Whiff of success

C&I Issue 24, 2008

‘I want to give women an artificial perfume… something that has been made.’ So said Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel in 1921, and she went on to become the world’s leading couturier in the last century. The result was Chanel No.5, a perfume that was to outsell all others, and one for which chemists should ever be grateful because it made the use of synthetic fragrance molecules acceptable. Today the art of the perfumer – and it is still more art than a science – is to compose a great work from molecules created mainly by chemists. This Christmas there is a new work, Chanel No.5 Eau Première, a lighter version of the original. In the words of the Chanel press release: ‘If Chanel No.5 is an oil painting, then Eau Première is a watercolour.’

Chanel No.5 was the perfume that the movie sex-goddess Marilyn Monroe said was all that she wore in bed. And it has continued to tantalise for the past 80 years. Coco Chanel wanted something to complement the little black cocktail dress that she was launching and which has never quite gone out of fashion either. What distinguished the perfume was that it broke with the tradition that perfumes were basically single note floral fragrances. And while Chanel No.5 also contains such components, it relied for its effect on a dominant chemical fragrance that had no association to any natural product.

Every year more than 100 new fragrances are launched, so a new one needs to be something special if it is to be noticed. And just as there are fashions in clothes so there are fashions in types of perfumes. Some decades preferred floral scents, others more oriental fragrances. Yet certain classic perfumes appear never to go out of fashion and Chanel No.5 is one such; its global sales exceed £30m/year. Can Chanel No.5 Eau Première become another classic?

How does the new version compare to the older one? The ingredients in a perfume span a range of volatilities but they are often classified into top notes, middle notes and base notes; within each class there may be a major note and several minor notes. The top notes are the most volatile, the middle notes evaporate more slowly and the base notes slowest of all. The base notes are there to carry hints of smells that we might care not to think about but they link us to our primate ancestors and they are tied to our deepest emotions. Thankfully, they are masked by the other ingredients and the skill of the perfumer is to produce a blend in which all the fragrance components evaporate together.

Chanel No.5’s creator was Russian-born Ernest Beaux, who had trained as a chemist and fled to France after the Bolshevik Revolution. The perfume’s name is supposed to have derived from this being in test bottle number five of a series of six he had produced for Coco and it was the one she preferred. Some say she chose it because five was her ‘lucky’ number. Indeed she launched her famous collection on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1924. Bottle number five contained an aldehyde as its major top note. This was not the first time a synthetic chemical had been used. Powerful smelling compounds appeared in the late 1800s, such as synthetic vanillin, which was a minor note in Guerlain’s Jicky launched in 1887.

The aldehyde that Beaux chose was 2-methylundecanal, which in those days was known as methyl nonyl acetaldehyde.2 This was first used by the perfumer Robert Bienaimé for his Quelques Fleurs, which appeared in 1912. And we now know that Beaux had previously used the aldehydes undecanal and dodecanal in his perfume Rallet No.1 launched in 1914 because an original, sealed bottle came to light and its contents were analysed. What aldehydes offered was a ‘cleaner’ less cloying fragrance blend. Beaux described the effect like ‘lemon juice on strawberries’. The newer version contains the more volatile C9–C12 aldehydes, decanal, undecanal, and dodecanal, all of which carry just a hint of orange blossom.

Beneath Chanel No.5’s major top note were the minor ones of bergamot, lemon, and neroli, from the bitter orange tree. The major middle note of Chanel No.5 was ylang-ylang, which was imported from the Philippines, with minor resonances of jasmine, May rose, lily of the valley and orris, and the dominant bottom note was vetiver, along with sandalwood, cedarwood, vanilla, amber, civet and musk.3 In 1921 the last of these ingredients came from an anal sac of the male musk deer, tens of thousands of which used to hunted and slaughtered every year for the perfume trade.

No one now uses animal secretions as their base notes and indeed the odour component of musk had been isolated in 1906 as muscone although it took another 20 years for its molecular structure to be deduced as 3-methylcyclopentadecanone, by Leopold Ruzicka of Switzerland. Today, there are several other molecules that give the same odour and indeed so-called nitromusk (eg musk ketone) was first produced in 1888. In Chanel No.5 only the jasmine and May rose are now taken from plants – even the civet is synthetic. This used to come from anal glands of the civet cat although this did not involve killing the animal, only keeping it under stress in a confined space.

Perfumers today use synthetic versions of their fragrances and this gives them much greater control over the chords their compositions play with our noses. Synthetic molecules are generally preferred because natural ones tend to decompose more rapidly. And of course synthetic fragrances tend to be a little cheaper, in some cases 1000 times cheaper.

Chanel No.5 Eau Première was created by Jacques Polge, who has been the ‘grand nez’ of that perfume company for 30 years. It was launched in a New York store in 2007 before being launched in the UK this autumn. It is designed to appeal to the younger woman by reformulating the aldehyde content to give an even fresher feel. It is estimated that one bottle of the original Chanel No.5 is sold somewhere in the world every 55 seconds, and Chanel must be hoping that its younger offspring will one day sell equally well.

John Emsley is a popular science writer who specialises in chemical themes.


  1. The chemistry of fragrances: from perfumer to consumer, by Charles Sell, Cambridge: RSC, 2006.
  2. Chanel No 5 and 2-methylundecanal, Molecule of the Month, Simon Cotton, http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/ chanel5/c5h.htm
  3. Fragrance guide: Feminine notes, masculine notes, Karl-Heinz et al.. Hamburg: Glöss Verlag, 1991.
  4. The secret of scent. Luca Turin. London: Faber & Faber, 2006.

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