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  • Stefan Howarth

The History of Chanel No 5, featuring Notino

If you are a follower of my blog or social media pages then you will probably already be aware that I am a huge fragrance fan, and often shop at to find special fragrances to add to my collection. On my most recent browse of the Notino website I snapped up the Chanel No 5 L'eau fragrance, a lighter, fresher variation of the 1921 legend, Chanel No 5 Parfum.

No 5 L'eau Fragrance Chanel No 5 L'Eau is the new fragrance,or variation of No 5, that aims to capture the more younger, millennial audience (just like myself!). The scent was developed by Olivier Polge as a light and fresh interpretation of the sophisticated original, featuring prominent note of May rose from Grasse. Now with the history of the original Chanel No 5 being so varied & interesting, and the prestige of the luxury product so elegant, I always wanted to wear and enjoy it. Unfortunately for me, I find the original scent a little heavy, so when the Chanel brand launched the L'eau fragrance, I was super excited. The L'eau version is a lighter, fresher No 5 scent that is perfect for everyday wear, or someone like me who perhaps stays away from heavier scents. This is now a staple fragrance in my closet, its a beautiful concoction of aldehydes and florals, including rose, ylang-ylang, jasmine, lily of the valley and iris layered over a warm, woody base of vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, amber and patchouli. Do you want to try a piece of history? Why not treat yourself to a bottle of Chanel No 5, or one of the new variations the brand now offer.

As I mentioned before, a while back I read into the history of Chanel as a fashion brand, and therefore the history of the most famous fragrance in the world, Chanel No 5. I did this simply out of interest, and as the story had me gripped, I thought I would give you a blog post to dish some of the juicy gossip. So, what made Chanel No 5 the most famous fragrance in the world?

Search for a new scent

The story of Chanel No 5 starts back in the 1920's with Coco Chanel wanting to develop a distinctly modern fragrance, different to single flower fragrances of the time. Luckily for Chanel she was dating the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov of Russia, and it was his connection to Ernest Beaux on the French Riviera that started the chain of events that produced a legend. Beaux was the master perfumer at A. Rallet and Company, where he had been employed since 1898. Chanel asked Beaux to create a fragrance like no other, and over several months in the late summer and autumn of 1920 he perfected what was to become Chanel No 5. He worked from rose and jasmine, altering it to make it cleaner, more daring. He experimented with modern synthetics, adding his own invention "Rose E.B." and notes derived from a new jasmine source, a commercial ingredient called Jasophore. The revamped, complex formula also increased the quantities of orris root, iris root, and natural musks which was unusual for the time. What set Chanel No5 apart from the fragrances of the period, which was mostly flowery scents swirling with jasmine, lilac and rose, was its more ‘abstract’ construction, and the generous use of aldehydes, which have become known for giving fragrance a champagne-like sparkle when you smell them. It was nothing less than a revolution. Legend has it that Ernest Beaux (or maybe his lab assistant) put an ‘overdose’ of aldehydes in the bottle, we’ll never know if it was accident, or design, but Chanel was seduced. Beaux prepared ten glass vials for Chanel's assessment. Numbered 1–5 and 20–24, each group a variation of the scent he had created.

"Number five. Yes," Chanel said later, "that is what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman." "I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already, it will bring good luck." - Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel

From the unusual name to the bare bottle design

Having famously chosen the fifth sample Ernest Beau presented to her for its magical, luck giving qualities and naming it the same name, the fragrance stood out even more. The name wasn't romantic and whimsical like the current fragrances on the market, it was strong, simple, almost clinical. The first of many revolutionary components, including the fragrance itself, that set it apart from all the others. It wasn't just the fragrance, and the name that made No 5 the most successful scent in the world however, the bottle was also new and fresh. At a time where cut glass and crystal bottles were delicate, intricate and very elaborate, Chanel added her own touch to her own scent. A square transparent glass vial, almost like a laboratory flacon was created. The first bottle produced in 1922, differed from the Chanel No 5 bottle known today however. The original container had small, delicate, rounded shoulders, a simple round glass stopper and was sold only in Chanel boutiques to select clients. In 1924, as the popularity of the fragrance become known, the glass bottle proved too thin to survive shipping and distribution on a larger scale. So the bottle was modified with square, faceted corners, its only significant design change, creating the bottle we know and adore today. Strong square shoulders to match the square bottle and a stopper cut like the Place Vendome. The stopper has altered slightly throughout the years but the overall bottle has remained unchanged.

