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CHANEL NO. 5 TURNS 100 – THE HISTORY OF A FRAGRANCE ICON

May 05, 2021 Carla Seipp
May 05, 2021
Laura Chouette via Unsplash

Chanel No. 5’s legacy is undisputed. While there are no officially disclosed sales figures, in the UK alone, approximately 1.92 million women used the fragrance in 2019. It accounts for a third of the house’s annual $12.27 billion revenue. It is also the co-star of the newly released The Scent of Empires by German historian Karl Schlögel, which traces the parallel origins and historical ties of the fragrance to its Soviet counterpart, Red Moscow. Created in 1921, the fragrance remains the best-selling perfume in the world. According to biographer Lisa Chaney, Coco Chanel was inspired by a formula for Catherine de’ Medici, and after close collaboration with pianist and friend Misia Sert, decided to work on a signature scent, enlisting the help of Ernest Beaux. Rejecting the soliflore (singular floral) fragrances of the era, Chanel’s resulting scent was an aldehydic floral built around a core of costly jasmine, rose, iris, and lily-of-the-valley notes. The scent derived its numerical name from the sample number which Chanel ended up choosing for the final fragrance. Upon release, the fragrance aggregated unapologetic luxury, celebrity endorsement, and illustrious advertising efforts.

How does the centenarian perfume keep pace in an industry with a revolving door of new releases? BeautyMatter spoke to a range of perfumers, scent educators, fragrance journalists, and consultants to discuss the influence and their own personal encounters with the grande dame of scent.

Pia Long, co-founder, Olfiction: “Chanel No.5 is probably the perfume that encompasses everything about this trade and art in one, iconic bottle. The backstory of which there are many versions; the romance around an enduring classic, and the way in which the scent itself has evolved through the decades to make sure there is a No. 5 for every generation—it will outlast all other perfumes as a concept because it’s beyond the juice.”

Barbara Herman, author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume & founder, Eris Parfums: “The secret of Chanel No. 5’s enduring success seems to be the convergence of a number of things that can’t be reduced to a replicable formula (to perfume brands’ frustration, no doubt!). First off, perfumer Ernest Beaux’s culturally and aesthetically interesting formula, which blended clean (aldehydic) and ‘dirty’ or indolic notes at a time when there were ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’ perfumes. The now-iconic minimalist bottle with its almost occult, mysterious ‘No. 5’ name, which becomes a blank slate onto which consumers can project their fantasies. And Chanel No. 5’s wonderful print and later TV advertising that invited middle-class consumers into a fantasy world of luxury. Step by step, this perfume was built to signify luxury, chic, and sensuality in a bottle."

Vincent Kuczinski, VP Senior Perfumer at MANE: “Chanel No. 5, the ultimate aldehydic floral! Although dated for its olfactive signature, it is widely used as a training tool for new perfumers and trainees. It still uses the BEST Rose oil and Jasmine Absolute available!”

John Biebel, founder, January Scent Project, & online co-editor, Fragrantica: “No. 5 has taken on near mythical proportions, and this is for two reasons: first, it stands out as one of the first widely successful perfumes that allows us an abstraction onto which we can project our own ideas. It gives us so little detail: a stark, cubical bottle with a black-and-white label. Nameless: only a stock number. It asks us, the public, to bring our imagination and projection to it. So we instantly become part of the story as soon as the bottle is in our hands. The second reason is much simpler and follows Occam’s Razor. It’s well known because it smells so damn good.”

Saskia Wilson-Brown, Director & founder, The Institute for Art and Olfaction: “The perfume is so loaded with cultural meaning that even when sprayed it lives somewhere outside the realm of empirical reality. It’s like trying to think critically about Brad Pitt.”

Sarah McCartney, founder, 4160Tuesdays: “My French penfriend’s family sent me back to South Tyneside with a 200ml bottle of Chanel No 5 for my mother. (She had sent tea bags and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.) It was ‘Ooh, Chanel No 5!’ and we weren’t allowed to wear it so it just slowly turned darker in the sunlight. Back then it was like buying IBM. No one ever got dumped for buying Chanel No 5. Too posh for the likes of us though. My mother would wear it for my dad’s Christmas dance.

“It was a couple of decades later that I realized I didn’t actually like it. I found it cold. I have a bottle from 1947 though, brought back from Paris by an Australian soldier after WW2. That’s a good deal dirtier and more deeply growly, civet still lurks in the background.

“So many myths; shall we call them that? ‘It’s all made of flowers.’ No it isn’t. ‘It was the first perfume to use aldehydes.’ No it wasn’t. ‘We have never changed the formula.’ Yes you have.

"It’s an icon of course and it doesn’t need my praise. It’s the one perfume everyone can name. I’ve been called pretentious for saying that I don’t like it, but I’m not pretending. I can smell that it’s great, but aldehydes and ylang ylang just aren’t up my street. Cristalle though, now you’re talking.”

Nick Steward, founder, Gallivant: “One of the remarkable things about Chanel No. 5 is that the innovation around the aldehydes feels so fresh and modern today.”

Sarah Baker, founder, Sarah Baker Perfumes: “Chanel No.5 is particularly iconic for Americans because it was the first French luxury fragrance to become accessible in the 1940s. As a kind of democratic luxury it held a particular place in the psyche of successive generations of everyday Americans—a dreamy promise of European glamour and sophistication.

“Growing up in the 1980s, Chanel No. 5 was the only perfume my mom would wear on special occasions. She would top off her full-glam effect with Chanel No. 5. For me, it represents that thrill of being seen, the anticipation of the exciting and glamorous social life I imagined my mother having when I was a little girl.“

Joseph Quartana, founder, Parfums Quartana & Six Scents Parfums: “That Chanel No. 5 is a century old but somehow not considered a ‘grandma’ scent is a testament to its fundamental modernity—given it’s novel use of aldehydes to create the sense of a ‘glass box’ enclosing the other notes, makes it the fragrant correlate of Bauhaus architecture. That’s the alluring appeal for me.”

Caroline Fabrigas, CEO, Scent Marketing Inc & co-founder, ScentInvent Technologies LLC & SpartiScents: “Chanel No. 5 continues to lead the way as one of the world’s top fragrances and has become even more beloved during the pandemic as consumers turn towards familiar and trusted products and brands. Chanel No. 5 has a pioneering legacy as the world’s first abstract fragrance using a unique multi-layered formulation process with aldehydes to heighten the scent experience. As one who started their career as a Chanel counter manager, I’m thrilled to see what the coming years have in store as Chanel continues their spirit of innovation and leadership in the fragrance industry.”

Claude Dir, Master Perfumer, MANE: “Joyeux 100th Anniversaire Chanel No. 5! Your essence has defined a platform for gesture, luxury, and paved the path for this beautiful industry that continuously grows with much gratitude.”

Mindy Yang, founder, Perfumarie: “Iconic and timeless, Coco Chanel inspires women everywhere to be bold, fearless, and elegant. Chanel No. 5’s glorious leap into modern perfumery one century ago raised the bar for our industry. The perfume’s brilliantly sustained impact demonstrates how to set every cylinder on fire (brand marketing, formulation, packaging, etc.), and No 5’s global status in fragrance retail remains second to none. Olivier came to visit many years ago, and I have personally gotten to know many of Chanel’s top executives over the last couple of decades. Sycomore (Les Exclusive de Chanel), was gifted to me, and it is still one of my personal favorites today. I am a fan of how Chanel continuously evolves its beauty division, yet Chanel’s heritage as a brand- down to how Olivier Polge now carries on his father Jaques important work - remains. A heartfelt congratulations on this legendary milestone to Chanel!”

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