The Story Behind a Ninety Year Old Perfume

Chanel No. 5 is one of the most, if not the most, iconic perfumes. Its clean, fresh scent got its inspiration from the teenage years its creator spent at an orphanage in Correze, France.


Gabrielle Chanel and her two sisters were dropped off by their father at the Aubazine convent to live with nuns after their mother died. The smell of soap and clean skin lingered with Chanel for years, reminding her of her time there.


Chanel moved to Paris as a kept woman. She was the mistress of textile baron Etienne Balsan. In 1909, Chanel opened a millinery boutique under his apartment, and by 1921 she was a success. She had boutiques in Paris, Deauville, and Biarritz, and owned a villa in the south of France. The fashion phenomenon drove around in a blue Rolls Royce.


It was the smell of her rich clients that gave Chanel the idea to commission a perfume for them. This idea was from the trend among fashion houses of the day used on their best clients. Chanel complained that her rich clientele smelled of musk and body odor.


Chanel looked for a perfumer who could create a fragrance that was fresh. The challenge at the time was that fresh fragrances were citrus, such as lemon, bergamot, and orange, but they didn’t last on skin.


Chemists had the ability to isolate chemicals into aldehydes that artificially created these smells but they were powerful so perfumers hesitated to use them.


During a trip to the Cote d’Azur, Chanel learned of a perfumer, Ernest Beaux, who worked for the Russian royal family and lived in Grasse, the center of the perfume industry.


Beaux took up Chanel’s challenge.


After several months, Beaux came up with ten fragrance samples for Chanel. They were numbered one to five and twenty to twenty-four. Chanel picked number five.


The scent, filled with jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and vanilla, was an instant success. Chanel reportedly said, “It was what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.”


Any good product needs good marketing and being the savvy entrepreneur she was, Chanel had a creative way to promote her scent.


She invited her friends to a restaurant on the Riviera to celebrate the perfume. The fragrance was sprayed around their table. Each woman that walked by stopped and asked what the fragrance was and where it came from.


It was the first time anyone had smelled Chanel No. 5 in public, and it literally stopped them in their tracks. Today, the iconic perfume is seen as “an olfactory heritage: an idea of femininity, a masterpiece of chic, passed on from generation to generation.


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