Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel wanted to create “a woman’s perfume with a women’s scent” (Edwards, 2001), one that smelled unlike the soliflores that were fashionable at the time. She believed in the paradox that in order to have a natural scent, the perfume had to be made artificially. Chanel met the Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux through her lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. She enlisted Beaux to create some perfumes, including the aldehydic floral N˚ 5 that was created in 1920 and launched on 5th May the year after.
Beaux presented Chanel with his creations in two sets that were numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24. She chose the creation that was numbered 5 and named it N˚ 5 for it was her lucky number. Chanel was afraid that the formula would be easily replicated, so Beaux proposed making “the formula too expensive to imitate” (Edwards, 2001) and instructed him to do so. He began by increasing the level of jasmine absolute, the most expensive ingredient, causing the perfume to turn dark; thus he needed to find a producer to create a lighter-colored absolute and this in turn added to the cost. Furthermore, the additional jasmine softened the effect of aldehydes and consequently, he decided to boost the level of aldehydes.
Beaux used three aldehydes, which give a sparkle to the scent of the floral notes and are accompanied by top notes of ylang ylang and neroli. As the scent develops, it reveals notes of Grasse jasmine, Rose de Mai, iris and lily of the valley and a woody base of sandalwood, oakmoss, vetiver, musk, civet and vanilla.
There have been speculations that the overdose of aldehydes in N˚ 5 was a mistake. One of the stories claimed that Beaux’s assistant misunderstood instructions and added ten times the aldehyde amount that Beaux desired. Another states that it was Beaux himself who accidentally added too much of the aldehydes. However, it is extremely likely that Beaux was completely aware of what he was doing and did not made a mistake.
Inspired by a toiletry bottle and with the belief that the perfume inside was much more significant than the bottle, Chanel designed the simple bottle that encased N˚ 5. The shape of the stopper was inspired by Place Vendôme. She supervised changes to the bottle shape until 1970 and also presented the idea that the box should act as an overcoat that protected and perfectly fitted the perfume bottle. Two rows of pearl-cotton thread are wrapped over a membrane around the neck of the bottle then sealed with wax.
From the simplicity of the bottle and its packaging to Beaux’s use of aldehydes, N˚ 5 was a modern fragrance for its time that has definitely become a timeless masterpiece.
The Essence of Perfume by Roja Dove (2010), p. 102-103
Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances by Michael Edwards (1996), p. 39-47
Scents and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman, p. 32
The Perfume Bible by Josephine Fairley and Lorna McKay (2014), p. 112
I only recently discovered the existence of Eau Première and got it without wearing it for more than five minutes (something I discourage but always do). Jacques Polge recreated the legendary Chanel N˚ 5 in 2008 to give the lighter and softer Eau Première, composed of a blend of aldehydes, ylang ylang, Rose de Mai, jasmine, vanilla and musk. Like the original, Eau Première reflects the scent of a floral bouquet.
I love all the different scents I could smell, from the aldehydes and delicate, powdery florals to the vanilla in the dry-down. After the fresh burst of aldehydes (I think there are also some citrusy notes) have been stripped away, the floral scent that develops smells somewhat like baby powder. The florals lasts for a couple of hours before the sweet vanilla scent is revealed, which lasts on my skin for many hours.
While I love the original, I think it would be a scent I can only wear when I’m more mature, so Eau Première is much more suitable for me now. I only wished aldehydes would linger on the skin a bit longer, but apart from that, I really enjoy this fragrance.