the sweet smell of success: what does it take to become a perfumer for chanel?
Adapting a scent for a new generation is "a bit like taking a picture, and changing a few characteristics so you still recognize it, but bring it to a different place," says Olivier Polge, Chanel's Fragrance Creator and the nose behind No 5 L'Eau, the beautiful new fragrance in Chanel's legendary No 5 line. Launched in 1921 by Gabrielle Chanel and the talented perfumer Ernest Beaux, Chanel No 5 has been reinterpreted several times since the 50s, and continues to enjoy success 95 years after its inception, and may well be the world's most iconic fragrance. Taking over the helm as Fragrance Creator in 2013, No 5 L'Eau is Olivier's first masterpiece for Chanel; a wonderfully citrus-infused scent guaranteed to become an instant classic. Featuring top notes of lemon, mandarin, orange, neroli, and aldehydes, heart notes of rose, ylang-ylang and jasmine, and base notes of cedar and white musk, it's light, fresh, clean, and deliciously modern. "It's the freshest No 5 fragrance yet," Olivier confirms. "Everything smells like it has been stretched."
The fragrance was created in the Chanel fragrance laboratory in Paris, using the house's perfume fields in Grasse, south of France. With hills rolling down to the Cote D'Azur on one side, and the Alps on the other, Grasse is a beautiful, balmy region affectionately known as "the capital of flowers and perfume." It has been the sole source of Chanel No 5's essential jasmine and May rose flowers throughout the fragrance's history. In fact, the fields hold such high value to the house it formed an exclusive partnership with the Mul family owners in 1987 in a bid to protect them. "No 5 is part of our identity," Olivier explains. "Unfortunately you can't patent a flower, but the pH of the soil, the weather, and the ways in which the flowers are harvested all contribute to No 5's unique scent."
Born in Vaucluse, near Avignon, in 1974, Olivier grew up surrounded by fragrance. His father was Jacques Polge, Chanel's Fragrance Creator from 1978 and the brains behind some of the house's biggest hits, including Coco Mademoiselle, Chance, and Allure. While it was assumed Olivier would follow in his father's footsteps, growing up he had other ideas. "I was the type of child who wanted to do everything but that," he recalls. "I wanted to play classical music or go into design." But after a summer internship at the Chanel Fragrance Laboratory in Paris, he had a change of heart. Olivier trained at Charabot in Grasse — the same fragrance house where Ernest Beaux studied. From here, he spent two years in Geneva before joining IFF in New York, where he masterminded such best selling scents as Balenciaga's Florabotanica and Viktor & Rolf's Flowerbomb, winning the 2009 International Fragrance Prize for his achievements. In 2013, he took over his father's role as the fourth in-house Perfumer for Chanel.
For Olivier, creating a fragrance is a very emotional experience. "It's an experimental world," he says. "Each fragrance has its own rules and it's slow work because you have to test and test." As with any art, it can be difficult to reach completion too. "As you continue to twist a scent ever so slightly, the twists start becoming so small that's when you realize you've got it," he explains. With each scent taking approximately a year to create from conception to conclusion, training to become a nose is a vocation that demands dedication, passion, and perseverance. "You have to train," Olivier confirms. "In the same way the more an athlete runs the faster they become, the more you train your nose, the faster you can recognize scent." It's not about having an exceptional sense of smell either. "We all have a good sense of smell," Olivier says. "Being a nose is not smelling what nobody else can smell, being a nose means considering the scent without being influenced by the senses."
No 5 L'Eau was designed to introduce Chanel to a new younger audience, yet Olivier insists he never has a specific person in mind when he creates. "It's more a mixture of what I like and what is relevant," he says. "Fragrance is a language with no words or images, everyone has his or her own interpretation, the most important thing to capture is the mood."
Text Holly Shackleton