The Art Of Abstraction
Celebrating a centenary this year, N°5 —fashion’s first modern fragrance—marks the milestone with a magnificent high-jewellery.
How do you give tangible form to something that is essentially invisible and evocative only through olfactory senses? And a mythic scent, rife with paradoxes, like N°5? Under the lead of Patrice Leguéreau, Chanel’s master of stones, the Chanel jewellery team has been corralled into the pursuit of the improbable—crafting the tangible from a fragrance.
The new 123-piece high-jewellery endeavour, devised for Chanel’s centennial celebrations, sees the prestigious French maison become the first haute joaillerie to create gems inspired by a perfume. It’s Chanel’s largest ever offering of jewels too, as such elevated collections normally only number between 50 and 70 pieces. “The Collection N°5 has an unparalleled scope thanks to the richness of the perfume,” explains Leguéreau. “I didn’t want Collection N°5 to be just a tribute. I conceived it as an immersive experience, a journey into the very soul and story of the N°5 perfume … without being too literal. I wanted to translate its magic and mystery.”
N°5, the grande dame of glamorous fragrances, has been the prevailing gift-to-self through the last century, a symbol for perfume in the same way a diamond announces the expectation of fine jewellery. At the height of her stardom, Marilyn Munroe famously said that a few drops of Chanel N°5 was all she ever wore to bed.
In past collections, the director of Chanel’s Fine Jewellery Creation Studio has absorbed himself among illustrious locations from Gabrielle Chanel’s life (such as Venice’s Gran Canal for Escale à Venise, his January 2021 high-jewellery outing).
Yet this time, aside from exploring Grasse’s fields of jasmine and May roses with house perfumer Olivier Polge, Leguéreau’s inspiration was front and centre on his desk in the French capital: the distinct architecture of the N°5 bottle (an accessory in its own right) and its stopper.
Together with the number five, flowers and the scent’s sillage, the bottle and the stopper are two of five facets that identify Chanel’s iconic perfume—providing the framework for the new jewellery collection.
The challenge to create iridescence from a sensory experience would have no doubt appealed to the company’s audaciously creative founder, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, a woman who felt constrained by traditional perfume options when she founded the fashion house in 1910. In her day, perfume spoke to just two distinct female personality types—the respectable woman (pitched anodyne or cloying one-note florals like violet and lily of the valley) and the seductress (potent musks, animalic decadent fragrances).
Gabrielle Chanel, with her couturier’s vantage point, had an eclectic approach to perfume, seeing it as a composition with poetic or expressive possibility. She wanted a more complex and contradictory scent, created for a woman who wore perfume for herself, not others.
The fashion designer’s go-to perfumer in the early part of the 20th century, Ernest Beaux, who would go on to make three more perfumes with her (N°22, Russia Leather, Bois des Îles) was also looking to cut ties with tradition. The Russian-born perfumer was the Tsars’ favourite scent expert, bringing his own modern flair to his profession. His sleight of nose with N°5 was to mix a bouquet of white flower notes with aldehydes, in an unprecedented and canny pairing of nature with synthetics. The crisp, earthy scent was resolutely new guard in 1921—and one of the first perfumes with the ability to linger on the body.
Another creative milestone was reached a decade later in 1932 when Gabrielle Chanel expressed her love affair with diamonds through her first high-jewellery exhibit, Bijoux de Diamants, which eschewed costume pieces in favour of diamonds set in platinum.
This year’s centennial collection therefore stands as a sparkling monument to two of Chanel’s favourite things: diamonds and perfume. Star of the show is the blockbuster 55.55 necklace, composed of 764 diamonds, which captures the bottle’s design principles and its well-known “five”. Other pieces from the collection play on the way that skin is enveloped by perfume.
The entire collection is predicated on comfort and flow, although the cascading powerhouse 55.55—which is destined for the fashion house’s permanent collection, and will be exhibited regionally—has imposing dimensions, and presence. “We wanted to express the fluidity of the perfume in the metal and stonework. We paid particular attention to the suppleness and ergonomics of the jewels so that the gold wraps itself like a cloud of perfume around the neck,” adds Leguéreau.
Chanel’s jewellery craftsmen and women have demonstrated remarkable goldsmithing smarts, alongside exemplary gemstone selection and setting during their 24-month-long tribute to the endurance and complexity of N°5. The central stone having a specific goal weight of 55.55 carats is an unorthodox approach to getting the optimum yield from a piece of rough diamond, but harks back to Gabrielle Chanel’s love of numerology—the number five being a long-held lucky charm that influenced her rituals and choices.
The aim was to custom-cut a perfect octagonal diamond of D Flawless quality, no more or less than that desired weight, over the diamond of greatest dimensions.
The 55.55 necklace, Chanel’s latest riff on the three-strand high-jewellery necklace—a stalwart of its prestigious bi-annual sets—suggests a move from the visible to the invisible with a fringe of pear-shaped diamonds appearing to turn the perfume bottle motif’s base to liquid, as if to flow into the nape in a beautiful dissolve.
Although Gabrielle Chanel only ever designed one high-jewellery collection, her deceptively casual way of handling jewellery in all its moods and expressions is ensconced in the ethos of today’s atelier. Her irreverent enjoyment of diamonds in her 1932 show is an attitude at play in the background of this exceptional birthday year, even though only two pieces of the entirely diamond and platinum collection remain today—the star-shaped Comète brooch and a feather brooch.
From the early 1930s, the founder of the house established the principle that stones needed to fit the design of the jewel, rather than the materials leading the design. Elements of the centenary collection will pay tribute to Chanel’s very first diamonds, particularly with detachable or transformative elements—and collection 55.55’s remembrance speaks to her guiding aesthetics with dazzling potency.
Here, monochrome contrasts, asymmetry, form, line and pattern are preoccupations of Chanel’s jewellery creation, just as they are in its fashion realms under the guidance of creative
director Virginie Viard. The use of crystalline materials, whether white diamonds or rock crystal, evoke the N°5 bottle while underscoring the graphic beauty of the collection’s designs. But colour gets a look in too with amber, citrine and imperial topaz, cut to mimic perfume drops. And in keeping with Leguéreau’s vision, the stones are indeed used to replicate the occurrence of sillage via visual enchantments that lead your eyes across the key points.
The perfumes offered to French women in the early 20th century didn’t please Gabrielle Chanel, so she created her own. And whenever the fashion designer wasn’t pleased with choices offered to her in life, she did the same. In the bejewelled stakes at least, with the Collection N°5 her expectations have been held aloft and magnificently superseded.