Floral-aldehydic feminine fine fragrance
5 May 1921, to select clientele in Chanel rue Cambon boutique
Chanel No. 5 is the first perfume launched by French couturier Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. The chemical formula for the fragrance was compounded by French-Russian chemist and perfumer Ernest Beaux.
Traditionally, fragrance worn by women had adhered to two basic categories: respectable women favored the pure essence of a single garden flower, and sexually provocative perfumes heavy with animal musk or jasmine were associated with women of the demi-monde, prostitutes or courtesans. Chanel felt the time was right for the debut of a scent that would epitomize the flapper and would speak to the liberated spirit of the 1920s.
Iconography of the No. 5 name
At the age of twelve, Chanel was handed over to the care of nuns, and for the next six years spent a stark, disciplined existence in a convent orphanage, Aubazine, founded by Cistercians in the 12th century. From her earliest days there, the number five had potent associations for her. For Chanel, the number five was especially esteemed as signifying the pure embodiment of a thing, its spirit, its mystic meaning. The paths that led Chanel to the cathedral for daily prayer were laid out in circular patterns repeating the number five.
Her affinity for the number five co-mingled with the abbey gardens, and by extension the lush surrounding hillsides abounding with cistus, a five-petal rose.
In 1920, when presented with small glass vials containing sample scent compositions numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24 for her assessment, she chose the fifth vial. Chanel told her master perfumer, Ernest Beaux, whom she had commissioned to develop a fragrance with modern innovations: "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."
Design of the bottle
Chanel envisioned a design that would be an antidote for the over-elaborate, precious fussiness of the crystal fragrance bottles then in fashion popularized by Lalique and Baccarat. Her bottle would be "pure transparency ...an invisible bottle." It is generally considered that the bottle design was inspired by the rectangular beveled lines of the Charvet toiletry bottles, which, outfitted in a leather traveling case, were favored by her lover, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Some say it was the whiskey decanter he used that she admired and wished to reproduce in "exquisite, expensive, delicate glass."
The first bottle produced in 1919, differed from the Chanel No. 5 bottle known today. The original container had small, delicate, rounded shoulders and was sold only in Chanel boutiques to select clients. In 1924, when "Parfums Chanel" incorporated, the glass proved too thin to sustain shipping and distribution. This is the point in time when the only significant design change took place. The bottle was modified with square, faceted corners.
In a marketing brochure issued in 1924, "Parfums Chanel" described the vessel, which contained the fragrance: "the perfection of the product forbids dressing it in the customary artifices. Why rely on the art of the glassmaker ...Mademoiselle is proud to present simple bottles adorned only by ...precious teardrops of perfume of incomparable quality, unique in composition, revealing the artistic personality of their creator."
Unlike the bottle, which has remained the same since redesigned in 1924, the stopper has gone through numerous modifications. The original stopper was a small glass plug. The octagonal stopper, which became a brand signature, was instituted in 1924, when the bottle shape was changed. The 1950s gave the stopper a bevel cut and a larger, thicker silhouette. In the 1970s the stopper became even more prominent but, in 1986, it was re-proportioned so its size was more harmonious with the scale of the bottle.
The "pocket flacon" devised to be carried in the purse was introduced in 1934. The price point and container size were developed to appeal to a broader customer base. It represented an aspirational purchase, to appease the desire for a taste of exclusivity in those who found the cost of the larger bottle prohibitive.
The bottle, over decades, has itself become an identifiable cultural artifact, so much so that Andy Warhol chose to commemorate its iconic status in the mid-1980s with his pop art, silk-screen, Ads: Chanel.
Battle for control of Parfums Chanel
In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume house Bourjois since 1917, creating a corporate entity, "Parfums Chanel." The Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive a seventy percent share of the company, and Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store, Galeries Lafayette, would receive twenty percent. Bader had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Chanel to Pierre Wertheimer at the Longchamps races in 1922. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to "Parfums Chanel" and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of "Parfums Chanel." She proclaimed that Pierre Wertheimer was "the bandit who screwed me."
World War II brought with it the Nazi seizure of all Jewish owned property and business enterprises, providing Chanel with the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by "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.
On 5 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.
Chanel was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of "Parfums Chanel" over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist Felix Amiot. At the end of World War II, Amiot turned "Parfums Chanel" back into the hands of the Wertheimers.
Chanel maneuvers for control
By the mid-1940s, the worldwide sale of Chanel No. 5 amounted to nine million dollars annually; some two hundred forty million dollars a year in twenty-first century valuation. The monetary stakes were high and Chanel was determined to wrest control of "Parfums Chanel" from the Wertheimers. Chanel's plan was to destroy customer confidence in the brand, tarnish the image, crippling its marketing and distribution. She let it be known that Chanel No. 5 was no longer the original fragrance as created by "Mademoiselle Chanel," it was no longer being compounded according to her standards and what was now being offered to the public was an inferior product, one she could no longer endorse. Further, Chanel announced she would be making available an authentic Chanel No. 5, to be named "Mademoiselle Chanel No. 5", offered to a group of select clients.
