After 100 Years, What Makes The Chanel Perfume So Iconic?

After 100 Years, What Makes The Chanel Perfume So Iconic

As Chanel N°5 celebrates its century this year, many would say that the perfume is as vibrant today as it was in 1921. In 2019, an item infused with its scent – a perfume, a shower gel or a soap – was bought in America every minute, in person or online. So at a time when beauty trends come and go with a simple gesture of the thumb, the question arises: what makes an icon eternal?
Chanel N°5 is both recognizable and special to each individual. “It’s not that certain notes [in N°5] smell differently on each woman’s skin,” explains Olivier Polge, designer perfumer for the house of Chanel.
This almost bespoke feel is due to a blend of over 80 notes and chords, from rich sandalwood and ylang-ylang to bergamot and lemony orange blossom to an abundant amount of specially jasmine origin. The formula, a secret of course, also includes aldehydes, synthetic elements that add an intoxicating je ne sais quoi. They were at the forefront when Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel introduced the perfume in 1921. At the time, single-note floral scents dominated the market, so the blend itself broke the mold as the opposite of monotonous flowers of the time.
“The only thing that mattered was the woman.”
The abstract scent wasn’t the only thing that made Chanel N°5 unusual for the time. Before the 1920s, perfumes generally had fanciful names like Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, an ode to the time when the sky is at its deepest hue every day. Most perfumes, including that of Guerlain, were presented in ornate and detailed bottles with swirling patterns carved into the glass. The geometric and sleek bottle of N°5 could not be more different.
Rumors abound as to the profile’s inspiration, including the cap, which some say reflects the geometry of Place Vendôme, seen from Chanel’s favorite suite at the Ritz Paris. The shape and design inaugurated a completely new aesthetic in the world of perfume.
Coco Chanel has also shrouded her choices in mystery. Historians often reflect on his fixation with his lucky number, five. The perfume may have been introduced on the fifth day of May, the fifth month for example. And then there’s the name, seen as the inevitable choice when the nose she’s worked with, Ernest Beaux, presented her with various numbered options of the formula.
“The vagueness around the perfume is part of the mystical ensemble and created quite intentionally by Beaux and Chanel”, explains Lisa Chaney, author of Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life. Ultimately, Chanel had a knack for understanding what women valued and would continue to enjoy. It’s hard to imagine today’s most avant-garde perfumes, like Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 (a cult blend of synthetic and natural notes in a bottle with clean lines), existing without Chanel N°5 before them.

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