On May 5, 1921, a date of symbolic importance to its iconic creator, the perfume Chanel No. 5 officially debuts in Coco Chanel’s boutique on the Rue Cambon in Paris. The new fragrance immediately revolutionized the perfume industry and remained popular for a century.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was the daughter of a clothing peddler and a laundrywoman. She learned to sew in the convent where her father sent his three daughters after the death of their mother when Coco was only 11. From these humble beginnings, she quickly established herself on the fashion scene when her lover, a wealthy textile magnate named Étienne Balsan, helped her set up her first boutique. By 1921, Chanel was a celebrated clothing designer and socialite, known both for wildly popular, groundbreaking clothing designs and for her high-profile romances and larger-than-life public image.
It was one such romance that led to the creation of Chanel No. 5—while vacationing in the South of France with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, an exiled Russian nobleman who had taken part in the killing of Grigori Rasputin, Chanel met the perfumer Ernest Beaux. She began to work with him on a fragrance that would bear her name, allegedly challenging him to create a scent that would “smell like a woman, not like a rose.” According to legend, Beaux or his assistant accidentally added an “overdose” of aldehydes—chemicals that helped a scent last longer but which were used sparingly by perfumers of the time, who preferred natural ingredients and fruity scents—to one of the samples he prepared for Chanel. A number of reasons have been posited as to why Chanel settled on this scent: many argue that the aldehydes reminded her of soap, a scent that took her back to her mother’s laundry, while others hold that she picked the fifth sample of a batch that Beaux offered because of her lifelong obsession with the number five. Chanel later said the concoction “was what I was waiting for…a woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” The fragrance would officially debut, along with her new collection, on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1921.
Even before it debuted, Chanel No. 5 caused a stir. Chanel hosted a party for some of her most fashionable friends, sprayed the perfume around the table, and, according to legend, was asked about the scent by every woman who passed by. The fragrance was an immediate hit, considered to be “cleaner” than many of the most common perfumes but also more “mature” and adult, in keeping with Chanel’s public image. Now considered by many to be the first modern perfume, Chanel No. 5 is as recognizable and enduring as Chanel’s most famous clothing designs, and the designer herself.