Glass meets Olivier Polge, Chanel’s perfumer

Fragrant visions  – Glass travels to Grasse, the home of perfume, to meet Olivier Polge, Chanel’s nose, and Joseph Mul, whose farm provides the flowers for the brand’s legendary fragrances

Glass is in Pégomas, Grasse to meet Olivier Polge and Joseph Mul: two experts in their different milieux whose dedicated effort, care and innovation create Chanel perfume.

Olivier Polge, House Perfumer for Chanel since 2013, has the responsibility for creating new fragrances for the house, along with the care of the existing portfolio. He is creator of Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb and winner of the 2009 Prix International du Parfum for artistic achievements in the field of perfumery, and Polge’s work at Chanel includes the delightfully daring remix No. 5 L’Eau, the sunlit floral Gabrielle, and Les Eaux de Chanel.


Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in house perfumer creator. Photograph: Chanel

Joseph Mul’s 50-acre farm is very beautiful. Ordered fields sit cradled between dark foothills that protect the delicate crops from inclement weather. Monsieur Mul is the head of the family that have owned and worked this fertile land for generations.

Grasse, in southern France, is famed for its aromatic plants and they have been essential to Chanel fragrance since Coco Chanel launched her first scent – the indomitable No. 5 – in 1921. But by the late 1970s, commercial pressures had adversely affected the Grasse agricultural tradition. Chanel were anxious to safeguard the consistency of the jasmine essential to their perfumes.

Chanel had long believed that the Mul’s farm, and Joseph Mul’s commitment to sustainable agriculture, produced the best jasmine in Grasse. In 1987, an unprecedented contract was signed between the Mul family and the house of Chanel that secured Chanel an exclusive supply of Grasse jasmine. Today, the Mul farm produces not only jasmine for Chanel, but also rose de mai, iris, rose geranium, and tuberose.

When I visit, it’s harvest time for the rose de mai. The pink flowers are popping against dark leaves, and fragrance the warm air with their light, soft perfume. The rose de mai (or centifolia) is a densely perfect ball of soft, fragranced pink petals. It often graces the paintings of the Dutch masters and is the very picture of innocence  – the type of rose a child might draw.

Under Monsieur Mul’s gaze, I am encouraged to pick the flower. There’s a technique to it, breaking head from stem with an audible pop – as satisfying as releasing a champagne cork without spilling a drop of wine. The flower head cradled within my palm, my fingers grasp just below the calyx – and to my surprise, the pop sounds and the flowerhead comes away intact. Unlike me, the pickers do not hesitate at every bloom. Their swift progress along the rows, stripping each bush of pink and leaving only verdant green behind them, is a mesmerising ballet.

The resulting burlap sacks of flowerheads are weighed and transported to the ochre building that houses the processing plant.

The ratios of fragrance manufacture are astonishing. A total of 400 kilos of rose petals are required to make just one kilo of concrete (a plant jelly that hardens to a wax-like form). The concrete in turn, will yield 600 grams of absolute, the precious extract from which fragrances are created.

The blooms are tumbled from their sacks into an enormous extractor vat, forked into even layers on the five trays that lie within, and the extraction process begins. When next the petals are seen, they are barely recognisable. Their exuberant bright pink leached away, they are a mass of tattered brown … but the wildly beautiful fragrance, unmistakably soft and fresh, has been captured in all its beauty, ready for the next stage of processing, on their way to becoming Chanel perfume.

Glass talks to Olivier Polge about his role as the house nose.

You have been quoted as saying “being a nose means considering the scent without being influenced by the senses.” How do you achieve this detachment?
I often have this type of answer when people ask me if I have a special talent that nobody else has. We all have a strong sense of smell, but very often unconsciously. When you learn perfumes and perfumery you have to get used to using this sense, rebuild the link with your memory and your library of sense.

The sense of smell has the weakness of being influenced by many things. I have to be able to appreciate a scent without being influenced by the surroundings.

