The air in the charming town of Pégomas hits different. Situated at the first hills of Grasse in the south of France, the wind that whipped lightly through my hair at the break of dawn was pleasantly crisp but humid, leaving a familiar layer of moisture on my skin. The scent of jasmine is unmistakeable as I wander through the fields, dense when stillness prevailed, and delicate when a breeze sailed past. It is in these favourable Mediterranean weather conditions that Chanel grows its key ingredients—May rose, geranium, iris, tuberose and jasmine—for its legendary perfumes.
A lone stone house, the bastide, lies in the distance; the cavernous interiors swathed in a quintessentially neutral palette of beiges, blacks and whites. Outside the bastide, bicycles fixed with Chanel baskets are lined up in a neat row. The time is 8.30am and the harvesters make a colourful group out among tufty bushes, picking each jasmine off its branch with great precision that comes with years of experience. Some harvesters are plugged into music, others are humming softly and the rest chattering among themselves—armed with wicker baskets, which keeps the flowers well-aired. They huddle neatly in a selected area on the 30-hectare farm belonging to Joseph Mul and his family, a partnership that has been in place with Chanel since 1987.
Fabrice Bianchi, Mul’s son-in-law, now runs most of the farm operations. He takes me on a slow walk through the fields, encouraging me to examine and sniff the jasmine flowers, a harvest that runs from August to October yearly. Mul runs a tight ship on the farm—the picking only happens from 7am to1pm before it gets too hot, as this is also when the flowers are most fragrant. “The flowers need to be as freshly crushed as possible,”explains Bianchi. “If it gets too hot or we don’t do it at the optimum time, the volatile scent gets lost.” At 1pm, the harvesters bring their day’s collection back to the bastide, where they are weighed. Each harvester picks 350 grams of flowers per hour and 1 kilogram of jasmine represents 8,000 flowers. The flowers are then thrown into metal crates and transported to the factory, where they are transferred to giant vats to be extracted.
“If it gets too hot or we don’t do it at the optimum time, the volatile scent gets lost”
Employing pressure and a concoction of solvents, the extraction process takes a few hours before it becomes concrete, a waxy solid substance that reminds me of fresh fudge. It’s hard not to gawp at the buckets of caramel-coloured concrete that are being passed around the room. The gorgeous jasmine fragrance is now captured in the concrete, and the next step involves refining it further to produce an absolute, a concentrated essence that forms the base of many Chanel fragrances, including the iconic No. 5. A staggering 1,000 jasmine flowers go into a 15ml bottle of Chanel No. 5, a floral bouquet that also comprises a lavish dose of aldehydes, ylang-ylang, bergamot, iris and rose.
Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in-house perfumer creator and the fourth nose in its history, is passionate about the No. 5 story, which began in Grasse in 1921. It was in this exact place that Gabrielle Chanel met Ernest Beaux, a Russian-born French perfumer, and told him to create a scent that smelled like a woman.
“Gabrielle asked Ernest what the beautiful raw ingredient she was smelling was and he told her it was jasmine,” says Polge. “She then said, ‘Put more of it in’.” The powdery floral fragrance of No. 5 was born. Polge admits that given its unique fragrance, jasmine is a temperamental and complex ingredient to work with. “It’s almost as if you were incorporating the perfume in itself in your fragrance,” he muses. “You have to adjust all the other settings to match jasmine and use other strong elements to contrast against it.”
Unlike the heavier, richer aroma the jasmine flowers from Tunisia or India give off, the star-shaped blossom from Grasse is a unique offering. They are of the Jasminum grandiflorum variety and boast a distinctive mild, soft scent with a green tea undertone—a result of its growth in Grasse’s gentle climate. The idyllic weather conditions here have made it the perfume capital of the world since the 17th century as its mineral-rich soil is an ideal playground for many ingredients used in perfumery.
As No. 5 continues to fly off shelves around the world, Polge’s main challenge is to work ahead of time when it comes to obtaining all the raw materials and ingredients for all of Chanel’s fragrances. “We have to be five to 10 years’ ahead of time because if we need to change where we get the source of our raw materials, it takes that length of time to ensure we have the necessary quantities,” he explains. Polge adds thoughtfully: “A good example is our sandalwood, a raw material from India. Perhaps there wasn’t good care, or people didn’t plant enough woods, but it came to a point when we were not allowed to use it. Our option was to wait 10 years for the woods to grow, which we couldn’t, so thankfully we found sandalwood in New Caledonia instead. We had to make sure there wasn’t any discontinuity.”
Sitting in a room on the second level of the bastide, with numerous bottles of No. 5 surrounding me—a larger-than-life-sized one sits in the middle of the table—I feel a sense of gravitas and admiration for the experience I had that day. Chanel’s journey in perfumery is only moving on an upward trajectory with each season that goes by, and it is committed to creating scents for generations of dreamers to come.
Polge smiles as he says: “Leaving a legacy goes beyond the scent. You have to build a story, memories and a dream. The scent has to have a strong personality as well. It is one that you memorise and can recognise among hundreds out there. It is one that lasts for a long time and you don’t get tired of.”
The December ‘Carouse’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online and in-store now.