In the world of beauty, there is one rite of passage every woman should experience, and that's procuring her first bottle of Chanel perfume. Something so special that the mere scent of it can evoke more than a memory. I remember opening my first bottle of Chanel perfume as if it were yesterday. It was the day I turned 25, and it was a gift from my husband. It was Chanel No. 5. From the iconic black and white box and the weight of the rectangular glass bottle in my hand to the complex scent of florals and amber as it settled on my skin—this moment was a turning point. It was the moment I started to take the perfume I wear seriously. Like so many others, I was, and still am, a Chanel No.5 devotee.
A perfume, however, doesn't become the world's most iconic beauty product overnight. Steeped in history, and with a hearty helping of glamour thrown in, to trace Chanel No. 5's meteoric rise to fame, we need to go back to 1921.
We couldn't possibly talk about Chanel without mentioning Gabrielle, Chanel's founder. While you may know her by her nickname, "Coco", Gabrielle Chanel was a fashion trailblazer. A genius, whose creations have proven themselves to be just as relevant today as they were 100 years ago. Of course, her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, is of no exception.
In 1921, Chanel enlisted the talents of Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux to create a scent that "smells like a woman, not a flower bed." Never one to conform to rules, Chanel wanted to offer women something that went beyond a soliflore – a scent made up of one or two simple notes – which was typical of the time. She wanted "an artificial fragrance like a dress, something crafted. I am a seamstress. I don't want rose or lily-of-the-valley, I want a composed fragrance."
Beaux was certainly up to the challenge. What he ended up creating was a bouquet of 80 scents, whose precious notes were blended, for the first time in history, with aldehydes (a human-made scent with pleasant tones) in proportions that exalted fragrances. In doing so, Chanel No. 5 thrust perfume-making into the modern era.
Chanel also decided against the whimsical, poetic names most perfumers chose—instead, she opted for a single registration number: 5. It is said that the number stands for the fifth sample Beaux presented to her, but its significance goes deeper. Gabrielle Chanel — who was interested in signs and symbols — had chosen the figure as her lucky charm, going as far as to set it as the date she presented her new collections; usually on February 5 and August 5.
The resulting elixir would become the world's most iconic fragrance. It was an instant success and one that has endured. Today, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold worldwide every 30 seconds. And it seems not even the stars are immune to its allure.
No. 5 has been the fragrance of choice for many celebrities over the years, the most iconic being Marilyn Monroe, who famously stated that she wore nothing to bed except for the scent. Fast forward to the present, and Victoria Beckham, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Eva Mendes, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Alba, Claudia Schiffer, and Celine Dion are all reportedly fans. French women can't get enough of it either. Legendary actress Catherine Deneuve once loaned her prowess as the face of the fragrance; a covetable role which has, just this year, been passed onto the incredibly chic Marion Cotillard ahead of the perfume's 100th birthday in 2021.
Its impressive fanbase aside, Chanel No. 5's status is also reflective of the perfume's quality; a highly sophisticated blend of the aforementioned aldehydes and florals – including rose, ylang-ylang, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, and iris – layered over a warm, woody base of vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, and patchouli. Perhaps its sheer volume of ingredients is why, whenever I loan it to my friends when we meet out for cocktails or go out dancing, that it smells completely different on each and every one of us.
Chanel No. 5 has grown since its initial conception in 1921. What started as a single fragrance is now a collection of perfumes, all with the No. 5 moniker, but each their own personality. There's the original Chanel No. 5 Parfum and the Chanel No. 5 Eau de Parfum, but in 2016, the brand introduced Chanel No. 5 L'Eau Eau de Toilette. I also own L'Eau, and if you were to ask me to sum it up in a word, it would be "fresh". It's distinctly lighter than Chanel No. 5, which is to be expected of an EdT, but its crisp citrus composition ensures it feels less decadent than its predecessor. Typically, this is the scent you'll find in my handbag, while the classic Chanel No. 5 sits on my shelf, ready to be the final flourish in my morning ritual, or the last step before I leave the house for more glamorous surroundings after dark.
There's also Chanel No. 5 Eau Première which admittedly I don't own, but I have tried it, and I found it to be more floral than the original, as it lacks the woody notes for which the classic perfume is known. Instead, this scent is flirty and feminine, cut with vanilla and musk.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the entire Chanel No. 5 line – there are hair mists, body sprays (I also love the Chanel No. 5 L'Eau All-Over Spray), creams, and bath products – but this was always about the perfume. The big question is, would I recommend it?
Generally, if you can write 1000 words on a perfume, that you personally own and wear, it's safe to say that the person in question likes it. I like its sultry scent. I like the way it makes me feel—self-assured and strong and womanly. Emotions and perfume go hand-in-hand, after all. But much like anything else, and perhaps even more so, scent is subject to personal opinion.
While Chanel No. 5 would certainly be a welcome addition to any grown-up vanity table, this is not a scent you should buy but never wear. It's too special to collect dust. If you're unsure whether Chanel No. 5 for you, I recommend asking around your inner circle to see if anyone has a bottle you can use a use a light spray from over the course of a few days. Even a single spritz in the morning will help you better understand its complexities and determine whether its for you. Often, your nearest Chanel beauty counter will also have samples of its scents and products to hand—next time you stop by, it's worth asking if they have any small vials they can part with.
Failing that, If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you're welcome to stop by my house and peruse my bottles. I may not collect art, but Chanel? That's my investment portfolio.