When I work, it’s very convenient to smell on blotters, because I pay attention and try to disconnect the sensation of smell from the rest. We don’t work with moodboards or things like that.

I sometimes perfume myself with the explicit intention of manipulating. I might want to intimidate, or to attract, but the intention is to overwhelm through fragrance. Is there any fragrance that you find quite overwhelming?
I try to make people realise that the fragrance you wear is almost like a language, in the same way that the way you dress; the way you move; the way you speak tells something about you.

I think that you get overwhelmed by certain memories. The scent that reminds you of someone … I [was once] walking on the street with my brother, and we both smelled the scent of the house of our aunt 20 years later, in completely another place. It was quite surprising.


Olivier Polge in Grasse. Photograph: Chanel

You’ve been described as writing the biography of Chanel in perfume. You studied art history before you moved into perfume – what drew you to that particular field of study?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m writing a biography, but at Chanel there are certain perfumes that are key to our aesthetic, like No. 5. When I created Gabrielle, I felt that I had to think about those scents that Coco Chanel always liked. It’s important to build on our history. I think it makes our style. The most important thing is to stay true to a certain spirit and try to express something of it that is linked to our time.

To tell you the truth, I went into art history because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I liked art in general, and I started at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. Very soon I realised that I wanted to do something more down-to-earth, almost with my hands, and during the student summers I did certain internships.

I liked music; I went to bookbinders, working with leather; and I learnt how to work with paper … all those things I was interested in, among others. It was not easy, probably because my father was doing this [Olivier’s father, Jacques Polge, was the Head Perfumer for the House of Chanel from 1978 until his retirement in 2015] and as a teenager, I wanted to do anything else. [But], I went to his lab, and I really liked it. The months after summer passed by and I had to go back to university … before Christmas I went to my father and asked him if he could help me to learn perfume.

As a custodian for No. 5, you have to ensure the quality of the original, but also come up with new interpretations. If you created something that could eclipse No. 5, would that be a dream or a nightmare?
No. 5 is the spine, and we always want it to stay the spine, and this is why that’s a very good question. I will always do my best to convince people that everything has to be built around No. 5. It’s true that we have a lot of success with Coco Mademoiselle, with Chance. It doesn’t matter, as long as our [position] is always on keeping No. 5 the centre of our attention, even though sometimes we can get better success with another perfume.

Has creating floral bouquets for Chanel in a lab changed your personal relationship with flowers? Do you still enjoy flowers in your personal life, in your home?
Yes, because they are not the same flowers at all. They are almost from completely different worlds.

I have a house near Paris and in the springtime, we have peonies. The flower is so generous that sometimes, if it rains, the flower is on the ground.

Should we consumers try to act more like noses, with the detachment that you talked about, when we’re purchasing, and are we even capable of that? For example, I smell great in Chanel No. 19, but when Inès de la Fressange was the face of Coco I wanted to believe that I smelled best in Coco, although I didn’t.
As a perfumer, I will always tell you that you should be very careful and try as much as you can to consider a scent for what it is, and not what surrounds it. Luckily, the way we orchestrate the atmosphere around the perfume is trying to always be true to the perfume, so I’m sure that if there is something with the [campaign] that you liked with Inès de la Fressange, there must be something of Coco you like.

Grasse, may rose. Photograph: Chanel

There’s lots of Coco I like, but does Coco like me? On my friend, Coco was magnificent, but on me – it was as if I was dressed in someone else’s clothes. It just … wasn’t right.
It’s true that there are certain scents that can vary. You can have quite strong variations.

It is very hard to perceive exactly how a scent smells on you. There are variations, maybe due to acidity? I am not a skin doctor, and I have no technical explanations, but it’s a reality and I think it’s the beauty of it. I like to think that we do not all [smell] the same with a similar fragrance, and that not all fragrance suits everyone.

By Rachel McCormack



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Glass Online beauty writer

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