Without the Great Duke Dmitri of Russia, there would be no Chanel No.5. In 1921, couturiers made clothes and perfumers made fragrance, but when the grand duke escorted his good friend Coco Chanel on vacation to Monte Carlo with a Catalan painter and his wife, the creative minds had a novel idea: to produce the first scent from a fashion house. That’s when His Highness introduced Mlle. Chanel to Ernest Beaux, who had been the personal “nose” to the Tsar of Russia; during the country’s 1917 revolution, Beaux fled to Grasse, France, opened his own lab, and concocted a revolutionary scent.
In the 1920s, most women’s fragrances were composed of pure floral notes, but Chanel told Beaux she wanted something different. “I want a woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent,” she told him. “I want to give women an artificial fragrance. I say artificial because it will be fabricated. I want a fragrance that is composed.”
Beaux presented the designer with a parade of vials. The fifth used 80 ingredients, including May Rose—a round variety with abundant petals that grows only in Grasse for three weeks each year—neroli (bitter orange blossom), sandalwood, and aldehydes—the first synthetic ingredient ever used in a perfume. Chanel added a great deal more Grasse-grown jasmine, and called it No. 5. Yes, it was her lucky number (and correlated to her zodiac sign, Leo), but she also knew it would be identifiable in any language.
At the end of WWII, Chanel No.5 started its climb to becoming the world’s bestselling fragrance when American soldiers who liberated Paris lined up on Rue Cambon to purchase bottles for their wives before returning home. By the 1950s, when Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali worked the scent into their art, and when Marilyn Monroe was wearing it—and nothing else—to bed, the No. 5 legend grew. The sleek flacon, inspired by the lines of the Place Vendôme (and sealed with Mlle. Chanel’s interlocking ‘Cs’) reached icon status when New York’s Museum of Modern Art put it on display at the end of the decade.
Nearly 100 years after its debut, the scent comes in almost every form, from the classic eau de toilette to a limited edition hair mist. The lotions and powders are packaged in exquisite glass jars and even the creamy white soap represents the height of luxury. Chanel famously said, “A woman should wear perfume wherever she wants to be kissed.” Luckily, it’s never been easier to wear Chanel No. 5 everywhere.
Photo: Henry Leutwyler