Over the last century, so much has changed, from the way we communicate to how we shop. But despite the technological revolution that has altered how we live our lives, one thing that has stayed consistent since its introduction in 1921 is Chanel No. 5. Created as a collaboration between Coco Chanel and perfumer Ernest Beaux, the groundbreaking fragrance forever changed the world of perfumery, thanks to its intriguingly complex formulation. Before Chanel No. 5, the worlds of beauty and fashion were completely separate.
“Gabrielle Chanel had this intuition that today seems obvious for us,” says Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in-house perfume creator. “She felt she had to express her style through perfumes; she’s the one who had the idea that those two could be connected. So, she made this perfume and asked him to use the most beautiful raw materials. The flowers are precious because they are very hard to harvest; the yield is very low. And the scent itself is very complex. With the techniques we have today, we are able to recognize several hundreds of different molecules.”
Though the way we purchase Chanel No. 5 has changed, its famous notes and raw materials have stayed true to the maison’s dedication to history and tradition. The jasmine flower has always been at the heart of Chanel No. 5, and it is still grown in Grasse in the south of France, not far from the French Riviera. Known as the cradle of French perfumery, the fertile soil of Grasse has grown the finest flowers and plants for perfumery for the last 300 years. Chanel has sourced its flowers from Grasse for nearly a century and they partnered with the Mul family, the region’s largest flower producers, in 1987, to ensure they would always have enough flowers for perfume. Their unique partnership continues to this day.
Joseph Mul inherited the family farms from his great-grandfather and continues a five-generation legacy of growing the finest flowers spanning 30 hectares of fields. Ninety percent of the jasmine in the Grasse region is grown on the Mul’s family farm for Chanel. The Mul family grows other flowers in their fields, including rose, which is also used in Chanel No. 5, and iris.
Small white flowers dot the lush green landscape of the farms, but their scent is even more intoxicating. Delicate yet earthy, jasmine fills the air with its scent. The partnership between Chanel and the Mul family ensures the highest quality every step of the way, from field to flower to fragrance. Their sustainable farming practices and techniques are constantly evolving and improving, which protects the soil from depletion and refines the flowers. “We are always making experiments,” Polge says, noting that the farms have shifted to being organic. “At the end of the day, we are very careful to hold the biodiversity. We have learned the value of nature.”
There are over 200 species of jasmine, and Jasminun grandiflorum is cultivated for Chanel. “It has olfactive differences,” Polge says. “It’s much more rare. It’s incredible because it’s difficult to harvest jasmine here, but the jasmine from other places in the world is beautiful as well. From a creative standpoint, you have to be very careful to have a wide range of options to express your creativity. It is very delicate; there is a green tea note that makes it recognizable.” Chanel also uses a lot of jasmine from Egypt. Each location’s weather and soil has an impact on the flower, so it expresses itself differently depending on where it’s grown.
In Grasse, the jasmine harvest lasts from August to October. The flower blooms at night and is picked in the early morning. Each gatherer picks 350 grams of flowers per hour, and one kilogram of jasmine represents 8,000 flowers. Since it’s so fragile, picking the flower correctly to preserve it is an art. “Pick with both hands at the same time,” Joseph Mul advises. After a handful is gathered, they are placed in wicker baskets, as that material allows air to circulate—plastic is too hot. Once the basket is three-quarters full, a damp cloth is placed over the flowers to protect them.
Next, they are taken to the on-site factory, which was built in 1987, where they are weighed within three hours of picking, since immediate processing results in better quality. Then comes the extraction process, essentially a bath in which the flowers are immersed at a high temperature in metal crates in a solvent that soaks up all of their scent. The water is changed three times and the flowers are sent to compost. Once the solvent has evaporated, the scent is captured in a super-fragrant wax called a concrete; 350 kilograms of jasmine are needed to produce one kilogram of concrete. Next, the absolute is procured by separating the alcohol from the fragrant substance, and that extremely concentrated liquid is used in the Chanel No. 5 parfum formulas. One kilogram of concrete yields 550 grams of jasmine absolute.
It’s no surprise that the fields in Grasse often spark inspiration for Polge. “There are certain impressions that I keep in my mind,” he says. “But at Chanel, our goal is never to reproduce the scent of nature; it’s impossible. Our goal is about something more abstract, and more human created. When Gabrielle Chanel asked for No. 5, she said she wanted a scent created the same way that she shapes the dress with different materials, so she didn’t want the perfume to smell like jasmine, rose or lily of the valley but a more complex combination that better expresses your style.”
Like everything else created at Chanel, each fragrance journey is distinctive. “Something unique which I really like is that at Chanel when we create something, we own all our formulas,” Polge says. “We are the creators of all our perfumes and we integrate all the know-how behind the craftsmanship. In fashion, we hear a lot about the material. We have integrated so many skills also into watchmaking and for perfume—that was the same in the 1920s. Having our own factory gives you a lot of freedom.”
Perfumery technology has evolved since the original Chanel No. 5 was launched, leading Chanel to create variations on the original, but the philosophy never changes: “The goal is never to synthesize the natural,” Polge says. “The goal is to find a new way to enrich our palate to find scent. There is a link between perfume and memory, but we are not nostalgic. Each time we speak about No. 5 or we conceive a new scent, we speak about modernity and the future.”