Never in the history of perfumes has there been one as enduring and popular as Chanel’s N°5. Created in 1921, it remains the best-selling perfume in the world almost a century later.
It is a pioneer in many ways – it is the first perfume to stray away from the focus of just one flower, combining the scent of almost 80 ingredients instead to present the ultimate in femininity; it is the first perfume to use synthetic components of aldehydes to enhance it floral richness; and it is the first women’s fragrance to have a man’s face, Brad Pitt.
This year, as Coco Chanel’s iconic scent enters a new era, we unravel the scent that has been always been mysterious and near impossible to decipher and delve into its history to find out just what makes it so alluring.
A woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent
Coco Chanel created N°5 with the goal of crafting a “woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent”. She had always believed that a woman’s perfume should be as important as her style of dressing. A woman, she says, should wear perfume where ever she would like to be kissed.
The perfumer who is responsible for the scent is Earnest Beaux, whom Coco Chanel entrusted with the task of creating the ultimate scent of femininity. In his quest to deliver the scent Coco demanded, he travelled as far as the Arctic circle, in search of inspiration for a perfume that is unlike any other.
Straying away from the traditional methods of perfume-making that glorifies one single flower at the heart, Beaux combined close to 80 flowers and ingredients – among them the precious jasmine, mayrose, hyacinth, ylang-ylang, sandalwood, orange blossom and Brazilian tonka beans – to craft a mysterious perfume radiating an extravagant floral richness that would become the N°5 we know today.
The addition of Aldehydes
Earnest Beaux was not only adventurous but also a visionary perfumer. He was the first to introduce aldehydes, a synthetic component that enriches the scent of perfume oils, into his blend. It successfully exalted each singular note of the perfume to greater heights and opened up its blossoms for a scent that lingers much longer than other perfumes.
Chanel No 5
At a time when perfumes were being given sentimental names, Coco Chanel defied convention and named hers a numerical code that instantly made all the others sound old-fashioned. N°5 was chosen because Coco herself loved the fifth rendition of the scent given to her by Ernest Beaux. Some also say the number 5 was chosen because Coco believed it had magical, luck-giving elements.
The minimalist square bottle
Since its inception, N°5's pristine minimalistic square bottle has distinguished it from the curved and stylised bottles of other brands. Its austere design and minimal lines show its timelessness, forwardness and sobriety. In some accounts, its stopper, cut like a diamond, is inspired by the geometry of the Place Vendome in Paris.
Chanel N°5 and Marilyn Monroe
N°5 on its own was already soaring to dizzying heights of popularity since its inception that saw soldiers from as far as the United States and Japan flying home bottles for their wives. Its place in history was secured however when Marilyn Monroe, at the height of her fame in 1952, told the world that she wears to bed just a few drops of no 5.
An icon of the 20th century
N°5 has been to places and seen things no other perfume has. In 1959, it was honoured by the Museum of Modern Art of New York and Andy Warhol created an art installation of a series of silk screen specially for the perfume. It was also marketed in ways no other perfume has been marketed, including being first perfume to be advertised during the half time of The Superbowl.
First perfume to be personified by celebrities
Jacques Helleu, artistic director of Chanel between 1965 and 2007, was the first person to use celebrities as incarnations of a perfume. Catherine Deneuve, Candince Bergen, Suzy Parker, Ali McGraw, Lauren Hutton, Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tautou are some of the actresses who have personified the scent, with supermodel Gisele Bundchen being the latest of N°5’s multiple reincarnations. True to its nod to the unconventional, N°5 is also the first woman’s fragrance to be represented by a man – Brad Pitt.
Best-selling perfume in the world
Today, almost a century after it was first introduced to the world, Chanel N°5 continues to be the best-selling perfume in the world. It is a perfume that is as Coco Chanel envisioned it to be -- one that resists all whims of fashion and passage of time.