Words by Emily Algar

Chanel N°5

Now in its 101st year, the history of Chanel N°5 is one that’s rich in detail, romance and meaning. It all started in 1921 when Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel – a progressive force in female fashion – met with perfumer and chemist Ernest Beaux. Her brief was forthright: create a revolutionary, liberated, inimitable fragrance for women. Beaux exhausted every raw material at his disposal to come up with 10 contenders. Gabrielle settled on the fifth one, and the scent of the house of Chanel, N°5 Parfum, was decided.

Unlike other perfumes at the time, Chanel N°5 was more than a single note. Instead, it pioneered a modern approach, pairing sumptuous florals (rose, jasmine, ylang ylang) with synthetic aldehydes. Rich and decadent, it resonated with its intended audience, and quickly became both a signature and symbol of empowerment for the women who wore it.

Some three years later in 1924, Beaux created the very first variation: N°5 Eau de Toilette. It remained true to the spirit of the original but with the addition of vetiver and sandalwood – lighter, crisper and softer in its trail. It wasn’t until 1985 that Beaux’s successor, Jacques Polge, produced N°5 Eau de Parfum. An homage to the original, N°5 Eau de Parfum observed modern fragrance trends and access to raw materials, while retaining the heady note composition and striking amber colour. Now, the Eau de Parfum is arguably one of the most widely worn iterations of the fragrance.

For 23 years things remained static until Polge dreamt up Eau Première. Airy and luminous, Première married the iconic floral-aldehydic redolence with white musk, citrus accords and a touch of vanilla – in essence it was softer, sweeter and felt lighter on the skin.

Following Jacques departure from the house, his own son Oliver Polge took over as master perfumer in 2015, and with him came L’Eau: a fresh eau de toilette bursting with lemon, mandarin and orange. Interestingly L’eau utilised the exact same notes as the original fragrance but played with proportions, proving that when it comes to perfumery, quantity means just as much as quality.

Of course, such an eminent fragrance also comes with a certain level of star quality. The house of Chanel is no stranger to Hollywood endorsement, but N°5’s rolodex of ad campaigns is the stuff of marketing legend. The first face was actually Gabrielle herself, followed by powerful women like Ali MacGraw, Lauren Hutton, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet and Nicole Kidman. In 2012, Brad Pitt famously fronted a campaign, while iconic supermodel Gisele Bunchden lent her face from 2014. In 2021 for the scents’ 100th birthday, muse and friend of the house Marion Cotillard assumed the coveted position, starring in both a campaign shot by Steven Meisel, and interstellar short film directed by Johan Renck.

But perhaps the scent’s most notable piece of press was one that wasn’t scripted. In 1952, Marilyn Monroe famously told Marie Claire that she wore “five drops of Chanel N°5” and “nothing else” to bed. A piece of press so good, a cultural phenomenon was constructed around it.

Since its inception, N°5 has been a lynchpin at the intersection of high fashion, fine fragrance and popular culture. It’s been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and reimagined as a series of screen prints by Andy Warhol. The exact formulation is even a famously guarded house secret, asserting N°5 as both a symbol of timelessness, modernity and fantasy all at once. Here’s to 100 more years of the world’s most significant smell.

1921: Ernest Beaux creates Chanel N°5, as commission by Gabrielle Chanel

1924: Beaux releases the first variation, N°5 Eau de Toilette

1952: Marilyn Monroe tells Marie Claire she wears “five drops of Chanel N°5 and nothing else” to bed

1985: N°5 Eau de Parfum by Jacques Polge is launched

2008: Polge creates N°5 Eau Première

2016: Oliver Polge, Jacques son, develops N°5 L’Eau

2021: N°5 celebrates its 100th Birthday and social engagement