A Look into 100 Years of Chanel N°5 with The Maison’s Nose Olivier Polge

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Whether stealing a spritz from the bottle propped up your mother’s perfume display or catching the rich notes of ylang-ylang with vetiver undertones in an embrace, your first Chanel N°5 experience is one that’s remembered. Though biologically speaking, smell is the strongest of the five senses as the most primitive sense, yet there’s something far beyond the olfactory delight of the fragrance that makes N°5 so memorable.

In the 100 years since its initial release in 1921, N°5 has become something of an heirloom passed down from generation to generation that remains untouched by time. The fragrance is seemingly unaffected by the cyclical nature of fashion where the complex juice has withstood 10 decades of new trends and tastes all very different from each other.

Perhaps, it’s the personal unique experience we associate with the scent that’s cemented its true icon status in the hearts and medicine cabinets of men and women around the world. “There’s something about N°5 that goes a little bit beyond time,” says Chanel’s house perfumer Olivier Polge. “Maybe through its complexity, each one of us has a very subjective, individual take on N°5, and that explains a lot of its longevity.” Polge recalls fragrance being a large part of his own memories as an adolescent where his father, Jacques Polge, held the same position at Chanel for 37 years. “I had friends whose parents would come back from their regular jobs, but my father came home bringing back samples of N°5.”

When Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel first set out to develop the iconic Chanel N°5 fragrance with Chemist Ernest Beaux for her private clients, she wished to create something that would be remembered; a composition of scents that encapsulated the essence of the modern woman all in one beveled bottle. At the time, women’s fragrance was typically a single scent, however Chanel desired to be a woman of firsts. Not only did she want to be the first fashion house with a signature scent as she believed the two worlds coincided, she wanted to set it apart from the rest. “With N°5, it’s such a formulated composition that somehow you don’t pinpoint each ingredient. That’s why we call it an abstract fragrance,” said Polge.

She built her signature scent the same way she created her dresses, a fragrance that was as multifaceted as its wearer. „A woman should smell like a woman, not like a rose,“ Chanel once said. “She compared the building of a fragrance with her fashions and she wanted an artificial fragrance that was built how her dresses are, one that doesn’t smell like a simple rose or jasmine, but made of a combination of each,” said Polge.

The result? A complex formula extracted from the world’s finest ingredients. The N°5 scent is a composition of geographical offerings pulled from every corner of the Earth: fresh jasmine and Centifolia roses from Chanel’s fields in Grasse, warm sandalwood from New Caledonia, bursting citrus oils from Italy, the cocktail of scents is not so easily defined, yet all too familiar. With a background in classical music, Polge notes the orchestration of the scent is in many ways similar to the orchestration of a musical composition – familiar notes aligning to create something magical and entirely new. “Each bottle of raw material would be a musical tone, which I think is quite poetic,” he said. “What I like about perfume is that it’s completely enigmatic at the end, the scent is floating in the air the same way music floats in the air somehow. In a world where we are so visual, it must speak to a part of our sensibility that is closed or disconnected.”

100 years later, and N°5’s notes are still playing the same beloved tune. While Polge noted one of the most important aspects of N°5 is preserving its formula, it’s also how Chanel is able to grasp new elements of the scent while staying true to the classics. “Chanel N°5 was created at a time when [perfume] was very precious. People would put a drop of this very rich and dense perfume behind each ear. Today, we are much more casual with perfumes; we’re much broader with the spray which calls for a play on the textures of the fragrance, that can lead us to different interpretations,” said Polge. The second iteration of N°5 was released in 1924 as a lighter eau de toilette and the third wasn’t released until the ‘80s when Polge’s father created the eau de parfum followed by eau de première in 2008. “We never try to translate or reproduce anything of the nature, but we try to transform the impression of scents by the construction of a fragrance. It’s a message for creativity.“

While Chanel takes necessary measures to protect and preserve the scent with few minor updates to the original fragrance, there have been changes within the bottle’s design. “I remember someone saying that the bottle of N°5 made small evolutions to adapt to the world around it, meaning that when the designer of all the things that surrounds N°5, he was adapting the bottle little-by-little,” Polge said. Modeled after the Place Vendôme’s orthogonal shape that Chanel would gaze at from her balcony at the Ritz Paris, Chanel’s bottle was a departure from the styles of perfume bottles during the ‘20s. “Before N°5, you had bottles with a lot of decorations, very complex, and Gabrielle Chanel came up with this very rich and complex fragrance,” said Polge. “By opposition, she asked the bottle to be the most simple you could find, as if all the gold was inside,” he said. “We have made a few changes, but we still express the same message of a very pure and simple line, which sometimes requires the move of a very slight measurement.” When it comes to N°5, Chanel intended for good things to come in small packages. Or in this case, simple packages.

Made up of all elements personal to Chanel and her work, she developed a perfume that, like one’s style, is as subjective as it is universal. “The same way that you built your personality with the way you arrange yourself, the clothes you wear, how you move, and how you speak, tells a lot about your personality, and I think with fragrance that’s even more true,” said Polge. Before exchanging names, before a handshake, before locking eyes, the first thing noticed when meeting another person is their scent. For 100 years, N°5 has provided that signature for men and women across decades in a way that has stayed beautifully unchanged and always memorable. “It reminds me of the sentence she used to say– “fashion changes, but style endures.”

Chanel N°5 fragrance is available in Chanel boutiques and online at chanel.com.

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