Chanel No. 5 isn't just a perfume. It's a concept; an embodiment of the French woman. Above all, it's an astoundingly successful PR campaign that has worked its magic since 1921.
Then, designer Coco Chanel hired celebrated perfumer, Ernest Beaux, to create the potion for her: Never mind what it contained - it had to be the most expensive and coveted juice in the world.
Today, nearly 90 years down the road, head honchos at her privately-owned Parisian fashion house are no less practised in her legacy.
|5 FACTS ABOUT CHANEL NO. 5
|1: When Coco Chanel hired perfumer Ernest Beaux to create the world's most exclusive scent, he came up with several prototypes.
No. 5 - which coincides with Coco's lucky number - was chosen from the series.
2: The shape of the Chanel No. 5 bottle cap is inspired by the octagonal shape of Paris' famous Place Vendome.
3: Chanel's fetish flower was the camellia, which has been erroneously thought to be a component of No. 5. The flower is scentless, a fact that Coco herself was pleased with since it allowed women to wear the bloom without having its fragrance interfere with their chosen perfume.
4: Before it was commercially available in 1924, Chanel No. 5 was given away to Coco's friends and clients who visited her first boutique near the Louvre in Paris.
5: Coco sprayed No. 5 liberally in her favourite stairway of her apartment in Rue Cambon, where she would often sit - unobserved - on the fifth step while watching fashion shows held in her parlour through a panel of mirrors.
They have leveraged on the scent's century-old tradition to introduce its newest incarnation: Chanel No. 5 Eau Premiere.
The scent, priced at $167 for a 75ml bottle and $223 for a 150ml one, goes on sale at Chanel counters here today.
'The basic ingredients are the same but it has been tweaked to reflect a more contemporary feel,' says Christopher Sheldrake, deputy perfumer at the fashion house.
'There is a slightly more citrusy top note but it is still recognisable as No. 5; there is no alteration of the basic formula.'
The new Chanel No. 5, housed in a taller bottle, retains the primary ingredient that made the 1921 original so distinctive: a heavy dose of jasmine extract.
Sheldrake reveals: 'Coco didn't want to make just any perfume. She wanted to make the most special perfume in the world; the most expensive perfume in the world - and the most expensive essence of that time was jasmine because it was so hard to extract.'
In order to balance the heavy dose of jasmine, other ingredients had to be added to the mix.
These included extract of the May rose, cultivated in exclusive fields in the South of France specially for Chanel. Other components include essence of the Madagascan ylang ylang flower and - importantly - the synthetically-produced component, aldehyde.
The use of manufactured fragrances was revolutionary in its time, says Sheldrake.
In keeping with the tradition, the new Chanel No. 5 is also aldehyde-based.
There were other factors that ensured the liquid became an instant hit, if only through provocative marketing.
While contemporary fragrances of the 1920s boasted fiddly, romantic names such as Angel's Breath or Mystical Shower, Coco took the bold step of calling her fragrance the minimalist - almost banal - No. 5.
Her receptacle of choice was a blocky, unadorned vial, which epitomised the modern, no-nonsense but classy Parisian woman.
With the advent of perfumery, jasmine has become much easier to extract and the perfume is now more of an affordable luxury. One bottle is reportedly sold every 30 seconds, making it the top-selling perfume in the world.
The new sister version is lighter, airier, more transparent and younger, Sheldrake explains.
'It retains the sensuousness in the original but is clean, like fresh laundry. It is produced with a greater understanding of the ecological process, reflecting changing cultural references and tastes of people who are environmentally conscious.'
Meanwhile, the fashion house hopes to make Eau Premiere a 21st-century classic on the back of the original formula.
Here, the aura of history has been turned on its head.
Classic advertising campaigns that once sealed No. 5's place in the history of fragrances have been recalled as part of Eau Premiere's storytelling process: Marilyn Monroe swore it was the only thing she wore to bed; Catherine Deneuve posed with the bottle.
Then in 2004, Nicole Kidman became its ambassador, endorsing the liquid in a high-profile ad campaign by film director Baz Luhrmann.
Now, Eau Premiere is being marketed - not quite on the face of yet another femme fatale - but paradoxically, on the concept of the old Chanel No. 5.
'Eau Premiere is still Chanel No. 5 but it's also a different No. 5,' Sheldrake says.
'As for how it is different, that is our secret - a secret that began with the original No. 5, whose exact composition is still carefully guarded today.'
Experience the new Chanel No. 5 Eau Premiere at a fragrance layering session and get a free sample. Limited to the first 80 customers per counter. Call 6735-3325 ext 111 for store listings.
This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times on Oct 17, 2008.