Few perfumes are as famous or as revolutionary as Chanel №5. With its mixture of eighty individual scents, the fragrance was considered ground-breaking at the time of its debut in Coco Chanel’s Paris boutique. Marilyn Monroe made the perfume sexy when she told a reporter she wore nothing but №5 to bed. And when the fragrance was rebranded in the 1970s, it was advertised as something new — a scent created for a woman’s private enjoyment and not to attract men.
Throughout its history, it has emphasised the paradoxes in women’s lives, from the original complex scent in a simplistic bottle to the recent tagline “you know me and you don’t.” Today, the world celebrates its 100th birthday.
The birth of Chanel №5 can be traced to the Cote d’Azur while Coco Chanel was holidaying with her then-lover, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, an exiled Russian nobleman. During this holiday, she met perfumier Ernest Beaux. Chanel asked Beaux to create a scent that would “smell like a woman, not like a rose.” At this time, respectable women wore perfumes that contained a single flower’s scent, but Chanel believed that this did not represent a woman’s true scent which was multi-faceted and complex.
Beaux created several samples for Chanel to test, and she eventually settled on sample number five, leading to the perfume’s name. It is unclear why Chanel picked this scent over others. Some suggest that the “clean” smell associated with Chanel №5 reminded her of the fresh linen and soap from her childhood. Others propose that she had a fascination with the number five and announced that the fifth sample would be released to the world on the fifth day of the fifth month.
The perfume was an instant success. Even before it officially debuted, Chanel created excitement for the release at a dinner party for some of her high society friends. She sprayed the perfume around the table and was asked about the fragrance by every woman there.
The official launch took place at her boutique in the Rue Cambon on 5th May 1921. She sprayed the scent around the shop’s dressing rooms and handed out free bottles to a select few friends.
In 1924, Chanel brokered a deal with French businessmen Paul and Pierre Wertheimer to create Les Parfums Chanel in order to enlarge the circulation of her new fragrance outside France, a decision she lived to regret. According to the agreement, the Wertheimer brothers would receive 70% of all sales while 20% would go to Theophile Bader, the man who introduced Chanel to the Wertheimers, and only 10% to Chanel herself.
Chanel felt cheated and began to file lawsuits against the Wertheimers. Things were so heated that by 1928, the brothers had employed a lawyer who dealt solely with Chanel. However, in 1940 Chanel saw her chance to gain greater control over her perfume business. Following the Nazi invasion of France, the Wertheimers, who were Jewish, fled to America to avoid persecution. Chanel then wrote a letter to Nazi Party officials explaining that Jews ran Les Parfums Chanel, and as an Aryan, she should regain her rights of control. Unfortunately, the Wertheimers outplayed her — before they fled, they passed their ownership to a Christian friend, Felix Amiot.
Chanel continued to exert her right to the business but never succeeded. Finally, the Wertheimers decided to settle the matter with Chanel quietly. In return for renouncing all rights to the company, including her 10% ownership, Chanel agreed to a substantial annual income and a promise that Pierre Wertheimer would pay for anything she wanted during her lifetime.
In 1952, the Wertheimers returned to France with the rights to Les Parfums Chanel.
№5 has been associated with numerous celebrities throughout its lifetime. In 1952, actress Marilyn Monroe famously reported to a Life magazine journalist that she wore only five drops of Chanel №5 to bed. A year later, she was photographed for the magazine Modern Screen lying nude in bed with a bottle of Chanel №5 on her bedside table.
In the 1970s, Chanel rebranded the perfume, which was in danger of being labelled “mass market”. The artistic director for Les Parfums Chanel, Jacques Helleu, chose French actress Catherine Deneuve as the new face of Chanel №5. The resulting ad campaign was radical. Previously, perfume adverts had focused on how perfumes would attract men, but this time the new advert suggested that wearing perfume could be a personal and private experience for women. Sales skyrocketed following the new campaign.
Since the start of the 21st century, there have been numerous ambassadors for the perfume, most famously Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tautou, Brad Pitt, Lily-Rose Depp, and in 2020, Marion Cotillard.
The New №5
In 2016, Chanel updated the №5 scent for a new generation. Olivier Polge, who was in charge of the reinvention, said it would be the “freshest version of Chanel №5,” though it would still pay homage to the original.
The new scent includes the signature May rose (made from flowers from the Mul fields in Grasse, France) along with jasmine, citrus, sandalwood and ylang-ylang.
Chanel №5 continues to be one of the most popular and recognisable scents in the world. Even a century after its first appearance, there is no suggestion that it’s going away any time soon.