In 1920, Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel set out to create “A woman’s perfume with the scent of a woman.” She enlisted master perfumer Ernest Beaux who found inspiration for the scent on a trip to the arctic circle. He is said to have found the midnight scent of the rivers and lakes fresh and enchanting. This freshness was important to both Chanel and Beaux as Mademoiselle Chanel was very drawn to the smell of freshly scrubbed skin. Before Chanel and Beaux, perfumes had been mainly one floral note, like violet or rose. After liberating women from the restraints of the corset and creating the iconic little black dress, Chanel wanted to give the modern woman a perfume that was more interesting than those available: a secret bouquet of more than 80 scents which came together to create a scent Coco called “audacious”. Within the bottle, natural scents like Jasmine and Rose are collected in Chanel’s privately owned fields in Grasse, France, operated by the Mul family since 1987. This region is famous for having a microclimate that has made it the perfume capital of the world for over 300 years. The perfume was popular the world over. In 1944 at the Liberation of Paris, American GI’s lined up outside the Chanel boutique on Paris’ rue Cambon to buy bottles of N°5 for their girlfriends. In 1959, the perfume was honored by the MOMA in New York City and was photographed by Andy Warhol. It was clear, Chanel N°5 was an icon of the 20th century.
Many myths surround the creation of this, the best-selling perfume of all time. Some say that the quantity of aldehydes used by Ernest Beaux, who was the first perfumer to use this ingredient, was an accident made by his assistant. These aldehydes made the perfume more complex and interesting. It is said that Beaux presented 5 scents to Chanel and the 5th, with the most aldehydes, was her favorite; thus was born Chanel N°5. The number five held a great significance to Mademoiselle Chanel, whose lover Boy Capel had introduced her to all things symbolic and esoteric. Five is said to have been her lucky number, the number could be found all over her Paris apartment and also inspired her to debut all of her collections on the fifth day of the fifth month, May 5th. Chanel N°5 was released on May 5th, 1921. Even the bottle design for Chanel N°5 was groundbreaking. Striking out from the ornate bottles of the day, Chanel N°5 was housed in a bottle with clean lines that would show the perfume off as the star of the show. Many also believe that the bottle’s stopper was modeled after Paris’ Place Vendome, of which Mme Chanel had a view from her room at the Ritz.
Marketing and Timelessness
In 1937, Coco herself was pictured in Harper’s Bazaar in an advertisement for Chanel N°5. Over the years, N°5 publicity contained some of the most prominent faces of the time. Celebrities like Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tatou, Gisele Bündchen, and even Brad Pitt have been representatives for this transcendent perfume. The magic of Chanel N°5 may be best embodied by Marilyn Monroe, who in 1952, when asked what she wore to bed, responded, “just a few drops of N°5 … I don’t want to say nude … but it’s the truth.” That same year, Marilyn, 26, was photographed by Life magazine, naked in bed next to a bottle of Chanel. The photographs were never published. In a 1960 interview for Marie Claire, Monroe once again reflects on N°5 and once again the recording goes unpublished. Marilyn’s reflections on this perfume are representative of its power and importance to generations of women. Through the ever-changing tides of fashion, and beauty, Chanel N°5 has remained iconic and emblematic of radiant, powerful femininity. It made, and continues to make women feel confident and sexy, even if it’s all they’re wearing.