Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume launched by French couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The chemical formula for the fragrance was compounded by Russian-French chemist and perfumer Ernest Beaux.
The Inspiration for the Fragrance
Traditionally, fragrance worn by women had adhered to two basic categories. Respectable women favored the pure essence of a single garden flower. Sexually provocative perfumes heavy with animal musk or jasmine were associated with women of the demi-monde, prostitutes or courtesans. Chanel felt the time was right for the debut of a scent that would epitomize the modern flapper that would speak to the liberated spirit of the 1920s.
What’s in the name
From her earliest days, the number five had potent associations for her. For Chanel, the number five was especially esteemed as signifying the pure embodiment of a thing, its spirit, its mystic meaning. The paths that led Chanel to the cathedral for daily prayer were laid out in circular patterns repeating the number five. (At the age of twelve, Chanel was handed over to the care of nuns, and for the next six years spent a stark, disciplined existence in a convent orphanage, Aubazine, founded by Cistercians in the twelfth century.) Her affinity for the number five co-mingled with the abbey gardens, and by extension the lush surrounding hillsides abounding with cistus, a five-petal rose.
In 1920, when presented with small glass vials containing sample scent compositions numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24 for her assessment, she chose the fifth vial. Chanel told her master perfumer, Ernest Beaux, whom she had commissioned to develop a fragrance with modern innovations: “I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck.”
The Design of the Bottle
Some say it was the whiskey decanter he used that she admired and wished to reproduce in “exquisite, expensive, delicate glass.” Chanel envisioned a design that would be an antidote for the over-elaborate, precious fussiness of the crystal fragrance bottles then in fashion popularized by Lalique and Baccarat. Her bottle would be “pure transparency …an invisible bottle.” It is generally considered that the bottle design was inspired by the rectangular beveled lines of the Charvet toiletry bottles, which, outfitted in a leather traveling case, were favored by her lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel.
The first bottle produced in 1919 differed from the Chanel No.5 bottle known today. The original container had small, delicate, rounded shoulders and was sold only in Chanel boutiques to select clients. In 1924, when “Parfums Chanel” incorporated, the glass proved too thin to sustain shipping and distribution. This is the point in time when the only significant design change took place. The bottle was modified with square, faceted corners.
In a marketing brochure issued in 1924, “Parfums Chanel” described the vessel, which contained the fragrance: “the perfection of the product forbids dressing it in the customary artifices. Why rely on the art of the glassmaker …Mademoiselle is proud to present simple bottles adorned only by …precious teardrops of perfume of incomparable quality, unique in composition, revealing the artistic personality of their creator.”
Unlike the bottle, which has remained the same since redesigned in 1924, the stopper has gone through numerous modifications. The original stopper was a small glass plug. The bottle, over decades, has itself become an identifiable cultural artifact, so much so that Andy Warhol chose to commemorate its iconic status in the mid-1980s with his pop-art, silk-screen titled “Ads: Chanel.”
Creating the Iconic Scent
The idea for the development of a distinctly modern fragrance had been on Chanel’s mind for some time when her lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, introduced her to Ernest Beaux on the French Riviera in early 1920. Beaux was the master perfumer at A. Rallet and Company, where he had been employed since 1898. The company was the official perfumer to the Russian royal family, and “the imperial palace at St. Petersburg was a famously perfumed court.”
He experimented and manipulated the aldehydes, resulting in a fragrance he christened Le Bouquet de Catherine. The scent was intended to inaugurate another celebration in 1913, the 300th anniversary of the Romanoff dynasty. The debut of this new perfume proved ill-timed. World War I was approaching, and the czarina and the perfume’s namesake, the Empress Catherine, had both been German-born. A marketing misfortune that invoked unpopular associations, combined with the fact that Le Bouquet de Catherine was enormously expensive, made it a commercial failure.