Chanel possibly was unaware that the Wertheimers, who had fled from France to New York in 1940, had instituted a process whereby the quality of Chanel No. 5 would not be compromised. In America the Wertheimers had recruited H. Gregory Thomas as European emissary for "Parfums Chanel." Thomas' mission was to establish the mechanisms required to maintain the quality of the Chanel products, particularly its most profitable fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Thomas worked to ensure that the supply of key components, the oils of jasmine and tuberose, obtained exclusively in the French town of Grasse, remain uninterrupted by warfare. Thomas was later promoted to position as president of Chanel US, a distinction he held for thirty-two years.
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'.
The Wertheimers were cognizant of Chanel's far from exemplary social entanglements and conduct during the Nazi occupation. The progress of legal proceedings would of necessity lead to revelations best kept from public scrutiny. Forbes magazine summarized the Wertheimer's dilemma: [it is Pierre Wertheimer's worry] how "a legal fight might illuminate Chanel's wartime activities and wreck her image—and his business."
Ultimately, the Wertheimers and Chanel came to an accommodation, re-negotiating the original 1924 contract. On 17 May 1947, Chanel received wartime profits of Chanel No. 5 in an amount equivalent to some nine million dollars in twenty-first century valuation, and in the future her share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. The financial benefit to her would be enormous. Her earnings would be in the vicinity of twenty-five million dollars 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 appellation number "5" – she never acted on this opportunity.
1920s and 1930s
Chanel's initial marketing strategy was to generate buzz around 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."
"Parfums Chanel" was the corporate entity established in 1924 to run the production, marketing and distribution of the fragrance business. Chanel wanted to spread the sale of Chanel No. 5 from beyond her boutiques to the rest of the world. The first new market was New York City, the cultural and commercial center of America with the clientele for luxury goods. The inaugural marketing was discreet and deliberately restricted. The first ad appeared in The New York Times on 16 December 1924. It was a small print ad for "Parfums Chanel" announcing the Chanel line of fragrances now available at Bonwit Teller, an upscale department store. In the ad, all the bottles were indistinguishable from each another, displaying all the Chanel perfumes available, #9, #11, #22, and the centerpiece of the line, #5. This presentation of the product line was the extent of the advertising campaign in the 1920s and appeared only intermittently. In America, the sale of Chanel No. 5 was promoted from perfume counters at high-end department stores by enthusiastic sales staff. The strategy in Europe was no less restrained. The Galeries Lafayette, a notable department store, was the first retailer of the fragrance in Paris. In France itself, Chanel No. 5 was not advertised until the 1940s.
The first real marketing blitz was planned for 1934–35. The first truly solo advertisement of Chanel No. 5, as the most important Chanel perfume, comparable to her legend as a couturiere, ran in The New York Times on 10 June 1934.
In the early 1940s, when other perfume makers were increasing brand exposure, "Parfums Chanel" took a contrary track and actually decreased advertising. In 1939 and 1940, ads had been significant. By 1941, they had been cut back dramatically so that there was almost no print advertising. The directors of "Parfums Chanel" may have felt the expenditure was not needed. Sales of fragrance had flourished during the years of World War II. Perfume sales in the United States from 1940 to 1945 had increased tenfold, Chanel No. 5 flourished.
It was during the war years that the directors of "Parfums Chanel" came up with an innovative marketing idea. The intent to expand the sale to a middle-class customer had been instituted in 1934 with the introduction of the pocket flacon. The plan was now to extend the market by selling the perfume at military post exchanges, the PX. It was a risky move that may have hurt the exclusive status of the brand, but they went ahead and this marketing plan proved viable. It did not destroy the cachet of the brand, instead it came to epitomize a world of luxury and romance, a souvenir the soldier coveted for his sweetheart back home.
At the end of World War II, Coco Chanel's wartime collaboration with the enemy during wartime menaced her with the exposure of her treasonous activities. 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."
In the 1950s the glamour of Chanel No. 5 was reignited by the celebrity of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe's unsolicited endorsement of the fragrance provided invaluable publicity. In a 1954 interview, when asked what she wore to bed, the movie star provocatively responded: "Chanel No. 5."
In the 1960s the glossy fashion magazines such as Vogue and Bazaar presented Chanel No. 5 as a required accessory to every woman's femininity. Print advertising for Chanel No. 5 was staid and conservative in both visuals and text, eschewing the energy and quirky aesthetic of the burgeoning youth culture. Two catch phrases alternated as ad copy: "Every woman alive wants Chanel No. 5" and "Every woman alive loves Chanel No. 5."
1970s and 1980s
During the 1950s the ads had diminished the allure of Chanel No. 5, identifying it with a scent for sweet, proper co-eds whose style bibles were teenage fashion magazines. In the 1970s the brand name needed revitalization. For the first time in and its long history it ran the risk of being labeled as mass market and passé. The fragrance was removed from drug stores and similar outlets. Outside advertising agencies were dropped. The remaking was re-imagined by Jacques Helleu, the artistic director for "Parfums Chanel." Helleu chose French actress Catherine Deneuve for the new face of Chanel. The print ads showcased the iconic sculpture of the bottle. Television commercials were inventive mini-films with production values of surreal fantasy and seduction. Directed by Ridley Scott in the 1970s and 1980s, they "played on the same visual imagery, with the same silhouette of the bottle," Under Helleu's control the vision to return Chanel to the days of movie glamour and sophistication was realized.
