THE MOST ICONIC FRAGRANCES OF ALL TIME
Celia Shatzman takes a journey through time to find that some vintages only get better with age
Fragrance can help people communicate with the gods. Or so the ancient Egyptians believed according to hieroglyphics dating as far back as 3,000 BC. These bygone “eau’s” featured scents made from precious materials such as jasmine, frankincense resin, lilies, and honey. (It’s a well-known legend that Cleopatra even had the sails of her boat coated with perfume oils so that Mark Antony would catch a whiff before her arrival.) While our reasons for wearing perfume have changed—though using it for seduction has not—what we wear has evolved over the centuries. But those Egyptians were on to something, since some of their favorite notes continue to be crowd-pleasers. Today, perfumes still aim to capture glamour and romance in a bottle. The most magical ones endure, as these iconic perfumes throughout modern history prove. Learn the stories behind them—and make some room on your vanity while you’re at it.
Paris was a busy place in 1889. It’s the year the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge opened to the public. It’s also when the first modern perfume was introduced to the world. Guerlain Jicky earns the distinction for being the first fragrance featuring a blend of natural ingredients, like lavender and rosemary, alongside newly invented synthetics, including vanillin, making Aimé Guerlain a perfumer clearly ahead of his time. With herbal aromas cleverly juxtaposed with sweetness, this oriental fougère remains unique, even among its modern counterparts.
Chanel No. 5
Coco Chanel has given the world many things: tanning, costume jewelry, and making black clothing eternally chic (and not just for mourning), to name a few. She also bestowed us with the most iconic fragrance of all time. After she traveled to Monte Carlo in 1921 with a cousin of the tsar, the Great Duke Dmitri of Russia, the abundance of luxury must have inspired to create a . Back then, fashion designers and perfumers stayed in their own lanes, so she broke a barrier once again: She tapped esteemed perfumer Ernest Beaux to capture her aesthetic in a bottle, one that would last on the skin and could be worn day or night. He presented her with a few varieties, each one numbered, and she selected the fifth. The name stuck, which was daring for the time, since perfumes typically had pretty, romantic names. Chanel gave Beaux free creative rein and a generous budget, so he featured rose centifolia, a rare bloom only grown in Grasse, France, as well as the pricy jasmine absolute. An instant best-seller, it surged in popularity at the end of World War II, when soldiers stationed in France took it home for their sweethearts as a souvenir, and again in 1954 when Marilyn Monroe famously claimed the only thing she wore to bed was “a few drops of No. 5.”
Is there any tale more romantic than that of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal to honor his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death? Apparently, Jacques Guerlain didn’t think so. He decided to pay homage to their romance in fragrance form. Introduced as the “first oriental perfume” in 1925, it was named after the historic gardens of the Taj Mahal. (The Baccarat bottle mimicked the curves of the fountains found on the grounds.) Still one of the most popular vanilla-based scents—rounded out with citrus, iris and tonka—it instantly became a global sensation.
Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps
After World War II, everyone wanted some lightness in their lives, and that extended to fragrance. That’s why the French fashion house released this spicy floral in 1948 as an antidote to the mood—and to counter other heavy fragrances that filled the market at the time. Robert Ricci took inspiration from the young post-war women, who flocked to it. Symbolizing peace, the gold bottle was adorned with doves and held a blend of flowers, specifically rose, jasmine, gardenia and spicy carnation.
We’re all familiar with the gorgeous gowns Hubert de Givenchy dreamed up for his muse, Audrey Hepburn, but it’s not as commonly known that he also created a fragrance in her honor. Givenchy commissioned Francis Fabron to create the delicate scent for Hepburn, essentially launching the very first modern celebrity fragrance when he presented it to her in 1957. But it wasn’t available to the public until the 1960s, when it became the first fragrance released by the fashion house; aptly named, it means “forbidden” in French. The dainty floral blend melds jasmine, rose, violet and a fusion of woods and grasses.
Yves Saint Laurent Opium
Yves Saint Laurent was no stranger to scandal—in fact, his 1971 collection even carried that name, and though it was panned at the time it was later recognized for being groundbreaking. The same could be said of Opium, which was even banned in some countries. When he launched the infamous scent in 1977, he received backlash for its controversial moniker, but Laurent refused to apologize. The Empress of China was the muse behind the rich, seductive amber and vanilla fragrance. The spicy floral was housed in a bottle meant to evoke the inro, an ornamental lacquered container hung from belts in traditional Asian fashion dating back to the 16th century. A scandalous secret? These baubles were sometimes used to carry actual opium.
White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor
Long before every A-lister represented a fragrance, White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor hit shelves in 1991. While she wasn’t the first celebrity to inspire a scent (see: Audrey Hepburn, above), she was the first to turn hers into an icon of the category. The legendary actress said she never left home without two things: perfume and diamonds. So, it made sense for her to combine them, with the goal of making every woman feel fabulous. That’s where fresh flowers came in: 67 of them are used in each bottle, including violet, rose, jasmine, and lily. The perfume has been a best-seller for more than two decades now.
Angel by Thierry Mugler
Notes inspired by food weren’t anything new to perfume, but when Angel was introduced in 1992, it was a gourmand like no other. Praline and chocolate took center stage, for a change, and there wasn’t a single floral note in the juice: a true innovation. It took a whopping 608 trials before they got the richly delicious scent just right, and its timeless aroma remains distinct, (even amongst the sea of copycat gourmands it has inspired over the years).
Calvin Klein CK One
Genderless fragrances are the norm now, but back when CK One made its debut in 1994, it broke ground as a gender-neutral scent that really was worn by everyone, and it’s still one of the bestselling launches ever. CK One was all about celebrating individuality and diversity, boasting iconic black-and-white ads starring a very young Kate Moss provocatively clad in Calvin Klein jeans. Clean and crisp, one spritz of the bergamot, cardamom, pineapple, papaya, jasmine, violet, rose, nutmeg and musk (!) blend still serves as a veritable time machine to transport you back to the 90s, should you want to return, that is.
Celia Shatzman is a Brooklyn-based writer who is currently a beauty and fashion contributor for Forbes. Her work has also appeared in New York, NYLON, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, and Refinery29, among others. Her favorite scents are the desert before rain and leather.