The History Behind Chanel No. 5

In 1921, the pairing of a smart French businessman and a Parisian socialite created a unique fragrance what revolutionized the perfume industry and changed the way women smell. Prior to this, fragrance were only for the elite, and the ordinary woman on the street would not wear any fragrance. After 95 years, Chanel no. 5 is still the world’s most well-known fragrance.

chanel no.5Coco navigated the fine line between a lady and a mistress. She had come to Paris as a mistress of a wealthy nobleman Etienne Balsan in 1909 and set up a millinery boutique under Balsan’s loft.

By 1921, she had several successful boutiques in Paris and owned a villa in the south of France and drove around in her own one-of-a-kind blue Rolls Royce. She wanted to create a fragrance that could represent the new, modern and empowered woman she has become.

However, Chanel’s childhood was troubled and complicated, and it was something that rubbed-off on her signature scent. She was a daughter of a laundry woman and the smell of detergent and freshly scrubbed skin was something that stayed with her for quite a long time after.

Hence, it was not surprising that when Coco wanted to create her scent, it was important that the scent smelled fresh. In those days the best way to make a fresh scent was to use citrus, for example, lemon, bergamot and orange. These things are crisp and exceptionally enchanting yet they don’t stay very long on the skin.”

At that time, scientists have isolated a chemical called aldehydes which could artificially used to create the ‘fresh’ scent Coco wanted. However, this were not commonly used then, and so perfumers were reluctant to utilize them.

Cote d’AzurAmid the late summer of 1920 Chanel went on vacation on the Cote d’Azur with her mate the Grand Duke Dimtri Pavlovich. There she learned of a perfumer, a very smart and well-read individual called Ernest Beaux who had worked for the Russian imperial family and lived near to in Grasse, the centre point of the fragrance industry. Beaux was an inquisitive and bold craftsman and responded to Coco’s call.

It took a few months to find the right balance for the fragrance and eventually concocted 10 sample for Coco to try. They were numbered one to five and 20 to 24. She picked number five.

It is reputed that the blend was really the after-effect of a lab botch. Beaux’s right hand had included a measurement of aldehyde in an amount never used before.

Tilar Mazzeo, creator of The Secret of Chanel No 5, told the World Service’s Witness program why the fragrance caught Coco’s eye. “The intriguing thing about aldehydes is that one of them possesses an aroma similar to cleaning agents.”

Chanel later said, “It was what I was waiting for. An aroma like no other. A lady’s fragrance, with the scent of a lady.”

The fragrance, blended with jasmine, rose, sandalwood and vanilla, was an immediate winner, partly due to Coco’s  clever marketing gimmicks.

She welcomed Beaux and some of her other famous friends to a prominent upmarket restaurant on the Riviera to celebrate and sprayed some of her perfume around the tables.

Everyone that passed stopped and asked what the scent was and where it originated from. This was the first time the public were given a whiff of this scent, and Coco Chanel knew it was going to be revolutionary. More on the origin of fragrances (specifically Chanel no. 5) can be found at

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