In the 1990s, more money was reportedly spent advertising Chanel No. 5 than was spent for the promotion of any other fragrance brand. Carole Bouquet was the face of Chanel No. 5 during this decade. It has been estimated, as of 2011, that between $20 to $25 million is spent annually on marketing for Chanel No. 5.
In 2003, actress Nicole Kidman was enlisted to represent the fragrance. Film director Baz Luhrmann, brought in to conceive and direct a new advertising campaign featuring her, described his concept for what he titled No. 5 the Film as "a two-minute trailer ... for a film that has actually never been made, not about Chanel No. 5 but Chanel No. 5 is the touchstone". The eventual commercial, produced in two-minute and 30-second versions, cost 18 million English pounds, with Kidman paid US$3.7 million for her work.
In May 2012, the company announced that Brad Pitt would be the first male to advertise Chanel No. 5.
In 2013 Chanel ran an advertising campaign using a recorded interview with Marilyn Monroe in which she is asked about her use of Chanel No. 5 fragrance. It featured Ed Feingersh's photograph of the actress splashing herself with a bottle of the perfume.
In October 2014, Luhrmann again collaborated with Chanel, creating a second advertising campaign for No. 5, this time starring Gisele Bündchen and Michiel Huisman. Throughout the film, singer Lo-Fang performs his slower romantic rendition of You're the One That I Want.
Provenance of the "recipe"
Coco Chanel had wanted to develop a distinctly modern fragrance for some time by early 1920. At this time, Chanel's lover was Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov of Russia, the murderer of Rasputin. The duke introduced her to Ernest Beaux on the French Riviera. Beaux was the master perfumer at A. Rallet and Company, where he had been employed since 1898. The company was the official perfumer to the Russian royal family, and "the imperial palace at St. Petersburg was a famously perfumed court." The favorite scent of the Czarina Alexandra, composed specifically for her by Rallet in Moscow, had been an eau de cologne opulent with rose and jasmine named Rallet O-DE-KOLON No.1 Vesovoi.
In 1912, Beaux created a men's eau de cologne, Le Bouquet de Napoleon, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, a decisive battle in the Napoleonic Wars. The success of this men's fragrance inspired Beaux to create a feminine counterpart, whose jumping off point was the chemical composition of aldehydic multiflores in Houbigant's immensely popular Quelques Fleurs (1912).
His experiments with the aldehydes in Quelques Fleurs, resulted in a fragrance that he called Le Bouquet de Catherine. He intended to use the scent to inaugurate another celebration in 1913, the 300th anniversary of the Romanoff dynasty. The debut of this new perfume proved ill-timed commercially. World War I was approaching, and the czarina and the perfume's namesake, the Empress Catherine, had both been German-born. A marketing misfortune that invoked unpopular associations, combined with the fact that Le Bouquet de Catherine was enormously expensive, made it a commercial failure. An attempt to re-brand the perfume, as Rallet No. 1 was unsuccessful, and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 effectively prevented public acceptance of the brand.
Beaux, who had affiliated himself with the Allies and the White Russian army, had spent 1917–19 as a lieutenant stationed far north, in the last arctic outpost of the continent, Arkangelsk, at Mudyug Island Prison where he interrogated Bolshevik prisoners. The polar ice, frigid seascape, and whiteness of the snowy terrain sparked his desire to capture the crisp fragrance of this landscape into a new perfume compound.
Beaux perfected what was to become Chanel No. 5 over several months in the late summer and autumn of 1920. He worked from the rose and jasmine base of Rallet No. 1. altering it to make it cleaner, more daring, reminiscent of the pristine polar freshness he had inhabited during his war years. 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 ramped up the quantities of orris-iris-root and natural musks.
The revolutionary key was Beaux's use of aldehydes. Aldehydes are organic compounds of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They are manipulated in the laboratory at crucial stages of chemical reaction whereby the process arrests and isolates the scent. When used creatively, aldehydes act as "seasonings", an aroma booster. Beaux's student, Constantin Weriguine, said the aldehyde Beaux used had the clean note of the arctic, "a melting winter note". Legend has it that this wondrous concoction was the inadvertent result of a laboratory mishap. A laboratory assistant, mistaking a full strength mixture for a ten percent dilution, had jolted the compound with a dose of aldehyde in quantity never before used. Beaux prepared ten glass vials for Chanel's inspection. Numbered 1–5 then 20–24, the gap presented the core May rose, jasmine and aldehydes in two complementary series, each group a variation of the compound. "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."
According to Chanel, the formula used to produce No. 5 has changed little since its creation, except for the necessary exclusion of natural civet and certain nitro-musks.