The secret garden: Walk through the making of Chanel’s iconic fragrance
Discovering the true soul of Chanel No.5
On a damp morning in May, Joseph Mul is standing in the middle of his six hectare rose field in Pégomas, France talking about the correct way to handpick the May rose. He selects the perfect bloom, and explains, “Put one finger over, one under. Pinch the calyx, then with a twist of your wrist…snap.” I tried attempting it, while being wary that the delicate petals would crumble in my hand, but Mul urges me with a gentle smile, probably losing patience with my sluggish speed. Just a few meters away a team of 70 women are swiftly moving through the bushes, meticulously picking any rose that had blossomed that morning. Each year, they must hand pick 37 tonnes of roses while they are in bloom in the first three weeks of May.
Close to the world’s fragrance captial Grasse, these fields aren’t marked on any tourist map. The farm has been a part of the Mul family estate for five generations, and for the past three decades, it has been exclusively cultivating flowers for Chanel fragrances. In 1987, the fashion house struck this partnership when real-estate developers started buying land around Grasse, where the Muls grow the precious flowers. “We have to preserve the elements that are important to the N05 heritage,” says Olivier Polge, Chanel’s head perfumer. Besides the May rose, the Muls also grow jasmine, iris, geranium and tuberose for fragrances.
Gatherers fill their apron pockets with fresh blooms
The fragrant ambertoned concrete
Olivier Polge (centre) with Joseph Mul (right) and Jean-François Vieille
The May rose aka rosa centifolia is peculiar to the Grasse region and is central to the powdery-floral notes of N05. “It’s like making wine, each rose will smell different depending on the soil and climate. It’s important to us that this scent stays the same,” Polge says of the distinctive honeyed sweetness of these roses.
For Mul’s team, it’s a race against time to extract the essence before the flowers wilt in the heat. He gives me a handful of flowers and asks me to press them in my fist—the sweetness gave way to a subtle spice within minutes. And for this reason, every hour, a truck delivers freshly harvested flowers to a processing factory down the road. Here, 300 kg of flowers are loaded into a giant steel vat, triple washed with an industrial solvent and mixed into a wax (called concrete) that holds all the scents of the flowers. The dense, amber-toned concrete is then locked away like a valuable treasure in large steel containers. The math is simple: it takes 400kg of roses to produce one kg of concrete, which yields 600gm of rose absolute. And it’s this absolute that finds its way into a bottle on No5. “We have a special bond with our raw materials,” says Polge. “It’s these beautiful ingredients that make Chanel so special.”
“N05 is almost 100 years old but it’s still relevant. As time passes it becomes even more original because it smells unlike anything else” – Oliver Polge; Chanel’s Head Perfumer