The rise of a legend

Chanel's initial marketing strategy was to generate buzz for her new fragrance by hosting a promotional event. She invited a group of elite friends to dine with her in an elegant restaurant in Grasse where she surprised and delighted her guests by spraying them with Chanel No 5. The official launch place and date of Chanel No 5 was in her Rue Cambon boutique in the fifth month of the year, on the fifth day of the month: 5 May 1921. She infused the shop's dressing rooms with the scent, and she gave bottles to a select few of her high society friends. The success of Chanel No 5 was immediate. Chanel's friend Misia Sert exclaimed: "It was like a winning lottery ticket."

The battle for control of Parfums Chanel

Now we all know how the fame of Chanel No 5 spread, but this is a little piece of perfume history that I found super interesting that not many people know. In 1924, Chanel made a business agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, who were directors of the perfume house Bourjois. They created a new corporate entity, Parfums Chanel to manage the sale of the fragrance on a bigger and more commercial scale. The Wertheimers agreed to manage production, marketing, and distribution of Chanel No 5. It was agreed that the Wertheimers would receive a 70 percent share of the company, and Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette, would receive 20 percent. Bader had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at the Longchamps races in 1922. For 10 percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Later however, as the fame of No 5 spread across france, and then the world, Chanel became unhappy with the agreement, realising that she'd relinquished control of a product that could, and was, making more money that she could have imagined. So, unhappy with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel. She said that Pierre Wertheimer was "the bandit who screwed me".

World War II quickly arrived during Chanel's dispute with the Wetheimers and she used the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property and businesses as her opportunity to gain control of Parfums Chanel and its most profitable product, Chanel No 5. The directors of Parfums Chanel, the Wertheimers, were Jewish, and Chanel used her position as an "Aryan" to petition German officials to legalize her right to sole ownership. In May 1941, Chanel wrote to the government administrator charged with ruling on the disposition of Jewish financial assets. Her grounds for proprietary ownership were based on the claim that Parfums Chanel "is still the property of Jews" and had been legally "abandoned" by the owners.

"I have an indisputable right of priority ... the profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business ... are disproportionate ... [and] you can help to repair in part the prejudices I have suffered in the course of these seventeen years." - Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel

However, unfortunately Chanel was not aware that the astute Wertheimers, anticipated the forthcoming Nazi confiscations, and in May 1940, legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to a French-Christian, businessman Felix Amiot for a penny. At the end of World War II, Amiot returned Parfums Chanel to the Wertheimers, something Chanel was not happy about.

At the end of World War II, Coco Chanel's wartime collaboration threatened her with arrest and incarceration. In an attempt at damage control, she placed a sign in the window of her rue Cambon boutique, announcing that free bottles of Chanel No. 5 were available to American GIs. Soldiers waited in long lines to take a bottle of Paris luxe back home, and "would have been outraged if the French police had touched a hair on her head".

By the mid-1940s, the worldwide sales of Chanel No 5 amounted to nine million dollars annually (approximately US$240 million today). This made Chanel feel bitter and she was determined to gain control of Parfums Chanel from the Wertheimers. Her first plan was to destroy customer confidence in the brand, tarnish the image, crippling its marketing and distribution. She spread rumours and let it be known that Chanel No 5 was no longer the original fragrance created by "Mademoiselle Chanel", and that it was no longer being created according to her standards and what was now being offered to the public was an inferior product, one she could no longer endorse. Chanel also announced she would make available an authentic Chanel No 5, to be named "Mademoiselle Chanel No 5", which she'd offer to a group of select clients. Unfortunately this did not have much effect, and so Chanel escalated her game plan by instigating a lawsuit against Parfums Chanel and the Wertheimers. The legal battle garnered wide publicity. The New York Times reported on 3 June 1946:

The suit asks that the French parent concern [Les Parfums Chanel] be ordered to cease manufacture and sale of all products bearing the name and restore to her the ownership and sole rights over the products, formulas and manufacturing process [on grounds of] "inferior quality".

Some time passed, with hostility between Chanel and the Wertheimer's taking place, but ultimately, the Wertheimer's and Chanel came to an agreement, re-negotiating the original 1924 contract. On 17 May 1947, Chanel received her share of the wartime profits of Chanel No 5, an amount equivalent to nine million of today's dollars. Post-war, her share was two percent of all Chanel No 5 sales worldwide. Her earnings were in the region of $25 million a year, making her at the time one of the richest women in the world. The new arrangement also gave Chanel the freedom to create new scents, which would be independent of Parfums Chanel, with the proviso that none would contain the number 5 in its name. She never acted on this opportunity. A little fact that some people dont realise, Chanel was famed for sleeping at the Ritz Hotel even though she had her store and apartment on the Rue Chambon just on street away, why? Because part of the deal was that the Wertheimer's would fund her living costs, and this was her way of making them pay! Chanel had her Ritz apartment where she slept plus her actual apartment & store a street away till her death in 1971.

For more details of Chanel products, or to shop, visit the Notino links above.