"A woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman.". It was based on this audacious request by the French fashion designer Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco Chanel, that the renowned chemist and perfumer Ernest Beaux created Chanel No. 5 in 1921. The mixture combined flower essences with aldehydes, substances obtained by chemical synthesis. The perfumer used around 80 substances to satisfy the designer's demands and the result was an intense and very sensual perfume.
The use of synthetic ingredients marked the beginning of modern perfumery at the end of the 19th century and enriched the perfumers' palette with new fragrance notes. In the 1920s, the study of molecules was the passport to the production of fragrances on an industrial scale. Today, manufacturers have more than three thousand synthetic perfume molecules at their disposal and the perfume industry is worth seven billion euros annually.
The fragrance of a perfume is a complex system of substances, which were originally extracted from plants or wild animals. To get an idea, it takes five tonnes of roses to obtain one kilo of this essential oil and eight million jasmine trees to obtain the same quantity. The marketing of natural musk oil, on the other hand, is limited to 300 kilos per year, in order to preserve the musk deer species.
In fact, the hunting of this small deer was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1979, although some countries, such as Russia, have national laws authorising it within certain limits.
Concern for the conservation of biodiversity, particularly of endangered species of flora and fauna, has led the perfume industry to chemical laboratories, where today synthetic products are created as an alternative to those of vegetable or animal origin. And these are perhaps the two greatest contributions of synthetic chemistry to the perfume industry: the preservation of biodiversity and the massification of perfumes since the synthesis of aromas in the laboratory has made their production considerably cheaper.
Launched on 5 May 1921, Chanel No. 5 is still a success today. A symbol of refinement and elegance, the perfume's formula contains rosewood, Grasse jasmine, orange blossom and sandalwood essential oils. A century after its launch, it remains both a classic and contemporary perfume, and is the best-selling perfume in the world.