How Chanel No.5 Became The World's Most Famous Fragrance

·3-min read
Photo credit: Graham Walker
Photo credit: Graham Walker

While Chanel N°5 Celebrates its centennial this year, it would be hard not to argue that the scent is as resonant today as it was in 1921. In the US in 2019, an item infused with its fragrance – a perfume, shower gel or soap – was purchased every minute, either in person or online. So, at a time when beauty trends come and go with the swipe of your thumb, it begs the question: what makes an icon everlasting?

Chanel N°5 is both immediately recognisable and unique to each individual. ‘It is not that certain notes [in N°5] smell differently on each woman’s skin,’ says Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in-house perfumer creator. ‘It’s more about the complexity of notes that resonate in a very personal way according to the woman wearing them.’

That almost-bespoke feel is due to a blend of more than 80 notes and accords, from rich sandalwood and ylang ylang to citrussy bergamot and orange blossom to a copious amount of specially sourced jasmine. The formula – a guarded secret, of course – also includes aldehydes, synthetic elements that add a heady je ne sais quoi. They were cutting-edge when Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel introduced the scent in 1921. At the time, single-note floral scents dominated the market, so the mix itself broke the mould as the opposite of the era’s monotone florals.

Photo credit: Bettman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettman - Getty Images

‘She wanted to make sure people would say, “You smell good,” and not, “You smell like rose”,’ explains Thomas du Pré de Saint Maur, Chanel’s head of global creative resources for fragrance and beauty, fine jewellery and watches. ‘The only thing that counted was the woman.’

The abstract scent wasn’t the only thing that made Chanel N°5 unusual for its time. Prior to the 1920s, perfumes usually had fanciful names such as Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue – an ode to the time each day when the sky is at its deepest hue. Most fragrances came in ornate, detailed bottles with swirled motifs carved into the glass.

But Chanel N°5’s sleek, geometric bottle couldn’t be more different. Rumours abound as to
the inspiration for the silhouette, including the stopper, which some say mirrors the geometry of the Place Vendôme, seen from Chanel’s favourite suite at The Ritz Paris. The shape and design ushered in a totally new aesthetic in the world of fragrance.

Photo credit: Graham Walker
Photo credit: Graham Walker

As for the name? Historians have noted Coco Chanel’s fixation on her lucky number: five. She presented her dress collections on the fifth day of the fifth month – May. So perhaps when Ernest Beaux – the master perfumer she was working with – presented her with numbered vials of samples, the choice was inevitable; in any case, she believed letting it keep its numeric name would bring good luck.

‘The vagueness around the perfume is part of the whole mystique and created quite intentionally by Beaux and Chanel, says Lisa Chaney, author of Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life. Ultimately, Chanel had a knack for understanding what women appreciate, then and now. It’s hard to imagine the more avant-garde scents of today, like Escentric Molecule Molecule 01 (a cult hit mix of synthetic and natural notes in a sharp lined bottle), existing without N°5 before them.

‘She wanted to give the message of modernity,’ Chaney says. ‘She had this uncanny instinct for being one step ahead of her time.’

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