More Than a Number ... The Story of N°5 (Part 1)

A fashion show, 25 different formulations and a lucky number — what do they have in common? The answer lies in one of the world’s bestselling and adored fragrances of the 20th century, Chanel N°5. 

Groundbreaking and unique in its own right, broke the normality of fragrances where the fragrances are usually concocted with naturally-derived notes — a practice that is probably dated back to the halcyon days of the Roman civilisation — by substituting the traditional natural approach with novel artificiality.

Furthermore, at a time when couturiers and perfumers practiced very separate arts, Chanel has decided to embark on this unique project through a conversation she had in summer, while meeting her friends, painter José Maria Sert and his wife Misia in Monte Carlo. Accompanying her during the visit was the Great Duke Dmitri of Russia, cousin of the Tsar.

As a bona fide style visionary who changed the way women looked at the art of s’habiller (dressing), her vision for her first fragrance was absolutely outstanding: It was a fragrance incomparable to others. 

It is a fragrance that smelled good; akin to her spitting image with multiple and contradicting facets; filled with sensual momentum and modest unspoken understandings, both light and memorable. To put it according to Chanel’s own thought, it was a women’s fragrance that smells likes women: luxurious and infinitely seductive.

Her vision materialised with the help of renowned perfumer Ernest Beaux. Born in Moscow to French parents and moved to La Bocca near Grasse where he set up his shop after Russian Revolution in 1917, Ernest met Chanel and it was in his laboratory that was filled with flasks and alembics where he shared with her his research on aldehydes, an extremely volatile synthetic substances that are used sparingly to give airy nature to floral notes. 

Seduced by the wonderful finding, she outlined her vision of conceiving an artificial fragrance.

“I say artificial because it will be fabricated. I want a fragrance that is composed,” Chanel declared.

Attributing his inspiration from the freshness of the lakes in the northern region during the midnight sun, he created a structure sans the existence of dominant note but has an amazing floral richness. 

To conceive it, he used no less that 80 ingredients of which the olfactory power was heightened by the aldehydes used for the first time in unique proportions. The result of his thorough research and hard work was presented to Gabrielle Chanel in 1921 — 25 formulations laden on two trays. Out of the 25 samples he presented, her heart fell for the 5th sample.

“That’s what I expected,” she said, after going back to the fifth formulation. “A perfume unlike any other ever made. A woman’s perfume.”

The 5th sample top notes were comprised of Comoro ylang-ylang and neroli sourced from Grasse. Its warmth is enhanced and made intangible by aldehydes with great floral accord at heart, imparting full yet sublime harmony while melding with May roses and jasmines from Grasse. 

The fragrance’s base ends with vibrating woody notes emanated from the accord of sandalwood, vanilla and Bourbon vanilla. Chanel made him add greater quantity of jasmine blossoms from the fields of Grasse, a luxurious raw material for perfume in the world.

Of all the names she could have thought of, why did Chanel decide to name her first fragrance N°5? First and foremost, there is a possibility that the name came from the fifth fragrance composition that she loved so much out of the 25 samples. 

Moreover, in her lifetime, number five was a significant figure – it was her lucky number and her astrological sign Leo is the fifth sign within the zodiac.

There is also a story that associated the birth of N°5 with her fashion show on the fifth of May, which is the fifth month of the year.

But whatever it may be, the success of N°5 can also be attributed to its name – an easily remembered name that needs no translation. 

Number 5 is universally understood, though the pronunciation may differ according to languages and countries i.e. five in English-speaking countries, cinq in French-speaking countries, cinco in Spanish- and Portuguese speaking countries, and lima in Malay.

Before becoming an icon of the popular culture, the United States was chosen as its first target with New York being the cultural and commercial base with clientele for luxury goods. 

However, it was during the Liberation of Paris from the Axis, American soldiers lined up in front of Chanel’s Rue Cambon boutique to buy a bottle of N°5 for their wives! 

Post-war, the global popularity of N°5 was elevated to a greater height when actress and fashion icon Marilyn Monroe revealed to a journalist that she wore “just a few drops of N°5” to bed in 1954 — 30 years after Gabrielle Chanel debuted the fragrance.     

Albeit fabricated in nature, precious flowers sourced from around the world are the key to the N°5 formula.  Flowers, the epitome of femininity, are bursting with nuances of sensual seduction, giving this multi-faceted fragrance an incomparable persona.

From the Philippines comes the ylang-ylang – a yellow flower that is native to the sun-drenched Western Pacific island nation with long petals resembling those of orchids. 

Distilled with steam to obtain its essential oil, only the Extra Superior grade is used, which is then revoked under the eyes of Jacques Polge to give N°5 its ideal charm, headiness and smooth notes.

Petals of May rose or Rosa Centifolia from the fields of Grasse — the only place in the world where the flower is grown — are used for the heart of the scent. 

Blooming only once a year in May (hence its name May rose), the blossoms are gathered in the morning before the sun damages its fragile nature. 

The petals are immediately transformed into a balm, followed by absolute. 

It takes one tonne of May rose petals to obtain 15kg of the absolute and thanks to its exceptional elegance within the scent composition, Chanel grows its own May rose fields and manufacture its own concentrate. 

As for the iconic Grasse jasmine that gives the fragrance exceptional olfactory point of view, Chanel has inked an exclusive agreement of partnership with local producers since 1987 to ensure constant supply of the material.   
As a luxury and exclusive fragrance, the exclusive creator of Chanel fragrances Jacques Polge guarantees the level of excellence demanded by Chanel in the production of all fragrances that bears its name, including the iconic N°5. Polge personally select and inspect all ingredients that go into the making of N°5. 

This is to ensure the consistent high quality of the raw materials as it is important for the harvested products such as roses and jasmines. Analytical and olfactory inspection techniques such as chromatography, spectrometry and olfactometry are employed for maximum reliability. 

The juice is concocted within Chanel’s own production site not far from Paris. The mixture of raw materials and the addition of alcohol into the concentrates are done with utmost care.

They are done according to the coded directions, transmitted to the technicians in strict collaboration with Jacques Polge’s team.
Once the potion is ready, it will be filled into bottles by vigilant-eyed workers. Like concocting the fragrance itself, bottling N°5, albeit is not a rocket science, requires thorough attention, meticulousness and adequate experience.

Known as the baudruchage technique, it is the ultimate and the most precious step handed down by tradition that is now exclusively reserved for N°5 perfume extract.

It starts with applying a fine membrane over the neck of the bottle, attached by two rows of black pearl cotton yarn, ensuring an absolute water-and-air tight quality. 

The addition of a wax stamp with the trademarked double C seal guarantees tamper-proof quality to the bottle. 

While N°5 is set to reach its first centennial in the next six years, the fragrance has become a symbolic badge of valour for women everywhere. 

Regardless of generation, spritzing N°5 before leaving home today is more or less, akin to embracing the bravura spirit of Gabrielle Coco Chanel – a visionary who once lived to liberate women and lead them to a new age of womanhood through style and yes, scent. 

In Part Two, find out how N°5 garnered its international stardom through advertisement campaigns and endorsements by the stars of the contemporary popular culture. 

Chanel N°5 fragrance range is available now at all Chanel beauty and fragrances boutiques worldwide.

*Photos courtesy of Chanel  

Espace Parfums Chanel - G07B, Ground Floor, Suria KLCC, Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur


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