The creation of an icon

In 1920 the perfume Chanel N° 5 is invented
A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with the food chemist Prof. Dr. Julia Bornhorst

100 years ago, the most successful women's fragrance of all time, Chanel Nº 5, was invented. It is estimated that a bottle is sold every 30 seconds worldwide. What does a perfume actually consist of?

Bornhorst: This is an exciting question that often concerns us food chemists because we are not only concerned with food, but also with cosmetics and consumer goods. And of course perfume and its compositions are also part of cosmetics. Perfume is defined as an odorant that is intended to mask body odor or change a scent. A perfume consists mainly of alcohol plus distilled water and - in the past more often than today - essential oils, both from flowers and animal products, were added. Nowadays, less natural essences are used, but rather synthetic substances. This gives a perfume a totally exciting scent bouquet of very different compounds. There can be between 12 and 600 compounds that make up the total fragrance. This also shows how closely the perfume production is linked to the actual chemistry. We have many aldehydes, i.e. there are many small, volatile compounds, among others, which ideally reach the nose directly when applied. The exciting thing is that a perfume fragrance is composed of three different notes. First we have the top scent, then the heart scent and finally the base scent. The top scent is the one that convinces customers in the store to buy the product. It is the first impression you get by applying and smelling it. The heart scent shows you several hours later how the perfume combines with your own body odor. That is why a lot of floral scents are used in the fragrance. And the base scent is responsible for the long-lasting smell. And these are rather heavy compounds, where you use animal musk aromas, sometimes away from the floral scent. There is a clear distinction between these three scents, and for the frequent use of a fragrance, it is the heart and base scent that are decisive, rather than the spontaneous decision in the store.

Chanel Nº 5 was created by the former French chemist and perfumer of the Russian Tsar's court, Ernest Beaux. It consists of exactly 31 perfume raw materials. What are they, for example?

Bornhorst: Perfume is mainly made from very small molecules, because they have to be volatile to reach the nose directly. Chanel Nº 5 was the first time that an aldehyde overdose was created, i.e. it involved working with many synthetic aldehydes, and that was something very special at the time. The top scent is dominated by a radiantly fresh, slightly metallic-waxy-smoky aldehyde complex, with its typical scents of rose petals and orange peel. The citrus-like facets are taken up and underlined by bergamot oil, linalool and petitgrain oil. The heart scent is spanned by the fragrance pillars jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, iris butter and ylang-ylang oil, among others. Other ingredients are rose of May, neroli essence and Brazilian tonka beans. This fragrance is nuanced by sandalwood and patchouli oil. Vanillin, coumarin and storax then lead over to the emphatically sensual musk complex, which determines the theme in the final act of the composition and was made of real musk in the original from 1921.

Thus an enormously broad fragrance was created. It is interesting that besides all the synthetic substances, Chanel still advertises today that it contains extracts of jasmine and rose of May, which are cultivated in Grasse. This gives the top scent as well as the base scent, which is unique for such a noble perfume.

Coco Chanel originally wanted to order this fragrance only as a small Christmas gift limited to 100 bottles for selected customers and was overwhelmed by the demand, so the perfume went into production in 1922. What is the beguiling thing about this fragrance?

Bornhorst: I think you simply have to see the time in which it was created. Chanel Nº 5 was revolutionary, because at that time there were more perfumes that only reminded us of a certain flower. But Chanel Nº 5 is a complete ensemble of different floral, but also animal essences. The use of aldehydes gave the creation an unbelievable momentum, because the fabrics had an enormous diffusion power, i.e. this scent composition could be smelled by the ladies even over a longer period of time. Coco Chanel said at the time that she was creating a perfume for women that would carry the scent of women. Already through marketing, she gave women the feeling that the fragrance did not whitewash their own smell, but rather perfected it.

The flacon also has a very unique shape. Very restrained, it is more oriented towards a container for men's fragrances. This simplicity has not changed until today and Chanel understands marketing perfectly. They recognized early on how important marketing is for sales. At first, Coco Chanel marketed her own perfume as a style icon. They hired Marylin Monroe with the slogan 'I wear nothing at night except a few drops of Chanel Nº 5' and achieved enormous sales of the perfume. Later, celebrities like Catherine Deneuve were recruited and Brad Pitt became the first male model to represent a female perfume. As a result, the product is constantly in the press and thus on everyone's lips. Chanel Nº 5 captivates with its actual scent, its bottle and its very good marketing strategy.

Are there actually scents that manipulate people?

Bornhorst: Definitely. I think that happens to us all the time. The human sense of smell is part of the brain. When we smell something, we do not remember the chemical compound, but we store it as an emotion, as a sensory impression, and we usually associate it with social aspects as well. If you perceive the smell of a fireplace, you often have a positive, pleasant feeling. With the smell of fresh bread, you look forward to breakfast. In the same way it behaves also with smells. The choice of partner is also controlled in this way. The sense of smell is incredibly important for us, also to protect us from danger. A smell of burning makes us act or flee. Other smells, such as visiting a fair with cotton candy and sweets, encourage us to buy and eat sweets. Smell is directly connected to emotion. The olfactory nerves are nerve cells, neurons. The different receptors are located at the ends of the nerve cells. The scents, which arrive according to the lock-and-key principle, dock onto these receptors, trigger a signal and are sent directly to the brain via the olfactory bulb. And there, a certain emotion is stored for each scent. Each neuron carries a gene for a specific scent - and we are talking about millions of nerve cells - in just one nose. It was for this that the Nobel Prize was awarded in 2004. The Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded for the "discovery of olfactory receptors and the organization of the olfactory system". It took a long time to characterize this process. We must look at the brain and smelling in a close connection.

What criteria do you use to select a perfume?

Bornhorst: I personally like it rather fresh and flowery and not too intense in the base scent. I always make sure that I change perfumes as well as perfumed deodorants or shower gels regularly because there is a so-called adaptation effect. If you always use the same perfume, you need more and more of it to be able to perceive the fragrance yourself. The nerve cells regenerate every five to six weeks. So in order not to get used to this adaptation effect, you should also take a break from your favorite scent.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 17.09.2020)


Julia Bornhorst studied and received her doctorate at the Westphalian Wilhelms University of Münster. She worked for five years at the Institute of Nutritional Science at the University of Potsdam. Since January 2019, she has been Professor of Food Chemistry at the University of Wuppertal.

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