For over last 90 years, Chanel No 5 has ruled as the most iconic perfume ever created. Its distinctive decanter-shaped bottle and its smell have long remained the pinnacle of the perfume world. Marilyn Monroe seductively revealed that she wore ‘five drops of Chanel No 5’ to her bed.
You would assume that creating such a perfume would have been the result of careful research and work - yet you would be only partly correct. Yes, the most famous perfume brand in the world might well have been created as a mistake!
The story of how Chanel No 5 was created is enmeshed with the story of Coco Chanel, whose signature the brand bears.
Born in a modest background and raised in a convent, she came to Paris in 1909 as a mistress to a textile businessman. She started her own business, and by 1920 was successful enough to own a chain of fashion boutiques, a villa in Southern France, and a blue Rolls Royce. She had gained admittance into the highest circles of the Parisian social elite - where she interacted with the mistresses of the rich and famous.
Her keen olfactory sense, however, was assaulted by unsavory smells - she noticed that the Parisian feminine creme de la creme had little aptitude for refined perfumes. Not to mention that no good perfumes were available that could smell fresh, and that could last.
While on a holiday in Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, she met Ernest Beaux, a master perfumer. Monsieur Beaux was based in Grasse, the Mecca of perfume industry, and had the nous to experiment with new materials (especially aldehydes, which were being used to create new smells, but its boldness was much feared).
Beaux worked with the extracts of jasmine, rose and and a couple of self-created synthetic essences in his quest to create a distinct perfume. He was much enamored by the Arctic terrain, and wanted to capture its winter note in his creation.
It is here, the legend has it, that a mishap occurred.
One of Beaux’s assistants, believing a particular sample to be a 10% solution of formaldehyde, when it actually was a full strength solution, mixed it in the concoction. Beaux found that he rather liked the smell, and finalized it among other samples that he had prepared.
He took his samples in ten different vial, numbered 1 to 5, and 20 to 24. Coco Chanel liked the one in vial number 5. She is believed to have remarked that she had been waiting for this very scent - the “scent of a woman”.
Other legends also mix in at this stage. Five happened to a particular favorite of Mademoiselle Chanel; she launched her collections on 5 May - the fifth day of the fifth month - every year.
Another secret ingredient in the success of Chanel No 5 is the acute marketing and business sense of Coco Chanel herself. To create the initial buzz around No 5, she invited a select group to a dinner at an upmarket restaurant, and sprayed them with the perfume. Several patrons stopped in their tracks to inquire about the scent around their table, and the word spread.
So successful was the perfume that Chanel would not run a solo ad for Chanel No 5 till 1940.
The Chanel No 5 that you buy today is essentially the same that Chanel chose from a vial numbered 5 on a balmy evening in 1921.