The Perfect Scent: Chanel No. 5

How do you make the perfect perfume? Start with one that already failed twice.

Octogenarians are rarely described as "seductive." But when a 2009 poll asked 3,000 British newspaper readers to name the world's most seductive scent, the winner was no spring chicken. Nearly nine decades after its creation, Chanel No. 5 took the title. The perfume was declared the perfect scent for both getting a hot date and for turning said date into a boyfriend. A full ten percent of women polled insisted that they met "Mr. Right" while wearing the fragrance.

Nearly as important is its legend within the industry. To the masses, Chanel No. 5 is synonymous  with the essense of luxury and lust, trapped in a square-cut bottle. But to the competition, it's le monstre -the monster. After all these years on the market, it remains the gold standard of perfumes. As one exasperated rival confessed, "It's not a fragrance, it's a goddamn cultural monument." Just the name seems to carry an almost mythic power. But is Chanel No. 5's success purely the result of genius marketing? And just how did this magic potion of a scent end up at the perfume counter in the first place?

The story dates back to 1920, when the inimitable Coco Chanel, one of France's most influential fashion designers, teamed up with perfumer Ernest Beaux to develop a signature scent. Chanel wanted a perfume that was clean but sexy, that blended the sultry notes of jasmine and May rose with the smell of soap and fresh-scrubbed skin. Ernest Beaux thought he had just the thing, a little idea he'd been toying with since World War I. Stationed in the Arctic, Beaux had fallen in love with the scent of fresh snow melting into Russia's famous "black soil," chernozen. He had dreamed of capturing that "winter melting note," and this seemed the perfect opportunity.

To bottle the scent, the perfumer experimented with aldehydes -modern synthetic compounds that could break open the shackles of perfumery. Aldehydes were still rare in the 1920s, but their olfactory effects were striking. Suddenly, a scent no longer needed to replicate the aroma of a "real" cluster of flowers. Instead, a perfumer could create the aroma of an abstract bouquet that had never existed.

That suited Chanel just fine. She believed "women do not want to smell like a bed of roses." In his quest to please the designer, Beaux used these aldehydes to tweak a formula that had already failed, a "modernist" perfume he had launched in 1912. The scent, which went by the humdrum name Le Bouquet de Catherine, had quickly flopped on the Russian market. An undeterred Beaux trotted it out again in 1914 under the name Rallet No. 1. It didn't fare any better the second time around.

For Chanel No. 5. the third time was the charm. After tinkering with formulations, Beaux presented Chanel with 10 aldehyde-laden variations on a theme in two series of vials numbered 1-5 and 20-24. Chanel sniffed the samples and was torn. No. 5 or No. 22? In the end, she went with the fifth sample. "Yes," Coco sniffed, "that is what I was waiting for. A woman's perfume, witht the scent of a woman." What will you call your perfume, Beaux asked her, perhaps wisely intuiting that his own track record with naming fragrances wasn't so hot. "We will let this sample number five keep the name it has already; it will bring good luck," Mademoiselle sagely responded.

And Chanel No. 5 has had astonishing luck. The French embassy boasts that a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold, somewhere in the world, every 30 seconds. But despite the widespread conviction that clever advertising made the scent an icon, the truth is more complicated. For the first 45 years of its fame, the marketing was run-of-the-mill and largely uninspired. Stranger still, for decades, the perfume's greatest competition was itself. By 1924, Chanel had signed over control of her perfume house to a group of fragrance distributors who launched Chanel No. 5 on the American market -along with Chanel No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 20, 21, 22, and 27. All were sold in the same iconic bottle. It's the sort of mystifying brand extension that seemed sure to confuse consumers. But le monstre wasn't just a marketing marvel. Despite being given a slew of variations, customers kept flocking back to No. 5. Even the most hardened sniffing cynics had to agree: No. 5 was just that perfect.

(Image credit: Flickr user VixyView)

By 1929, Chanel No. 5 was the world's best-selling fragrance. Over the decades, brushes with celebrity have only enhanced its reputation. Marilyn Monroe, who was never paid to endorse the brand, naughtily quipped that all she wore to bed was a few drops of Chanel No. 5. Rumor has it that Marlon Brando did the same. But what makes the scent work isn't celebrity. It's something more simple. Chanel No. 5 is fabulous -a fizzy, effervescent slice of modernist art that bounces off the skin. As competitors in the industry have found, it's irreproducible -so perfect that a $400-an-ounce price tag almost feels like a steal.


The above article by Tilar J. Mazzeo is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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I'm not surprised to read about Chanel No. 5's continuing popularity. When I was old enough to earn some money of my own and could afford to buy such luxuries, that was the first perfume I bought. Decades have passed since then, many other perfumes have been sampled. The longest I've stayed with one scent since Chanel, is 'Beautiful' by Estee Lauder (their best seller). It isn't just the wearing of a perfume that's great, it's the pleasurable memory of the scent long after you've stopped wearing it.
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