An attempt to re-brand the perfume, as Rallet No. 1 was unsuccessful, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 effectively prevented public acceptance of the brand. Beaux perfected what was to become Chanel No. 5 over several months in the late summer and autumn of 1920. He worked from the rose and jasmine base of Rallet No. 1. altering it to make it cleaner, more daring, reminiscent of the pristine polar freshness he had inhabited during his war years. He experimented with modern synthetics, adding his own invention “Rose E. B” and notes derived from a new jasmine source, a commercial ingredient called Jasophore. The revamped, complex formula also ramped up the quantities of orris-iris-root and natural musks.
The revolutionary key was Beaux’s use of aldehydes. Aldehydes are organic compounds of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They are manipulated in the laboratory at crucial stages of chemical reaction whereby the process arrests and isolates the scent. When used creatively, aldehydes act as “seasonings”, an aroma booster. Legend has it that this wondrous concoction was the inadvertent result of a laboratory mishap. A laboratory assistant, mistaking a full strength mixture for a ten percent dilution, had jolted the compound with a dose of aldehyde in quantity never before used.
Beaux prepared ten glass vials for Chanel’s inspection. Numbered 1–5 then 20–24, the gap presented the core May rose, jasmine and aldehydes in two complementary series, each group a variation of the compound. “Number five. Yes,” Chanel said later, “that is what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.”
The Battle for control of the Perfume
In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume house Bourjois since 1917, creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.” The Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive a seventy percent share of the company, and Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store, Galeries Lafayette, would receive twenty percent. (Bader introduced Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at the Longchamps races in 1922.)
For only ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” She proclaimed that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me.”
World War II brought with it the Nazi seizure of all Jewish owned property and business enterprises, providing Chanel with the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by “Parfums Chanel” and its most profitable product, Chanel No. 5. The directors of “Parfums Chanel,” the Wertheimers, were Jewish, and Chanel used her position as an “Aryan” to petition German officials to legalize her right to sole ownership. Her grounds for proprietary ownership were based on the claim that “Parfums Chanel” “is still the property of Jews” and had been legally “abandoned” by the owners.
But Chanel was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of “Parfums Chanel” over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist Felix Amiot. At the end of World War II, Amiot turned “Parfums Chanel” back into the hands of the Wertheimers. They sucessfully outsmarted her.
The monetary stakes were high and Chanel was determined to wrest control of “Parfums Chanel” from the Wertheimers. She resorted to underhanded tactics. Chanel’s plan was to destroy customer confidence in the brand, tarnish the image, crippling its marketing and distribution. She let it be known that Chanel No.5 was no longer the original fragrance as created by “Mademoiselle Chanel,” Chanel announced she would be making available an authentic Chanel No. 5, to be named “Mademoiselle Chanel No.5,” offered to a group of select clients.
Chanel escalated her game plan by instigating a lawsuit against “Parfums Chanel” and the Wertheimers. The legal battle garnered wide publicity.
Ultimately, the Wertheimers and Chanel came to a mutual accommodation, re-negotiating the original 1924 contract. On 17 May 1947, Chanel received wartime profits of Chanel No. 5 in an amount equivalent to some nine million dollars in twenty-first century valuation, and in the future her share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. The financial benefit to her would be enormous.
At war’s end and the defeat of Nazism, Chanel’s collaboration with the enemy during wartime menaced her with the exposure of her treasonous activities. In an attempt at damage control, she placed a sign in the window of her rue Cambon boutique, announcing a give-away—bottles of Chanel No. 5 were free to any and all American GIs for the asking. Soldiers waited in long lines to take a bottle of Paris luxe back home, and “would have been outraged if the French police had touched a hair on her head.”
By the mid-1940s, the worldwide sale of Chanel No. 5 amounted to nine million dollars annually; some two hundred forty million dollars a year in twenty-first century valuation. Her earnings would be in the vicinity of twenty-five million dollars a year, making her at the time one of the richest women in the world.