breeze blows in from the coast, it is only so that a new wave of fragrances can waft across the town again.
Coco detects this compound of aromas as she alights from the train. She feels excited that, from this mixture of odors, there might be isolated and distilled a single ribbon of scent that will be bottled and bear her name. She’s always dreamed of having her own fragrance, of sending her signature into the world in this way.
But steady. She’s getting ahead of herself. There’s a lot of hard work ahead of her first.
The next morning, she stands outside Beaux’s perfumery with its square window and unfussy façade. Nervously she consults a piece of paper, making sure the address written there corresponds with that of the shop in front of her. It does. The shop bell clangs loudly. The reverberation continues long after its last note leaves the air.
A man emerges from the back and stands behind the counter. “Madame?”
“I’m looking for Monsieur Ernest Beaux.”
“How can I help you?”
“My name is Gabrielle Chanel.”
The man’s demeanor changes from that of an obliging shopkeeper to that of a humble subject about to meet his queen. Lifting the hinge of the counter, Beaux walks through to greet her. They shake hands with equal strength and for slightly longer than is necessary.
Like Igor, Beaux is a Russian émigré from St. Petersburg and, Coco notices, he speaks French with the same clipped accent.
“This way, if you please.”
He ushers her behind the counter and steers her into the laboratory at the rear of the shop. He is grayer in appearance than Coco had expected. She’d naïvely imagined her perfumer to be a brilliant young man. A paterfamilias beard luxuriates around his broad jaw. His eyes are bloodshot with overwork. But she notes with pleasure his clean hands. A wedding ring glistens on one of his spatulate fingers.
Beaux notes, conversely, that Coco is younger than he had thought, and much prettier, too. He is struck by her professional air and determined manner, her understated good looks.
Coco is dazzled by the whiteness of the lab. For a moment, she’s almost snow-blind. But the sensation does not dominate for long. Immediately she’s overcome by the perfumes as they rush at her from all corners. A fabulous amalgam of scents. She feels queasy, experiencing these interwoven aromas for the first time.
She sits down and looks about her. A continuous wooden surface runs seamlessly around the room. On one side lies a set of burners, flasks, and agitating devices. Here, two white-coated assistants bend low over their retorts and swill liquids in glass beakers. On another, measuring glasses rest next to funnels; pestles and mortars share a space with spoons and rods. Coco approves of this careful taxonomy. She likes the fact that he’s systematic. She’s reassured, too, by the white, germless surfaces.
Opposite, a broad shelf is laden with glass jars. Coco takes a mental inventory. Each container is labeled in black ink: alcohol, volatile oils, and fats in different combinations, plus a liquefied series of natural and artificial odors. A complete lexicon of differentiated scents: ambergris, camphor, frangipani, jasmine, musk, neroli, sandalwood, and violet—scents distilled from southern Europe and the Middle East. The collected sweat of the gods.
Coco asks, “Do you extract the essences yourself?”
“We don’t have space. It’s an industrial process now. We buy them in already refined. Besides, the way you extract the scents is not so important.” Beaux’s voice lowers, hinting at the possession of diabolical knowledge. “It’s how you combine them that counts.”
He moves around the laboratory like a celebrated chef in his kitchen, assembling all the flacons he has prepared for Chanel. She recognizes his ability to pick out discrete scents, to isolate a happy or recalcitrant strand, either to distill it down or siphon it off. It is, she thinks, the facility Igor has: to pounce on the single instrument in the orchestra that is slightly out of tune.
It is all going bewilderingly quickly. The brightness, the scents, and the movement of white-coated chemists mingle and make Coco dizzy. Then, after a few minutes, the men cease moving and stand ready behind her chair. Beaux squeezes a dribble from a pipette into a petri dish. She thinks of the hundreds of crushed blossoms that have gone into this thin distillate, this elixir, to create a single liquid drop.
He repeats the operation several times. Then he lays out the samples and beckons her to test them. The odors resolve in a precise spot a few inches below her nose. She’s conscious of a vaporous welling. Their blended notes rise up.
Now that everything is still, she hears a sound. An insistent hum. The chirr of ceiling fans, she thinks. She looks up, but the fans make too rhythmical and insistent a noise. There is a more frantic and high-pitched buzzing mixed in, coming from somewhere near the window. She looks across. The window is open because of the heat. But behind the frame is a gauze mesh. And beyond the mesh stirs a thick cloud of flies. Fruit flies maddened by the sweetness of the scents. Frantically they dance against the netting, crazed with frustration.
