Smell of Success: How Chanel No 5 Was Dusted With Stardust | Chanel
TThrough the bay windows of his office on the seventh floor of the chic Parisian headquarters of Chanel, Olivier Polge can contemplate the French capital. From there, in the western suburbs of Neuilly-sur-Seine, much of the city’s iconic skyline is in full view: the Eiffel Tower, the mansard roofs and the greenery of the Bois de Boulogne; the Sacré-Coeur at the top of Montmartre opposite.
It’s a sight that has captivated some of Europe’s most famous visual minds, but from there Polge draws inspiration from another of his senses. He is, after all, the nose of the fashion house, the chief perfumer of Chanel: the steward of its iconic perfumes of the past, and the man responsible for creating their perfumes of the future.
His desk is exactly as you’d expect – handwritten notes and branches of blotters stick out of short metal stands, surrounded by boxes overflowing with collections of indecipherable little glass bottles. In each, he explains, there is an ongoing experiment; constantly evolving concoctions which, he hopes, will one day lead him to another perfect scent. Since taking office in 2015, Polge has created 17 fragrances: Chance Eau Vive and Gabrielle Essence Eau de Parfum among them. And, there is No 5 L’Eau: his take on Chanel No 5, the world bestseller.
Each of its formulas is sent to the lab next door, where a team of four technicians will carefully build them. The ingredients are inside their perfumer’s organ, the centerpiece of the room – a large, shelved glass cylinder in which the raw materials are neatly stored in flasks. There is ylang-ylang, May rose and bergamot; citrus fruits and at least 10 types of jasmine. The vials are blue to protect them from potentially harmful sunlight, and each will be promptly returned to the temperature-controlled unit after use to stop any deterioration.
“It’s only after I collect a creation,” he says, “that I really start to assess the composition of the compound. And this is by no means just the initial sensation of the scent.
Each is sprayed on a strip, on which the perfume is located. As the liquid evaporates, Polge explains, the aroma is constantly evolving. He has to sit with them. “Often,” he says, “I realize that my conception is not quite correct. It takes repeated trials and tests. “The closer I get to the right formula, the more time I spend with the scent. I need to understand its train, its olfactory signature; wet and dry notes.
It can take him weeks to figure out if a certain iteration is correct: “I have to be sure I won’t get bored of it.”
At Chanel, Polge tells me, the role of the nose is unique: elsewhere its counterparts are primarily responsible for product development. Here, however, he also oversees all of the house’s ongoing fragrance production. “All of these scents have very specific raw materials that I have to put together year after year,” he says, “while making sure that each of these specific elements is available and sustainable in the long term to keep going.”
At the heart of this operation is Chanel n ° 5, the most popular perfume in the world. This year marks its centenary, around this time the faces of the perfume have included Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve and, most recently, actor and activist Marion Cotillard. Today, for the first time, a book dedicated to exploring the history of perfume has been published, celebrating this milestone.
The recipe itself is a well-kept secret that has always remained unchanged, even though over 80 distinct flavors are said to be inside. Most of the most precious elements are cultivated in-house by Chanel in Grasse, the historic capital of perfumery in France.
“The perfume industry is organized in a completely different way than the wine industry, for example,” says Polge. “People often ask: is number 5 changing? Is the annual culture different? But we know exactly what it needs to smell, and my job is to make sure it stays as it always has been.
In the early spring of 1921, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel approached perfumer Ernest Beaux – the house’s first nose – with her vision. She wanted him to create a scent like none of those before him. She vowed to make perfume a fashion. It was a time when smelling something specific – gardenia, jasmine, rose – was all the rage. “Gabrielle didn’t want a scent that just smelled like a specific raw material,” says Polge, “she didn’t have the look of a traditional perfumer”.
Instead, she asked for something abstract: “an artificial perfume like a dress, something made up.”
