Launched in France in 1921, Chanel No.5 was the first perfume from the French couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The recipe was created by the French-Russian master perfumer Ernest Beaux, then chiefly known for the high-class perfumes he had created for the Russian Tzar family.
Beaux had been inspired by the crisp air of the northern Russian winter when creating the scent, and Coco Chanel really appreciated the aroma since she was looking for something new – something that would break with the perfume norms of the old world and appeal to the modern woman that was emerging after the end of WWI.
Before the war, European perfumes for women were largely divided into two categories: respectable scents and demi-monde scents. It was considered respectable for a woman to chose a perfume smelling like a garden flower, e.g. the scent of a rose. The other category consisted of perfumes heavy with animal musk, and these perfumes were strongly associated with sexually provocative women, such as courtesans.
A scent inspired by winter
Through her aristocratic boyfriend the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov of Russia, Coco Chanel was introduced to Ernest Beaux, the master perfumer at A. Rallet and Company. This company was the official perfumer to the Russian tsar family, which was no small feat since the imperial palace in St. Petersburg was internationally renowned for its exquisite perfumes. Ernest Beaux had personally created tzarina Alexandra´s favourite scent, an eau de cologne with strong notes of rose and jasmine.
In the 1910s, Beaux had experimented a lot with aldehydes, and his skill with these compounds would eventually become important for the future creation of the Chanel No.5.
During World War I, Beaux served as a lieutenant in Arkangelsk in north-western Russia, interrogating Bolshevik prisoners. The ice and snow, the frigid climate, and the crispness of the fresh air had a strong impact on him and he developed a desire to capture all this in a perfume. After the war, he spent the late summer and fall of 1920 turning this into a reality. He started with the rose and jasmine base from tzarina Alexandra´s favourite, but altered it to make it feel both cleaner and more daring. He experimented with synthetics, added his own invention Rose E.B., utilized a new jasmine source called Jasophore, and increased the amounts of iris root, orris root and natural musks.
As mentioned above, Beaux´s knowledge about aldehydes was crucial during the creation of this new “winter perfume”. Aldehydes are organic compounds that can be manipulated in the lab at crucial stages of a chemical reaction to halt the process and isolate a scent. Beaux knew how to use his aldehydes to aroma-boost the perfume.
Beaux prepared ten glass vials for Coco Chanel to smell, and she liked vial #5 best. The Chanel No. 5 that we buy today is still very similar to the perfume in that vial, although it has been necessary to exclude natural civet and certain nitro-musks from the recipe.