Beaux sees her register their presence. Rubbing his hands together, he says, “That’s how people will react to your scent, Mademoiselle.”
Coco manages a sardonic glance that, through an alteration of her features, becomes a shy smile. “I hope!”
In front of her Beaux sets six dishes inundated with perfumes. They are the color of translucent honey, amber, or weak tea. He dips a smelling strip into the first dish, then wafts it below her nose.
As she inhales, each perfume in turn unfurls like a mysterious blossom.
She quickly discounts two of the samples as overripe. Another is a little bitter. This leaves a further three. The smelling sticks swish like wands below her nostrils. She dismisses another one as merely enchanting, which leaves just two more—numbers two and five—still in the running.
After trying another couple of times to discriminate, she says, “I like them both.”
Beaux urges her to try again. She must choose one. She inhales generously above each sample. Each is exquisite, redolent, and evocative in slightly different ways.
“I can smell jasmine.”
“And there’s an animal note in there, somewhere, too.”
She sniffs, compares, and reflects once more. And there it is. Slowly it comes to her: subtle but glorious, splendid, and, in its mix of distillates, almost divine. She’s never smelled anything like it. A feeling of sickness mixes with desire. And then a strange thing happens. In this state of near reverie, her mind flashes back to the floor of the convent and orphanage in Aubazine where she went to school. Her memory lingers for an instant upon the mosaic tiles in the corridor with their repetition of the Roman numeral V.
She points at her chosen dish.
Beaux looks pleased. His two assistants straighten. They remove the dishes from in front of her.
Like an aura that hovers and vibrates, the scent envelops her still. She takes a few moments to recover.
“One thing puzzles me, though,” she says.
“I can’t actually detect any single defining extract.”
“There isn’t any one thing. There are over eighty ingredients mixed in together.”
“Doesn’t that make it less natural?”
“You want your fragrance to last for hours, no?”
“Well, the problem with most perfumes is that they fade very quickly. You have to reek at the beginning of the evening if you want the scent to last all night. This, on the other hand,” he says, brandishing one of the flacons, “doesn’t degrade or decay. And you won’t have to saturate yourself with it either, I promise. It’s much more stable. Just a dab will do.”
She looks doubtful.
“Trust me,” he says.
She agrees to experiment with it on her friends and so conduct a kind of trial. Meanwhile, Beaux is to manufacture a small amount to distribute as gifts. The idea is to infiltrate the perfume into her clients’ lives. Write off the first batch as goodwill. Then go for the kill! She has already made up a provisional list of about a hundred people. They’ll be the first to receive the scent. Beaux is to send the samples, and she’ll have them gift-wrapped, enclosing a little note offering her compliments.
“But before that, I want you to tell me everything. If I’m going to invest in this, I need to learn about the process from first to last.”
Coco leaves late that afternoon following a detailed tour and commentary and several celebratory glasses of champagne: Krug, her favorite.
She feels a little heady. The pavement beneath her feet appears distant and unreal. The echo of her footsteps seems out of sync with the rhythm of her feet. She clutches a black valise containing two dozen flacons of her perfume. The vials fit snugly into the red velvet casing like the articulated bits of a musical instrument.
She feels the bubbles of champagne continue to rise within and make her giddy. She resists the temptation to telephone Igor. She’s too excited to talk properly. She’d only gush, and he’d think her silly. She misses him, though. In fact, she has made up her mind to donate three hundred thousand francs to Diaghilev for a revival of The Rite. She’ll donate the money anonymously, so that no one will feel obliged by the gift. With the perfume starting up and the salon doing so well, she can afford it. Probably.
Leaving Beaux’s shop, she notices something odd. A squadron of flies settles in a dense vapor about her case. Many of them peel off as she steps into a taxi. A few more flake away when she enters the train. Others fall, exhausted with thwarted longing, as she alights from her carriage. Some are still with her, fiercely tenacious as she returns to Bel Respiro almost twelve hours later. One even clings intoxicated as it is placed inside the safe.
The plucky little insect suffocates in the airless vault. But it dies a sublime death—achingly drunk and happy. Stiffening, its brittle body quickly corrupts, its atoms mingling with the perfume, becoming one with the powdery air.