If the past 100 years have been any indication, Chanel No. 5 is much more than a fragrance. Created in 1921 (and launched on the 5th May 1921) by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and French perfumer Ernest Beaux, the scent has reached beyond megatrend status, working its way into history from movies to art to museums, whilst being worn by Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Marilyn Monroe to Chanel No. 5 ambassador Marion Cotillard.
Marilyn Monroe famously said; a few drops of Chanel N°5 was all she wore to bed whilst Andy Warhol’s made silkscreens of the bottle. Even when Paris was liberated, there were endless lines of American soldiers waiting to get the perfume to bring home to their wives.
To celebrate the fragrance’s 100th anniversary, the French fashion house is exploring its storied history in a new episode of Inside Chanel. In this episode, viewers will see Chanel No. 5 like they’ve never seen it before, including the story of its inception, the inspiration behind its silhouette and design, the special meaning behind number five, its significant role in World War II, and its lasting impression on popular culture and modern perfumery.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel
With a healthy disregard for social etiquette and a retinue of friends and admirers among the city’s “racy” women, couturier Coco Chanel traversed the boundaries between lady and mistress and by the beginning of the twenties Chanel was already a phenomenon in French fashion circles.
She had come to Paris as the mistress of the textile baron Etienne Balsan in 1909 and set up a millinery boutique under Balsan’s apartment. By 1921, she had a series of successful boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz, she owned a villa in the south of France and drove around in her own blue Rolls Royce.
Now she wanted to create a scent that could describe the new, modern woman she epitomised.
But Chanel’s background was troubled and complex, and it was something that seeped into her trademark fragrance.
The beginnings of the classic scent
Chanel was the daughter of a market-stall holder and a laundry woman in rural France, but when her mother died she was sent to a Cistercian convent at Aubazine where she spent her teenage years.
The smell of soap and freshly scrubbed skin was something that stuck with her for years after. She was fastidiously clean and later when she worked among the mistresses of the rich she complained about the way they smelled, stinking of musk and body odour.
When she decided to commission a perfume for her best clients – a new trend among fashion houses – it was important that it imbue this freshness. But she had trouble finding a perfumer who could achieve this; creating a fresh fragrance that would last, as in those days a fresh and charming scent was composed of lemon, bergamot and orange – a very pretty concoction but one that didn’t last on the skin.
At the time, chemists had already isolated chemicals called aldehydes which could artificially create, amongst other characteristics, that ‘soapy’ smell. However they were extraordinarily powerful, so perfumers were hesitant to use them.
During the late summer of 1920 Chanel went on holiday on the Cote d’Azur with her lover the Grand Duke Dimtri Pavlovich.
There she learned of a perfumer, a sophisticated and well-read character called Ernest Beaux who had worked for the Russian royal family and lived close by in Grasse, the centre of the perfume industry. Beaux; a curious and daring craftsman took up Chanel’s challenge.
A mistake in the lab?
It took him several months to perfect a new fragrance but eventually he came up with 10 samples and presented them to Chanel.
They were numbered one to five and 20 to 24. She picked number five. Its numerical name and minimalist bottle made it identifiable—and relatable—to women across the globe.
It is rumoured that the exact concoction for ‘sample 5’ was actually the result of a laboratory mistake. Beaux’s assistant had added a dose of aldehyde in a quantity never used before, but for Chanel is was a balance and an expressions of both her childhood in a convent and then her luxurious life as a mistress.
The richness of the raw materials
Chanel’s taste for the most exquisite things in life is reflected in the vast number of properties used to make the fragrance. It takes one ton of flowers to produce one and half kilograms of the absolute. At the heart of N°5 is ylang-ylang harvested from Madagascar and Mayotte, May rose, a bloom that only flowers for three weeks a year, and jasmine from Grasse—the most luxurious raw ingredient in the world.
The launch of the iconic scent
Chanel said of No.5, “It was what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” The scent, imbued with jasmine, rose, sandalwood and vanilla, was an instant success.
To launch the perfume Coco Chanel invited Beaux and friends to a popular upmarket restaurant on the Riviera to celebrate and decided to spray the perfume around the table. Each woman that passed stopped and asked what the fragrance was and where it came from.
That was the first moment that anybody in the public smelled Chanel No 5 and it literally stopped them in their tracks.
For Chanel this was the moment that confirmed for her that it was going to be a revolutionary perfume. That moment consumers were smelling something they had never smelled before, it was an ‘intervention’ in the history of perfume.
“From the start, No. 5 threw habits and conventions to the wind,” Chanel said in a press release. “At the beginning of the 1920s, Gabrielle Chanel had already changed people’s views on fashion by suggesting a new allure. Her first perfume is consistent with her pioneering designs, simple yet well thought through. Revolutionary in its composition, No. 5 is also the first perfume imagined by a woman for women.”
Happy 100 years Chanel No.5!