The Scent of Empire Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlogel

The Scent of Empire: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel

The first time my grandmother was introduced to my future grandfather, he was performing a duet with his brother. Identical twins and devastatingly handsome, the duo sang their most popular number about a girl holding a bottle of “Tejé.” This French-sounding perfume intrigued me, but despite searching for Tejé in Google and various perfumery databases, I couldn’t find any trace of it. It was not until I read Karl Schlögel’s book The Scent of Empire: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow did I realize that that it wasn’t Tejé, but rather TeZhe. It certainly was not French. TeZhe stood for the State Trust of Fat and Bone Processing Industry, which included perfume manufacturing. It was the LVMH of the USSR, if you will, and it was under its auspices that the most famous Soviet perfume, Red Moscow, was born. Schlögel’s book is about the world of Red Moscow and its intriguing connection to Chanel No 5.

Brocard Moscow vintage poster

Schlögel’s story alternates between Moscow and Paris, Red Moscow and No 5 and the personalities that surrounded them. Red Moscow was created in 1925 by Auguste Michel, who like the creator of No 5, Ernest Beaux, was a French perfumer working in Moscow. Michel was born in Grasse and joined Rallet in Moscow in 1908, where he and Beaux were students of Alexandre Lemercier. Beaux and Michel had been influenced by the work on aldehydes done by the perfumer Robert Bienaimé at Houbigant. Beaux remained with Rallet, while Michel moved to work for Brocard, another French perfume house in Moscow.

The famous perfume by Rallet in those early years was Bouquet de Napoleon, created by Beaux in 1912 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino. Its floral-aldehydic leitmotif would appear in 1914 in two famous perfumes, Beaux’s Bouquet de Catherine (renamed Rallet No 1) created for Rallet and Michel’s Le Bouquet Favori de l’Impératrice created for Brocard.  The same idea would find its full expression in Chanel No 5 in 1921 and in Red Moscow in 1925.

Nizhny Novgorod, 1870s, Brocard shop

2021 marks the centenary of the launch of Chanel No 5, and its story is being told again in various books and articles. The value of Schlögel’s book is in telling the story from another perspective and giving voice to those who have been forgotten. With everything that we know about the Soviet Union and the endemic shortages of the planned economy, Soviet perfumery never appeared like a topic deserving attention. Yet, the same tradition and ideas that shaped Chanel No 5 and French perfumery of the 20th century were influential for giving form–and scent–to the Soviet era.

Unlike Beaux, who left Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, Auguste Michel remained in Moscow. At first, he couldn’t leave, because the Moscow authorities misplaced his passport, but in the 1920s he received an offer to resume his work in the re-established Soviet perfume industry. In 1925, he created a fragrance that was inspired by his work on Brocard’s Le Bouquet Favori de l’Impératrice, and the perfume became known as Krasnaya Moskva, Red Moscow. Like No 5, it was an immediate hit, defining its time and setting new trends.

Auguste Michel

Schlögel is a respected historian, with several excellent books in his oeuvre, such as Moscow 1937 and Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland, and his use of primary materials is impressive as he reconstructs the power play and intrigues of twentieth-century politics. His task is made challenging by the lack of information on Soviet perfumery, but he pieces together a compelling story full of twists and tragedies. The chapters about Polina Zhemchuzhina-Molotova, who was responsible for reviving the perfume industry in the USSR, are particularly fascinating.

One might naturally ask if Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow are copies of each other. With the original version of these perfumes on my arms, I can tell you that they aren’t. No 5 is a velvety, radiant blend of flowers and aldehydes, executed in such a way that the florals lose their nature-like feeling and become abstract. It smells sweet and powdery, with a champagne-like sparkle. Red Moscow is much more baroque in comparison, spicier, darker. It has an almost Guerlain-like richness and plushness, an impression augmented by its generous use of orris essence. As a child, I used to detest it, because it smelled of the dreaded May Day parades when all of the teachers (mostly women) donned their best, including Red Moscow. Today, with the passing of years, I’m feeling a glimmer of affection for it.

Perfume shop in the Russian town of Kuybyshev, 1973

Nevertheless, a connection exists between the two perfumes. Perfumery is a conservative profession, and every perfumer has a certain combination of materials that fascinates them and on which they work throughout their career. For this reason, legendary perfumers can be easily identified by their signature–the iris-rose-tonka accord of Jacques Guerlain, the hedione-basil of Edmond Roudnitska, the galaxolide-methyl ionone-phenylethyl acetate of Sophia Grojsman, etc. Similarly, both Beaux and Michel remained intrigued by the accord of aldehydes and florals. Beaux seems to be enchanted with rose, while Michel is drawn by jasmine. Throughout their careers, they continued working and refining these combinations.

TeZhe advertising posters

As for TeZhe, parts of it survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Red Moscow is still made under the brand of Novaya Zarya. The packaging is cheaper, the scent is thinner, but those who feel nostalgic can have a whiff of the yesteryears. My grandmother still reminisces how my grandfather used to sing about a girl holding a bottle of TeZhe, but when she reaches for a perfume, it’s always for Serge Lutens Bois de Violette, a scent of violets and nostalgia of a different, more romantic, nature.

Karl Schlögel; Jessica Spengler (translator). The scent of empire : Chanel no. 5 and Red Moscow. Medford : Polity Press, 2021.

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