An expedition to Grasse, the heart of French perfumery, reveals the secrets of one of the most sought-after perfumes in the world.
Spray a fine mist of Chanel No. 5 and you won’t remember a flower. Launched in 1921, the famous perfume does not evoke any. If anything, you could say it smacks of abstract art – a composition beyond nature, a rebellion against the smooth (and, frankly, dull) valley-centric zeitgeist of its time. Instead, it produces an intense hit of powdery, soapy cleanliness, which is the result of a sumptuous dose of aldehydes. To borrow Coco Chanel’s blunt underpants from her genius perfumer, Ernest Beaux: It smells like a woman’s perfume and nothing else. However, it’s no contradiction to say that the fragrance couldn’t be what it is without flowers – especially its signature jasmine, and not from just anywhere. As for the manufacture of Chanel No. 5, the perfume, exactly as it exists today, is only possible thanks to what blooms under the cover of night in a very specific and discreet farm of 20 hectares – only findable if you know where to look – in the luminous village of Pégomas (about 8,000 inhabitants), in the arrondissement of Grasse, the former world capital of perfume.
“This jasmine has a specific scent that cannot be reproduced elsewhere,” explains Joseph Mul, patriarch of the family estate who has been supplying Chanel exclusively for decades. A fourth-generation arborist, he exudes the enthusiasm you’d expect from someone who’s spent his life growing delicate plants, making us lean in for a whiff even as the sweet, sweet notes already perfume the air. free.
Of course, jasmine is not uncommon, and in the world of perfumery, Egypt and India cultivate the overwhelming majority. Exotic Flowers, while beautiful on their own and cheaper to obtain, are totally different from their Grassegrown counterparts, even though the botanical species is identical. “Let me tell you,” Mul said, as if bragging about the merits of a beloved child, “this one is much softer, lighter, with slightly honeyed tones.”
The particularity of Grasse is rooted in its fertile soil and a rare idyllic microclimate; it is bathed in abundant sunshine, softened by the Mediterranean breeze from the south and sheltered by the Pre-Alps to the north. “It’s never too cold or too hot,” explains chief perfumer Olivier Polge, the only fourth nose in Chanel’s history. (His father, Jacques Polge, held the position for 37 years.) “Everything grows in a very gentle environment. The flowers are not scorched by the sun; they don’t freeze. I always describe Grasse jasmine as fresher; there is a note of tea. Exotic jasmine is beautiful too, but it is more fruity, like marmalade, as if the petals were baked by the sun.
Beyond the characteristic effects of time, the local population expertise is just as essential, inspiring UNESCO to include the Grasse tradition of perfumery in its intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2018. Transmitted from generation to generation, know-how is as much an art as a science. In addition to a basic understanding of horticulture, extraction and distillation methods, “the art involves imagination, memory and creativity,” the agency noted.
If you want to know how Chanel No. 5 is made, you must know the quirks of jasmine and how its star-shaped white flowers unfurl at nightfall and must be harvested before the scented oil wears off at night. Sunrise. From August to October, the ritual begins at dawn: shaded by wide-brimmed hats and scarves and armed with wicker baskets, Mul pickers can harvest the entire field in two mornings before starting over.
This is no small feat considering that the fragile petals have to be picked one by one and with a sleight of hand. (The petal resists if pinched.) While the old-fashioned method may seem inefficient, mechanical harvesting won’t work. When the sun is at its peak, the stacked crates of jasmine petals are taken to processing facilities, located nearby to maximize the freshness of the flower. Daily carrying is about 100-150 kilograms, equivalent to more than one million flowers.
It takes about 330 kilograms of jasmine to obtain barely 600 grams of absolute, the ultra-concentrated liquid needed to make Chanel n°5. You don’t need to do the math to know that the supply of Grasse jasmine is limited. There’s enough to formulate the large extracts of No. 5 (the most concentrated in the collection) in their entirety, but other juice interpretations also include jasmine grown elsewhere.
The downside to Grasse’s dream location on the French Riviera is that the local farmland is gradually giving way to property development. “The region has completely changed,” says Polge. “When my grandparents lived here, there was no tourism.” The younger generation also leaves for cities like Paris, having decided that they do not want to live in the fields. Sensing the existential threat to No. 5, Jacques Polge had the foresight to strike an exclusivity deal with Mul’s farm in 1987, securing a source of the local ingredient so essential to the perfume’s soul. Last August, in a bid to protect more land for its jasmine and other flowers, Chanel announced that it had purchased an additional 10 hectares in the south of France.
Like any art form, perfumes reflect the spirit of their time. So the enigma of why No. 5 still resonates – why it’s still the most famous scent in the world over 100 years later – is understandably a matter of debate. “If it were easy to say, we would only make such iconic perfumes,” Polge quips.
Of course, there’s the legacy of luxury, glamor and pop cultural impact, from Marilyn Monroe’s “nothing but No. 5” bedroom outfit to Andy Warhol’s iconic prints to the muses of today such as Marion Cotillard. There’s the technical brilliance of the perfume itself, hailed as “a masterpiece of modernist sculpture from 1921, one you can wear,” as critic Tania Sanchez writes in her book. Fragrances: the A to Z guide.
Another not-so-small factor is the house’s scrupulous dedication to preserving the classic beauty of the fragrance. The magic of any perfume is by nature a fleeting pleasure: a single spritz quickly disappears into the air, and seasonal scent fads are quickly forgotten. With today’s (and tomorrow’s) bottle of No. 5 fragrance as true as yesterday’s, the timeless allure shows no signs of fading.
This article first appeared in THE FASHION Can emit. Learn more here.