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Celebrating 100 years of the Iconic CHANEL N°5

Feature: Long Read
Words by Mollie Hammond

That a single scent could make as much noise on its 100th birthday as it did on its first is nothing short of a miracle. But there stands CHANEL N°5, timelessly and triumphantly, still at the top. "It really is a fragrance like no other," says Linda Keys, CEO of The Fragrance Foundation. "With its sparkling personality, CHANEL N°5 is the darling of the fragrance industry, respected and held in great admiration by all, even the competition. From its conception to a century later, it's immediately recognisable, and as resonant as ever." 

History of CHANEL N°5

Its creation is the stuff of legend. By 1921, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel had already made quite a stir in fashion, having shocked the world by encouraging women to cast off corsets, cut their hair, wear trousers and bare their skin to the sun. If she were to put a perfume to her name, it would be crucial to make that same defining departure from the norm – which is exactly what she and French-Russian chemist Ernest Beaux achieved with CHANEL N°5. 

"For a time, it was seen as scandalous to wear fragrance on your skin, because that announced the bare flesh beneath your modest clothing," explains Suzy Nightingale, fragrance expert, co-host of the On the Scent podcast, and senior writer for The Perfume Society. "Instead, [it was believed] you must dab a delicate rose or bluebell on your handkerchief, or subtly scent the fabric of your dress. [Gabrielle] Chanel cast such societal expectations aside, telling Beaux she wanted him to create 'an artificial fragrance, like a dress, something crafted,' that would 'smell like a woman, not a rose'." 

What does CHANEL N°5 smell like?

A manifesto - a dazzling bouquet of jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, patchouli, lily, iris, vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla and amber. And the cleverest element is that not a single note is identifiable due to Beaux's use of aldehydes - a mixture of organic carbon, oxygen and hydrogen compounds, popularised by CHANEL N°5 and now widely used in perfumery to create a sparkling and effervescent quality. 

Encapsulate that magic in a bottle with sharp angles, crystalline transparency and a stopper cut like a diamond and modelled on the Place Vendôme, then name it after Chanel's lucky number (which happened to coincide with the number of the fragrance sample presented to her by Beaux), and a star is born. 

Why is CHANEL N°5 so iconic?

"CHANEL N°5 was perhaps the first example of a scent as an icon," says award-winning fragrance critic Dariush Alavi of Persolaise. "It transcended its smell and became a touchstone in its own right in terms of the totality of its creation - not just its scent, but its bottle, its image and its advertising campaigns." 

Advertising through the years

Such campaigns have been fronted by individuals who enjoy similarly exalted status, including the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. Keys, too, asserts the scent's larger cultural significance. "CHANEL N°5 adverts are iconic. And aside from the fragrance, the campaigns have drawn us all into a fantasy world and given us that little piece of magic to brighten our day." 

So ... evocative, timeless and bright. And, it could be argued, a fragrance that particularly comes into its own at Christmas - with Christmas 2021 seeing the CHANEL N°5 Advent calendar, exclusive to Harrods. As you'd expect from a house that is synonymous with Parisian chic, behind each door lies a small, elegant gift: a keyring, hand cream, lipstick, skincare, a snow globe and, most importantly, a full-size bottle of CHANEL No.5 – the star of the century. 

"With all the thousands and thousands of words that have been written about CHANEL N°5, it is sometimes easy to forget the most crucial aspect of its story: it smells terrific," says Alavi. "It is without doubt one of the most breathtaking, heart-stopping, knee-weakening olfactory creations of all time." I believe the same will be said another 100 years from now.

Shop Chanel No 5
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