Chanel Nº 5 Turns 100

Sep 19, 2022

For a century, Chanel Nº 5 has been synonymous with glamour. So as the fragrance celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, we decided to investigate the history of the iconic brand that many followers of Everything Retirement inevitably grew up with – including me.

It’s a fascinating story in many ways – one that combines ambition, creativity and moral turpitude in equal measure.

Coco Chanel, Disrupter

Gabrielle Chanel (or Coco, as she was known) was a disrupter whose first perfume, launched a century ago, took the fashion scene by storm and shook up the status quo.

At that point in her career, Coco Chanel was already a revered couturière who owned several boutiques in France. But it was Nº 5’s golden elixir, crystalline bottle and minimalist logo that catalysed a cultural phenomenon and made her a global star.

According to Justine Picardie in her biography Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, Gabrielle was introduced to perfumer Ernest Beaux by her Russian lover, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.


Beaux had been born in Russia and was a perfumer to the tsars; he had recently relocated to Grasse, the world centre of perfumery, in the South of France. At that time, Soliflores, a fragrance made up of a single floral note, was then the scent du jour, but Gabrielle wanted something more.

As Coco once said: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”

To that end, Gabrielle asked Beaux for “an artificial fragrance. I don’t want rose or lily-of-the-valley, I want a composed fragrance.”

Rich & Voluptuous

Rich and voluptuous, Chanel’s world-famous perfume is made up of 80 different scents, including grasse jasmine, May rose, and neroli. No single note is identifiable, so the blend is considered abstract.

This abstraction comes partly from the addition of aldehydes, a chemical compound. And while aldehydes had been used before in fragrance, they’d never featured in such large quantities. It was this unconventional formula that gave the floral bouquet of Chanel Nº 5 its modern edge – which it retains today.

Aldehydes Defined

As commentary from The Perfume Society reports: “Aldehydes triggered a revolution in perfumery. Think of them as something like ‘rocket fuel’, boosting the ‘whoosh’ of a fragrance, when you first smell it: they’re like the fizz of champagne, having the power to make a perfume truly sparkle and effervesce.

Aldehydes may be found in natural materials – rose, citronella, cinnamon bark and orange rind, for instance – but are also a family of synthetic chemicals, formed (here’s the science bit) ‘by the partial oxidation of primary alcohols’.”

Another Break with Tradition

Choosing a number as the fragrance name was a break from tradition – as

was the angular, flask-like bottle. It was typical then for perfume flacons to be highly ornate and for the name to be something poetic.

But the move paid off in spades, as the simple numerical logo and minimalist bottle became a beacon of luxury, instantly recognisable in many cultures, and a status symbol to be proudly displayed on vanity tables all over the world.

Find Out More About Coco Chanel

Even though Chanel Nº 5 retains its glamour and renown, the woman responsible for taking it to market remains a figure of considerable controversy (hence the moral turpitude we mentioned earlier). The following is a link to a number of biographies written over the years about the woman. They make for very interesting reading!



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