Scent of a woman: the lingering legacy of Chanel's No. 5 perfume

Chanel No.5, the world’s best-selling fragrance, is 100 this year. Rachel Marie Walsh thinks it’s never looked better.
Scent of a woman: the lingering legacy of Chanel's No. 5 perfume

Actress Marilyn Monroe poses for a candid portrait with a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume on March 24, 1955 at the Ambassador Hotel in New York City, New York. (Photo by Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

No. 5 is 100. That sentence does not make sense but neither, before Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, did a single perfume enticing the world for a century. Chanel No.5 is still the world’s best-selling and most famous fragrance. There are many beautiful items we associate with Chanel, all of which have been called wardrobe essentials over the years. 

There is the little black dress, the tweed jacket, the cardigan-jacket suit and the quilted 2.55 handbag. A straw boater, pearls and pumps are all part of the Chanel look. We admire them and buy copies of them but few of us own the real things. Millions of women own no.5 and if you could see a smell—as Frédéric Malle, the famous perfume editor and nephew of ex no.5 ambassador Candice Bergen claims to do — it would look like a female friend or family member.

No.5 is exceptional. Ubiquity is usually the enemy of luxury, for how can that which is everywhere generate the aspiration needed to pay that bit more? And time is usually a passion killer. Certainly, a woman may avoid wearing it on a date for fear of smelling like a man’s mother, choosing instead Coco Mademoiselle or even No.5 L’Eau. But where would either fragrance — and Chanel itself— be without it?

A Star is Born 

There are conflicting accounts of the perfume’s origins. In some of Gabrielle’s retellings (including to Vogue journalist Bettina Ballard and biographer Claude Delay) she claimed to be its sole creator, excluding a crucial character entirely. Ernest Beaux was a perfumer to the tsars, a chemist and a soldier. He was honoured with the prestigious Croix de Guerre and Légion d’Honneur for his service in France from 1914 to 1917 and then the British Military Cross for his work as a counter-intelligence officer for the anti-Bolshevik White Army. 

In Memories of a Perfumer, a 1946 magazine article by Ernest Beaux published in Industrie de la Parfumerie, he recalls that while travelling above the Arctic Circle during his service, he encountered an odour so fresh that he sought to recreate it when he returned to civilian life in Grasse. He began experimenting with synthetic aldehydes before the war (his father was a director of the Russian perfume house Rallet, which was re-established in France after its Russian assets were nationalised in 1917) and used them to emulate a memory afterwards. Real aldehydes are organic compounds, rose oil and citrus essence are examples in fragrance. 

Freshness, as Frédéric Malle told the BBC in 2011, is something of a Holy Grail in perfumery. “In those days, the only way to create fresh fragrances was with citrus such as lemon, bergamot and orange. These things are very charming but they do not last on the skin.” Synthetics had more longevity and could stabilise and even enhance other ingredients.

Coco Chanel, pictured in the 1920s

Coco Chanel, pictured in the 1920s

In the same 1946 article, Beaux says he presented Chanel with nine numbered samples, one of which was no.5. Chanel chose it because she showed her collection on the fifth day of the fifth month. No.5 is complex. Today’s parfum has, for the top note, a mix of ylang-ylang, neroli and fresh-smelling aldehydes; for the heart, a mixture of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley and iris; and sandalwood, vetiver, musk, vanilla, civet and oakmoss for the base. 

Fragrance expert Luca Turin compares it to a Brancusi. “Alone among fragrances known to me, it gives the irresistible impression of a smooth, continuously curved, gold-coloured volume that stretches deliciously, like a sleepy panther, from top note to dry-down.” 

In Turin’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (Profile, 2009), he notes that the eau de parfum is a different fragrance from the parfum (which remains true to the original formula) and the eau de toilette, and was composed in the Eighties by then head perfumer Jacques Polge as a modern take on the classic. Turin describes the EdeT as “Fifties work, with woody-violet notes up top and a lactonic peach dry-down.” 

Going Global 

Coco Chanel understood the alchemy of desire better than any chemist or competitor. She put her name on No.5 and it made her name a brand. She took a vial to dinner in Cannes and surreptitiously spritzed female diners around her. The scent drew curious patrons by their noses. She wafted it through her own boutiques before it launched in 1921. 

Savvy as she was, it was Galleries Lafayette co-founder Théophile Bader who first spotted No.5’s broad commercial potential. After she asked him to stock the perfume, he introduced her to Pierre Wertheimer, co-founder of French cosmetics giant Bourjois, at the Deauville races. Bader knew Chanel needed a manufacturer. Wertheimer bought a 70 per cent share of Les Parfums Chanel. Bader bought 20 per cent, leaving Gabriel with just 10.

No. 5 hit department stores in 1924. The couturier soon became dissatisfied with her share of the impressive profits and began a protracted battle to wrest control of the business. This ended after the Second World War when Pierre, who had escaped to New York with his family in 1940 and temporarily sold the business to a Christian aircraft manufacturer to protect it from German requisition, agreed to give her two per cent of global profits and a share of past royalties. 

This made her one of the world’s richest women. In the mid-Fifties he bought out both his partners’ fragrance interests, as well as the Chanel fashion business, giving him sole rights to the name. His grandsons Alain and Gérard still control it.

Girls (and Brad) on Film 

According to company archives cited in Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life by Justine Picardie (HarperCollins,2010), Chanel continued to export No. 5 to countries on both sides throughout the war. 

There is colour footage of American GIs queueing down Rue Cambon to buy it for their women after Paris was liberated. It was the first perfume ever advertised during a Super Bowl final. In 1952, Marilyn Monroe secured its place in Hollywood history by telling Life magazine it was all she wore to bed. Gabrielle herself starred in the first No. 5 campaign to feature a woman in 1957. 

Other faces past include Catherine Deneuve, Carol Bouquet, Lauren Hutton, Suzy Parker, Ally McGraw, Audrey Tautou and even Brad Pitt. Nicole Kidman famously starred in the 2004 ad directed by Baz Luhrman. At $33 million for 180 seconds, it is still the most expensive ad ever made. 

Marion Cotillard is the current ambassador, you may have seen her dancing on a gold-dusted moon in a golden dress in the 2020 holiday advert.

The Flacon as Icon 

Chanel through the years

Chanel through the years

The bottle alone is a cultural icon. The original, round-shouldered version was too fragile to manufacture but the current shape is not so different from the 1924 redesign. The bottle was honoured by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1959. 

Warhol’s Chanel No.5 prints, part of his Ads Series (1985), are highly sought after and feature the flacon without its golden contents. Karl Lagerfeld designed a perspex handbag version of the No.5 bottle in 2016. To celebrate the (temporary) red re-design in 2018, Chanel planted five super-size replicas around London. 

Simple, minimal and classic, it has defied time and trends almost as well as the parfum. Let’s see if they manage another century.

  • Chanel No.5 Parfum, €118.04, Eau de Parfum, from €66.89, and associated products are available at brownthomas.com

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