It is said that cherished objects absorb strong emotions, often retaining them long past the limit of their owners' lifespans. By the time of Coco Chanel's death in 1971, the empress of haute couture possessed no fewer than thirty-two Chinese coromandel lacquered folding screens... or did they possess her?
Chanel purchased her first coromandel screen in 1913 as a gift for her lover, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Capel had put up the money that enabled her to open her millinery shop on the Rue Cambon in Paris; business was now thriving, ditto their relationship. As a favor, she offered to redecorate his Avenue Gabriel pied-à-terre. Coromandel -- with its quaint scenes delineated in gold leaf and mother-of-pearl against ebony or cinnabar-colored lacquer -- formed the central motif of her home design. "God, how beautifully you live!" exclaimed a visiting friend upon seeing the result.*
It was all thanks to a dynastic upheaval halfway around the globe that this rising young entrepreneuse could indulge in Chinese antiques. Thrown into chaos after their Emperor's abdication, the nobility of Beijing had been forced to sell off their priceless furnishings and ancestral objets d'art. These eventually landed in Western showrooms, where fledgling collectors like Chanel benefited greatly from a buyer's market. Each acquisition represented a happy triumph for the high bidder... but like all remnants of fallen Empire, such treasures carried entire histories of sorrow undetectable to the naked eye.
The ghosts trapped in the coromandel screens did not haunt Chanel at first. Initially they represented joy-- particularly that which pervaded her love affair with Capel. Together they took pleasure-- first in choosing the screens, then in living as a couple amidst their splendor. But when Capel died suddenly in 1919, Chanel’s enthusiasm darkened into obsession. She continued to purchase screen after screen as if to build an inviolable carapace for her shattered heart. She hid her grief behind a hardened expression, a dressmaker's mannequin-- and escaped behind a wall of coromandel.
The thousand lacquered layers of Chanel's Chinese screens give mute witness to both her highest love and her most abysmal grief. By all logic, the fragrance named Coromandel should emanate the same extremes of feeling. But no. It simply offers consolation-- the thing most needed at the very moment one finds it most impossible to ask.
Impermeable shelter from all the world's sorrow would be a bit much to ask from an eau de toilette, but Coromandel is naturally woven of stern stuff. Sheer it may be, but in feng shui terms, an overdose of wood has made its personality strong. As has been noted elsewhere, it bears a distinct resemblance to Serge Lutens' Borneo 1834, particularly in the cacao-dark timbre of its patchouli. This is assuredly a natural phenomenon, as Christopher Sheldrake is the co-author of both fragrances. By substituting sweet, light, airy-powdery benzoin for heavy labdanum, he and Jacques Polge reframed the profound Borneo 1834 as a sort of wistful eau légère, with tremendous success.
Would Coco wear it? I think she might-- whenever she felt lonely and nostalgic and in need of a gentle balm to apply to her sorely tested heart. And should her old friend visit her in her lacquered fortress, he would undoubtedly declare, "God, how beautifully you smell!"
*pp. 56-60, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Axel Madsen, 1990, Henry Holt & Co., New York
Scent Elements: Frankincense, benzoin, patchouli, amber, woods