It is said that after a lot of hard work, something happened when Chanel breathed in the scent of Beaux’s fifth sample. “Gabrielle Chanel had this idea that perfumes could be an expression of fashion,” says Polge, rising from her desk to guide us towards the laboratory. “Before, you had the world of perfumers and the world of designers – they weren’t connected. But Gabrielle thought no, this perfume – No 5 – will be Chanel’s perfume. That’s why, before other designers do the same, she put her name on it.
Decades have passed since the perfume was first bottled, during which countless designers have followed suit: the perfumes regularly carry the nickname of their fashion house; little smell from just one natural ingredient. The longevity of No 5 must therefore be due as much to its past as to its constantly evolving present.
“The success of a perfume is very much about the attention you give it,” says Polge. “We know that we make perfume today because of No 5, we always put it on a pedestal: we find a new character, a new story, a new face to embody the perfume. “
Sure, multi-million pound marketing campaigns play their part, but her story could never have been scripted. During her lifetime, Marilyn Monroe never appeared in a Chanel campaign, yet her 1952 comments in an interview with Life magazine was perhaps the biggest advertisement for the perfume. When asked what she was wearing to bed, Monroe replied: five drops of Chanel No 5 and nothing else. In many ways, Polge says, he’s written his own story.
Standing in the center of the light-flooded lab, Polge chooses various containers and dips gauges inside. Replaced regularly to ensure they are at their best, each of the scents is pure and tangy. There is sandalwood oil straight from New Caledonia in the South Pacific: deep, rich and earthy. There is Grasse jasmine absolute itself: sweet and floral. Still, it’s not long before – with my untrained muzzle – they all start to coalesce.
Polge has no such problems. There have only been four noses at Chanel. After Beaux came Henri Robert, then Jacques Polge: Olivier’s father. He shows me the small library in the corner of the laboratory, the books organized and beautifully bound by Jacques before his departure.
“He joined me when I was only four years old,” says Polge. “As far back as my conscious memory dates back, the scent has been a constant presence.”
Like a typical teenager, young Olivier spent his teenage years determined to do more than follow in his father’s footsteps. He loved music, design and crafts and enrolled in an art history course; during his first summer vacation, he asked his father if they could spend a month together in the lab. “If you knew my dad, you would know he doesn’t talk too much,” Polge said. “Everything changed when I first got to the lab and he started teaching me.
Polge returned to college the following September, but quickly made his way to the family home for dinner. “I told him I wanted to quit my studies and learn how to be a perfumer,” recalls Polge. “At first he said it wasn’t a good idea, but within days he got used to it.
Rather than take his son under his wing, Jacques insisted that Olivier learn his trade in the field. He spent time in factories, understanding how raw materials are mined, how they interact with each other. It was not until 20 years later that Olivier returned to Chanel. Polge senior was ready to retire and had been asked to prepare a list of potential candidates to take over. Considering his son’s talent and prowess, he thought it would have been a mistake not to include Olivier, who had spent years grafting himself. Soon, Polge junior was hired.
There is nothing genetic, Polge says, that makes him a suitable successor. A perfumer, he explains, shouldn’t smell things that no one else can smell, it’s not about having a distinctly precise palate: “We all have a huge memory for perfume. The job is much more to activate the link between your nose and memory.
“When I came back,” he says, “it was the first time that I really felt like working with my father. At that time, I knew how to create a perfume. But dad was showing me something special – the Chanel way; his explanation of our style. For everyone here, this is incredibly important.
Polge spent his first year not making a single perfume, instead he was told to watch how others worked around him. It meant spending time sitting in the lab, as he had done the first summer, while learning to understand the design and development process in the workshops of Chanel.
It was Gabrielle Chanel who said that while fashion fades, only style remains the same. When it comes to scents, Polge says it couldn’t be truer. Season after season, clothes come and go. A perfume, on the other hand, must be durable. This is what Polge keeps at the heart of his work. Not only to continue the legacy of Chanel, but also that of her father.
Chanel No 5 by Pauline Dreyfus is released in the UK by Thames & Hudson and in the US by Abrams