The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History

Chanel No. 5 is one of the biggest perfumes in all of history. What’s its lure? Is it the name, the legend, the marketing, the juice? Take a look at the illustrious past and present of Chanel No. 5 to understand what people love about Chanel perfumes and what other aspiring best-seller perfumes can learn from this marvel.

Chanel No. 5 was selected by designer Coco Chanel from perfumer Ernest Beaux’s lab. Drawn by its unique character, Coco said she wanted to release a perfume that was completely different from natural floral perfumes. The perfume was supposed to make women smell like women, not like a flower. Indeed, compared to the regular slew of perfumes in the 1920s, Chanel No. 5 debuted as a wild synthetic romp.

What made Chanel No. 5 completely unique was the profusion of aldehydes, which are molecules that are responsible for the sparkling character that reaches high towards a citrus-like composition and descends down into a tinny, metallic quality. Today, Chanel No. 5 is advertised as an abstract perfume, the first modern perfume, made completely with synthetic chemicals.


But there are a few hidden secrets that Chanel hides about its most magical, longest selling perfume.

Chanel No. 5, behind the dazzling sheen of aldehydes, presents a soft floral mix. Whatever Coco said about Chanel No. 5 can’t be taken for complete face value. Ernest Beaux added a dash of soft rose notes. And some scent pyramids actually go as far as to attribute more than one flower—including jasmine, lily, ylang ylang and neroli—to this scent. And to ground the sparkling combination of citrus and florals, Chanel No. 5 includes favorites like oakmoss, amber, vanilla and patchouli. Perfume critic Chandler Burr explains that the result of this avant garde blending make Chanel No. 5 smell “like a bank of white-hot searchlights washing the powdered stars at a movie premier in Cannes on a dry summer night.”

Another secret behind this market dominating perfume is that there are many formulas circulating. If you’re like me, and you think that Chanel No. 5 smells a little different every time you smell it, you’ll be surprised to find that there’s actually a rhyme and reason behind all of your confusion. Luca Turin points out in an NZZ Folio essay that there are currently 3 types of Chanel No. 5 at large. Chanel No. 5 Parfum, says Turin, is “the 1921 original, and smells fresh as paint and changed from day 1.” Eau de Toilette under the same name, is “all soft and peachy, a fifties mom in a fur coat coming to tuck you in bed before going to the theatre.” Turin goes on to completely dismiss the Eau de Parfum formula, calling it “an eighties lapse of judgment.” So if you’ve smelled one Chanel No. 5 and didn’t enjoy it, Chanel ensures that there’s a Chanel No. 5 out there that’ll suit your style.


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