The Beauty of Reinvention

A visit to Chanel’s top perfumer in Grasse

Most of us would remember seeing Chanel N°5 presented in many different ways over the course of our lives. Our grandmother’s N°5 would have felt very different at the time compared to our experience of it now. With each new chapter in this iconic perfume’s story, it somehow found resonance with a new generation of women. And although the zeitgeist around N°5 may have changed multiple times over the course of history, its essence – and that iconic bottle – never did. Chanel N°5 is without a doubt one of the most iconic perfumes of all time, which is why I jumped at the chance to interview Chanel’s master perfumer, Olivier Polge, in the town of Grasse.

Much of my approach as a chef is to preserve my South African heritage but also to innovate that heritage for a modern palate. Similarly, your role at Chanel is to preserve the past while innovating the future. How would you say the work of a chef and a perfumer are similar?

Innovation in perfume is very important, even if you don’t necessarily see it, and if you are not a perfumer yourself it might be hard to understand the need for it. As an example, in the past we’ve been worried about getting quantities of a certain quality from a jasmine harvest and we wanted to protect those qualities so we came up with an alternative plan like tuberose or iris, and we thought about creating an extract that doesn’t already exist and represented certain facets of the flowers, so today we own an extract of tuberose that didn’t exist before.

In other instance we had to innovate when we could no longer source our sandalwood from India and eventually found a unique strain in New Caledonia, while doing that we discovered a new process that would extract the sandalwood oil in low temperature with energy from the sun using very high tech, new techniques.

How do you manage to walk the line between the past and the present in your work?

One aspect of my job is to preserve existing fragrances while also creating new ones, bearing the original ones in mind. The line between the two is quite clear and I believe that we have a style to adhere to so I also have to create boundaries, and that’s where things get exciting, because I believe total freedom is not freedom. Creativity cannot be achieved in total freedom. When I create a new fragrance I set boundaries to push me in certain directions and strangely once you put walls on what you do you have to consider new styles and angles, because I also can’t just create a similar fragrance to those already in existence, you have to do something new within an established creative boundary.

Your father was House Perfumer at Chanel for 37 years. How difficult was it for you to make the decision to follow in his footsteps?

Perhaps it was an unconscious decision and that made it easier because when you are not in the perfume field you maybe don’t realise how important a specific position can be. When I entered the same field as my father I wasn’t thinking about shadowing him in particular,  he had the clever idea to send me away to people he knew would be good teachers and mentors instead of teaching me himself. In truth, if he had taught me I think I could have had difficulties, at the time I was just 20 years old and I don’t think I was grown up enough to work with him yet. 

So instead I went away to learn. I left Paris for about ten years to go to Grasse and then Switzerland and New York, and then little by little over the years I started to hear people asking if I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps and take over his position. The first time we worked together was when I got to Chanel and already had 20 years of experience. At that point I knew all about making perfume but he was able to teach me about Chanel itself. 

When revisiting a fragrance from the past, how much do you find yourself tampering with the original and how much of the original fragrance do you have to preserve for it to still be recognisable?

I think it’s important to note that if I want to come up with a new version of Chanel N°5, it’s not because I think it’s old-fashioned and needs a refresh, it’s because I love it and I believe it has more of a story to tell. 

There are perfume brands that will release a completely different spin-off of a fragrances under the same name and I think that’s nonsense. I really wanted to keep all the essentials of N°5 while building on them.

I had to decide if I was going to keep most of the flowers or the vanilla or the sandalwood and I reduced the formula to its minimum before I adapted it. There is something very dense and rich and very elegant about N°5, so for the new version I wanted to revisit the more fresh, sparkly and fruity fluid notes, making it more casual somehow. Once you have this kind of backbone in your composition you can play with proportions and qualities. One of the new additions for N°5 was the synthetic raw materials called aldehydes which we could extract from oranges with new technology. Our natural aldehydes have more of an orange peel effect, making it much more colourful. I also removed the vanilla which was making the fragrance dense and I added new sandalwood, making it drier and offering a new spin on the classic.

What are the challenges in making a legacy fragrance relevant to the new generation?

We religiously keep the old formulas and instead of changing them completely we add the occasional new dilution or we reinterpret the theme and we develop new aspects which show the fragrance in a new light while still being relevant to Chanel and the existing formula. 

How would you say the way you use your senses differs from that of anyone else? Are you born with a superior sense of smell, or can you train yourself to use your nose more effectively?

I think that it is something everyone has if you can train your noise in the right ways, and the purpose of this training is not to be able to smell something no one else will be able to smell, it’s more about knowing how to build a fragrance, just how a carpenter can build a table. You need certain components that will last longer or bring vibrancy to make it last longer, there is a real craftsmanship behind it, so it’s more about that building skill than how powerful your nose is. Comparison is also important, we do that a lot. Sometimes you’ll have ten different notes of jasmine and by comparison you learn to pick the best one. We all have a good sense of smell but it’s subconscious and involuntary to us so most of the work is building the link between your conscious and subconscious.

Grasse has been the world’s perfume capital since the 1600s. What is it about this part of the country that makes it so perfect for perfume production?

In the beginning there was a link between the rich Mediterranean climate and the variety of natural options growing so there was a strong agricultural element as the industry started growing. From around the Second World War the agriculture side of things began to decrease but the perfume industry was starting to take off. When I first moved here there were only 20 000 people living in Grasse and around 80 companies in the area were producing perfume. 

Even though the farmland has decreased there is a wealth of incredible industry knowledge here based around innovating the production systems and balancing the raw materials and it is still incredible today. As an example, when we were unable to source sandalwood from India anymore someone here in Grasse suggested three islands in New Caledonia where they grow a very specific species of sandalwood that we like, so the industry knowledge is very prevalent here.

Working with flowers as much as you do, how does your relationship with flowers differ from your work to your home?

I like flowers, but there are certain scents that I really like for certain uses and not others. We use a lot of pink pepper which I love in perfume but I don’t like in food. In Paris in the spring I love seeing peonies and I love having them at home, but I don’t enjoy them in perfume. It’s often a mix and match.

If someone who has never worn perfume had to ask your advice, how would you tell them to choose and wear perfume?

I would say you should take your time, you almost have to grow a relationship with a perfume before you commit to it. You may like the first notes when you smell it in the morning but you could get tired of it by the end of the day, so you need to spend few days with it before you make sure it suits you. When you do wear it you should wear it on the warm spots of your body because the perfume reacts with warmth. They say you should wear perfume where you want to be kissed!

How do you choose a perfume, and how adventurous should you be in your choice?

I think that you have to trust your gut, I think that choosing a fragrance is something very intimate, you cannot be told what perfume to wear, it is your choice. 

What inspires you?

Inspiration is a state of mind, when you are inspired you can be inspired by anything. I am inspired by many things that surround me, one of which is music. I love music and I’ve developed a taste for classical music, I believe most of my link with perfume came from that. In the same way that sound floats in the air, so does perfume, it pushes your imagination. Smelling a good fragrance is like travelling. You smell it, you close your eyes and you can be transported elsewhere, it’s the same with perfume.