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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46 Comments

  • Hilde: Hello Victoria,
    I enjoyed this review on the history of perfumery which goes further than the borders of French perfumery. It also shows how deeply your interest is in the world of perfumery far beyond the profession itself. May 10, 2021 at 8:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Hilde! May 10, 2021 at 11:32am Reply

  • JillS: Hi, Victoria,
    What a fascinating article. i remember the Russian fragrances from when I was an exchange student in 1975. I remember them as very dense, something I couldn’t carry off. Your article brings back memories. May 10, 2021 at 8:39am Reply

    • Victoria: It is quite dense and rich! May 10, 2021 at 11:33am Reply

  • Dorothy Van Daele: Really enjoyed this article. It makes sense that there were other centres of perfumery, working on similar fragrances and with similar materials, and Russia’s would be less well known and subject to more change. Some perfumes seem to belong to or to define certain eras. Like your grandmother, I reach for Bois de Violette, a wonderful scent. May 10, 2021 at 9:27am Reply

    • Victoria: I prefer Bois de Violette! May 10, 2021 at 11:33am Reply

  • Melanie: I was reading about this book last week and hoped that you would review it.

    From my locked-down corner of the world, there doesn’t seem to be much fanfare surrounding N° 5’s centenary. If anyone knows of anything, please feel free to share. N° 5 reminds me of my childhood and my mother. May 10, 2021 at 9:28am Reply

    • Victoria: I see articles about it, but mostly in French press. May 10, 2021 at 11:34am Reply

  • Ann: Fascinating, and beautifully written.

    What a great book title, The Scent of Empire. When I was in Paris, my one and only visit, my friends and I shared a box of macaroons from Laduree and I remember thinking “this is the taste of Empire”. May 10, 2021 at 9:33am Reply

    • Victoria: The book is fascinating, and it really gives a new dimension to the history of the USSR. May 10, 2021 at 11:34am Reply

  • marilyn stanonis: How wonderful that you have finally been able to answer that question, to fill that gap in your knowledge! I can’t wait to finish reading your post of today, and then, the book! May 10, 2021 at 9:33am Reply

    • Wanda: What a fascinating story. Thank you.
      I hope to find this book and read it. As always, I so enjoy your posts. May 10, 2021 at 10:34am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you so much, Wanda. May 10, 2021 at 11:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, not so romantic as far as names go. May 10, 2021 at 11:35am Reply

  • Phyllis: What a fascinating and intriguing read!
    Thank you so much! May 10, 2021 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! May 10, 2021 at 11:35am Reply

  • Joan Rosasco: How interesting that the label features a view of the factory. French perfumery throws a veil over the industrial nature of its products. May 10, 2021 at 10:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, with black smoke billowing from smokestacks! Of course, we’re talking about the 19th century when anything industrial was a mark of modernity and progress. May 10, 2021 at 10:19am Reply

    • Joan Rosasco: Made by workers for workers. No longer A Czarina’s Bouquet! May 10, 2021 at 11:28am Reply

      • Victoria: The Bolshevik Revolution didn’t happen until 1917. May 10, 2021 at 11:32am Reply

  • Abhi: Thank you for sharing this nugget of history–I loved the way it connected your personal memories with the larger context and history. Until now, I did not know about Russian perfumes and Red Moscow’s connection with Chanel–thanks for that nugget! Great writing, as always. Have a wonderful week! May 10, 2021 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Abhi. I find this kind of research fascinating, and as a bonus, it helped me understand my grandmother’s references. May 10, 2021 at 11:36am Reply

  • Karen in the garden: What a wonderful article! Always interesting and fun reading about fragrances and the history behind them. May 10, 2021 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it just! I’m always drawn to such details. May 10, 2021 at 11:37am Reply

  • Terry: Thank you for so lovingly, sharing history. I just ordered a small bottle of, Red Moscow, just to bring a bit of history to life! I enjoy each of your articles, Victoria. I learn something new, every time! May 10, 2021 at 10:54am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m curious what you think of it. May 10, 2021 at 11:37am Reply

  • Melanie: With the exception of the little film with Marion Cotillard and the haute joaillerie collection, that is all that I have seen, too. Even with current circumstances, I (naively) imagined more. May 10, 2021 at 11:46am Reply

    • Melanie: Sorry, the was meant to be a reply to my comment from above. May 10, 2021 at 11:46am Reply

    • Victoria: There wasn’t that much, I agree. May 11, 2021 at 9:38am Reply

  • Fazal: Your grandmothers likes Bois de Voilette… Awesome tastes she have! May 10, 2021 at 12:23pm Reply

  • Aurora: By coincidence I was wearing Brocard My cup of tea 5 O’Clock earlier today, an Earl Grey tea fragrance. I enjoyed your article so much with its mix of family and broader history. May 10, 2021 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a nice coincidence! 🙂 May 11, 2021 at 9:39am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Fascinating! I can order the book at Athenaeum in Amsterdam. May 10, 2021 at 3:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you’ll enjoy it. The original is in German, I should have noted. May 11, 2021 at 9:39am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: I will try to order a copy in German (one of my best languages). Here in Holland German books are hard to obtain. It’all in English, or translations into English. May 11, 2021 at 11:09am Reply

  • Tania Sanchez: Fantastic historical information! I always appreciate learning about perfume from a more global perspective. And I had a good laugh over the State Trust of Bone and Fat Processing Industry being the LVMH of the USSR! May 11, 2021 at 4:42am Reply

    • Victoria: It sounds even clunkier in Russian.
      In general, I find material culture studies to be fascinating, since these kind of details add so much to our understanding of the epoch. Then again, the topic in this book is particularly interesting. One could write a book on Polina Zhemchuzhina alone. May 11, 2021 at 9:43am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Fascinating! Another book to add to my list. The Brocard name in perfumery was resurrected in the 1990s, and it is now possible to buy many perfumes by Brocard. The company has many inexpensive fragrances, but in recent years it has commissioned fragrances from some top perfumers. I’ve been able to try (and buy) a few at Bloom Perfumery in London. You’ve reminded me that i need to review one of them on my own blog: Un Jardin Mystique, a Brocard fragrance by Bertrand Duchaufour! I’ve never smelled Red Moscow, but now I’m intrigued. May 11, 2021 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: Brocard was successful before 1917, mostly because of their soaps. They wrapped soap bars in embroidery patterns, ABC sheets and other fun things that people kept and used. Even today many towels and linens continue to be embroidered in the so-called Brocard patterns. May 11, 2021 at 9:48am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Oh what an utterly fascinating story (both the personal and historical aspects). I love learning about these sorts of things. Thanks, Victoria. May 11, 2021 at 12:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! Thank you for reading. May 14, 2021 at 3:46am Reply

  • MaureenC: That was absolutely fascinating, I had no idea that those two perfumes are cousins who grew up in very different circumstances. Your wealth of knowledge about both the technicalities and the history of perfume give us such a wonderful insight. More please!! May 13, 2021 at 2:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I’m glad that you enjoyed it. May 14, 2021 at 3:46am Reply

  • Chris in Oakland: Oooh, so glad I caught up and read your article on this book, which sounds so fascinating! Will have to order it, even if I have about 10 books in my to-read stack already. 😄 May 22, 2021 at 10:18pm Reply

  • Ewan: I ordered it yesterday and was pleased to see the publisher is Polity Press.

    They publish the books of Professor Piero Camporesi – mostly about food but he also writes about oils, unguents and perfumes. May 25, 2021 at 5:56am Reply

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