Although Chanel No. 5 is now over 100 years old, it’s estimated a bottle sells every 30 seconds worldwide. For a fragrance this successful, there have been remarkably few interpretations in the decades since Coco Chanel and Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux first launched it in 1921. This shows just how much the French luxury brand regards its icon.
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One of the daily duties of Chanel’s “in-house perfumer-creator”, as famed perfumer Olivier Polge is known, is to ensure the quality of the raw materials required for its production.
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Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel famously met with Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux in 1920 and requested a perfume that would “smell like a woman, not like a rose.” It was to be a scent inspired by the modern woman that was both complex and sensual.
A departure from the soliflores scents (perfumes based on one single flower) that were popular at the time, in 1921 Ernest Beaux presented a masterful blend of over 80 natural and synthetic ingredients for this highly complex blend that changed the fragrance industry forever. The top notes include aldehydes, ylang ylang, bergamot, lemon, and orange blossom.
Enveloping heart notes of a mostly floral fragrance including iris, lily of the valley, Turkish rose, orange blossom, jasmine, peony, Grasse tuberose, and orris root – directly transporting you to an imaginary flower garden. Base notes are amber, civit, sandalwood, white musk, moss, vetiver, pink pepper, bourbon vanilla, and patchouli. Combined together this classic scent is often described as a floral fragrance with a fresh soap smell and touch of musk.
It’s a complex scent designed to make a statement and be noticed, unlike many of the light and fresh perfumes that are currently popular. Longevity-wise this Chanel perfume LASTS and has moderate to strong sillage. While this fragrance is suitable for daytime wear, it’s ideal for nighttime and fall or winter.
It’s an iconic perfume but nonetheless has been reformulated over the years, due to regulations regarding allergens and changing social norms regarding the use of animalic ingredients. But that doesn’t stop this masterpiece fragrance from being supremely sensual and rich. From Marilyn Monroe saying she wore”five drops of Chanel No. 5″ (and nothing else) to bed, to modern celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Celine Dion, the appeal is timeless.
Pros: A classic of modern perfumery. Elegant and sophisticated.
Cons: Some may feel it’s too heavy, popular, or old-fashioned.
A Lighter Variation
Ernest Beaux created the first variation in 1924. “The highly precious nature of the Parfum quickly justified the need for a lighter eau de toilette version that stayed true to the spirit of the original,” says Olivier Polge.
Woodier than the Parfum, with vetiver at the fore in the drydown, it’s recommended for those who find the original smells a little too intense. As an Eau de Toilette, the concentration of fragrance is lower so it’s a lighter (and more affordable) version of the classic.
Pros: Lighter and more affordable version of the original.
Cons: Not an exact match to the Parfum. Less longevity.
Bold & Confident
More than 60 years later, in 1986, Jacques Polge (Olivier Polge’s father) introduced this Eau de Parfum variation. While retaining the opulence of the original, it holds more bold contrasts compared to the original’s polish. It has more of a vanilla fragrance emphasis in the drydown and hints of peach, with woody base notes.
Pros: A bold, angular updated version.
Cons: Less polished and smooth than the original.
Soft & Sensual
The classic was given an airier, more contemporary feel with this 2008 release. Though still a middle note – rose is slightly more pronounced here, as is vanilla. It features aldehydes made from citrus essences, subtle florals, and plenty of white musk scents. Another deviation from the original is the absence of patchouli, which some truly appreciate. Overall, this one is a soft and sensual fragrance.
Pros: Softer and more tender variant. Good for daywear or warm weather.
Cons: Doesn’t evolve dramatically like the Parfum.
Fresh & Modern
All icons have to evolve and this 2016 take can be seen as the brand’s response to those who complained that this Chanel perfume line was “too mature” / “too old lady-ish” for their tastes.
With its fresher aspect this Olivier Polge version is probably the biggest departure from the original out of all the versions. This one has lots of citrus in the opening, toned-down aldehydes, ylang-ylang as a middle note, and cedar and orris root in the drydown, without the sandalwood or patchouli notes.
Pros: Appeals to a wider and younger audience.
Cons: If you’re looking for the classic No 5 experience, this is not it.
Interested in doing a deeper dive into the history of Chanel No 5? Check out our interview with historian Tilar J Mazzeo author of The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.
Still looking for the perfect Chanel perfume to suit your body chemistry like a glove? You might be interested in our overview of the best Chanel perfumes or some of their more recent fragrances like Coco Mademoiselle or Chanel Chance.
Which is the classic Chanel No. 5?
The Parfum is the closest original scent, however, it has been reformulated over the years (as most fragrances have) and is no longer an exact duplicate of the original perfume Gabrielle Chanel and Ernest Beaux created.
Is Chanel No. 5 Still Popular?
Yes, although Chanel No. 5 is over 100 years old it’s estimated that a bottle still sells every 30 seconds worldwide. For many, the scent is synonymous with fragrance itself.
Is Chanel No. 5 for old ladies?
Chanel No. 5 has been popular for over 100 years now and many people remember their mother or grandmother wearing this fragrance as a signature scent — this can make it feel like a perfume for old ladies. However, if you separate the nostalgia from the perfume itself, you’ll be delighted by this elegant and timeless feminine fragrance.
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Selena Marc is a fragrance enthusiast, freelance writer, and dog mom living in Houston, Texas. When she's not writing about her favorite new perfumes, you can find her enjoying yoga or a morning hike.