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Chanel No 5 iconic perfume launched in 1921

July 5, 2015

There are so many myths about the creation of Chanel No 5, that iconic perfume launched in 1921 that Marilyn Monroe proclaimed she wore – and nothing else – to bed.


Most of these myths were dreamt up by Chanel herself. She told friends that she went to Grasse, the famous perfume making district in France, while she was recovering from the death of her lover Boy Capel.


To console and distract her, the perfumiers let her have a little play with their flower essences. The fifth one she knocked together she liked and declared “Now I will sell this”. It was, of course, Chanel No 5.

Chanel No 5 – an ancient secret recipe?

Another story is much more more baroque and equally unlikely. Her friend Misia Sert wrote in her memoirs that she (Misia) had become friends with the Empress Eugénie’s secretary, a man who adored the beautiful Empress, who had died in 1870, and wore her perfume. Of course, according to Misia, he adored and highly valued the opinion of Misia too.


He had been going through the Empress’s papers and discovered an amazing beauty formula, the secret to the Empress’s unending youth and beauty. He asked Misia what he should do with it and she thought of her friend, the “Sorceress” Coco Chanel.“You want 6,000 francs for this formula, you shall have it”, she generously declared, and promptly passed the secret onto Chanel, for her to make her fortune with.

Chanel No 5 – A little bit of luxury for everyone

And Chanel did make her fortune, that much is true. The scent and others in the range have always been the backbone of her business, because although couture clothing is extremely expensive, it’s bought by only a lucky few.


Most people who would like some can buy a little perfume, and capture a touch of the glamour of the house. Chanel wasn’t the first couturier to add a scent to her line – Paul Poiret did that in 1911, with a perfume named ‘Rosine’, after his daughter – but she was the first to make it really fly.

The smell of the midnight sun over water

However, as befits the very good businesswoman that Chanel was, her perfume wasn’t discovered as part of an ancient and noble secret recipe, nor did she concoct it in a fit of weeping. Although she never admitted it, in fact she didn’t concoct it at all. It was made for her by professional “nose”, Ernest Beaux.


He was a pilot during WW1 and explained that as he flew over the lakes and rivers of the Arctic Circle in the midnight sun, they “exuded a perfume of extreme freshness”. Luckily, he was not only a pilot but came from a long line of perfumiers, and was eventually able to recreate this fresh scent, combining it with a bouquet of flowers.


The scent was radical and modern, both with its artificiality and combination of scents, where most popular scents until then had been just one note – rose, for example, or lavender. (This is why the formula couldn’t possibly have been 50 years old, as in Misia Sert’s account – they did not know how to make synthetic fragrances in the mid 19th Century, nor would they have liked them even if they could). Chanel described the perfume as “A bouquet of abstract flowers”.


As for the name, Number 5, some suggest that it had some numerological significance for Chanel, or that it was invented or launched on May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, but she just said “It was the fifth bottle, and five is a pretty number”.


A poster of Chanel no 5 by Andy Warhol

Original Chanel no 5 bottles

Misia Sert by Renoir.

Ernest Beaux, who invented Chanel no 5.