It’s been nearly 100 years since Chanel No. 5, and it’s remained firmly in the top five best sellers ever since. Considering how many new fragrances are released each year, its simplicity and timeless elegance keep it firmly at the top season after season and set the benchmark for luxury perfumes today.
Almost everything about this scent is unique, from the seemingly simple yet intricately hand-sealed glass bottles to the precision of the ingredients and balanced blends contained within. As visionary Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel described it, it is a women’s perfume that smells like women. It’s a lofty claim to bottle a woman’s scent, but after nearly 100 years on the market, it’s difficult to argue that this tiered floral is anything less than that.
While Chanel No. 5 is celebrating its centennial this year, most would argue that the scent is as timeless as it was in 1921. Every minute, an item infused with its fragrance—shower gel, perfume, or soap—is purchased online or in-person in America. So, in an age when beauty trends come and go with a swipe of the thumb, why is Chanel No. 5 so famous?
The History of a Classic Perfume
Couturier Coco Chanel blurred the lines between mistress and lady, with a slew of admirers and friends among the city’s “racy” women and a healthy disregard for social etiquette.
Chanel was already a fashion phenomenon in French fashion circles by the early 1920s. In 1909, she arrived in Paris as the mistress of textile baron Etienne Balsan and opened a millinery boutique beneath Balsan’s apartment. By 1921, she had a successful chain of boutiques in Deauville, Paris, and Biarritz, drove her own blue Rolls Royce, and owned a villa in the south of France.
She sought to develop a scent that embodied the new, modern woman she represented. But Chanel’s background was complicated and troubled, permeating her signature fragrance. She was the child of a laundrywoman and a market vendor in rural France, but when her mother died, she was sent to the Cistercian convent of Aubazine, where she spent her adolescence.
Her memory of the smell of freshly scrubbed skin and soap lingered for years. She was meticulously clean, and later, when she started working among the mistresses of the wealthy, she complained about how they stank of body odor and musk.
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When she opted to commission a perfume for her most important clients—a new trend between fashion houses—she wanted it to have this freshness. However, she had difficulty finding a perfumer who could accomplish this. Chemists already had isolated chemicals called aldehydes that could artificially create these smells at the time, but they were extremely powerful, so perfumers were reluctant to use them.
Chanel spent the late summer of 1920 on the Cote d’Azur with her lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. She learned of a perfumer, Ernest Beaux, a well-read and sophisticated character who worked for the Russian royal family and lived nearby in Grasse, the perfume industry’s epicenter.
Beaux, a daring and curious craftsman, accepted Chanel’s challenge. It took him months to perfect a new fragrance, but he eventually produced ten samples and brought them to Chanel. They were numbered one to five and twenty to twenty-four, and she chose number five.
According to legend, the concoction was the result of a laboratory error. Beaux’s assistant had used a previously unknown amount of aldehyde.
A whisky decanter inspired the Chanel No. 5 bottle. The fragrance, which contained jasmine, sandalwood, rose, and vanilla, was an immediate hit thanks to some of Coco’s clever marketing techniques.
She invited Beaux and pals to a popular upmarket Riviera restaurant to celebrate, and she decided to spray the fragrance around the table. Every woman who passed asked what the perfume was and where it came from. For Chanel, this event confirmed it would be a revolutionary perfume.
The first time anyone in public smelled Chanel No 5, it immediately stopped them in their tracks. It was an intervention in perfume history when consumers smelled something they had never smelled before.
Why Is Chanel No. 5 So Popular?
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Chanel No. 5 was the world’s first abstract fragrance, incorporating over 80 ingredients in an intricate, multi-layered formulation procedure that utilizes aldehydes to heighten scents and give floral notes a delicate nature. As a result, the fragrance is meticulously blended, with notes so precisely blended that they are difficult to identify on their own. Even the individual notes chosen for the concoction are manipulated unusually.
The top notes are derived from ylang-ylang, a native Philippine flower whose petals are steam distilled to procure the purest essential oils for a heady smooth top note. There are notes of Rose Centifolia or May Rose, a unique flower that only blooms once a year for three weeks in May. It was chosen from Grasse on the French Riviera, the only location where it was grown during the twentieth century, adding to the note’s enchantment and rarity.
There’s also jasmine, dubbed the most luxurious natural fragrance raw material globally. The distinctive note takes on a new tone depending on its surroundings, causing it to pull differently on each woman who wears it, adding to this legendary scent’s allure and addictive nature.
This one-of-a-kind combination of synthetic and natural elements heralds a new era in which the two coexist in harmony. However, the elegant formula must be sealed and preserved with hand-picked ingredients and a rare blend.
Chanel fragrances’ exclusive creator, Jacques Polge, selects and inspects each ingredient during the formulation. Each bottle is hand-sealed using a centuries-old technique known as baudruchage. The artisan hand sealing process includes manually putting two rows of wax double C seal and black pearl cotton yarn into each bottle to ensure absolute water-air-tamper proof quality, proving that it’s all in the details.
Aside from the obvious excitement surrounding anything with mirrored Cs, Marilyn Monroe, a pop culture icon of the 20th century, immortalized the perfume in 1954 when she famously shared that she wore a few drops of No. 5 to bed.
But, to be honest, Chanel No. 5 today smells very different from the original, and rightly so. Tastes have evolved alongside the soil and landscape in which these ingredients are grown, and Chanel has fine-tuned the scent to fit the times, tweaking the variations and paying close attention to the progression of the florals included within every bottle. Even the iconic bottle has received a makeover, with minor changes that keep the design current and modern.