It is in the heart of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, that I meet Monsieur Jacques Polge, the exclusive perfumer of Chanel for over three decades – and one of the most renowned and respected “noses” in the world.
Over a morning snack of macaroons and tea, we discuss his favorite olfactive memories, his least favorite smells, and the legendary status of the N°5 parfum.
Monsieur Polge, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, especially in the heart of the perfume capital of the world.
Pleasure to meet you as well, thank you.
You’ve been the exclusive perfumer for the house of Chanel since 1978. What have been some of your greatest creations during this time? Do you have any favorites at all?
I love them all; they are like children to me. But I especially like N°18, which is very special and unique. I also like Coromandel, which is of a very different genre and is very strong.
I personally love Eau de Cologne. It’s really simple, yet really beautiful.
Nice of you to mention. That is a good example of a classical quality which depends on the ingredients used; the best of them indeed. I like Eau de Cologne myself.
You know, there are no rules and each creation is a particular case. Les Exclusifs, for instance, were products which were concocted in the lab, and afterwards went to the counters without being interrupted by anything like marketing. Only a perfumer decides how to do it, thus making the process very short and fast. While for fragrances like Coco or Coco Mademoiselle, the process takes a little longer, because there are many aspects to deal with, like the form of the bottle, as opposed to Les Exclusifs, where the bottles are all the same. As for Coco, it was a sort of a pioneer… there was some time between Coco and the perfumes before it. With the coming of Mr. Lagerfeld, he had an idea of making a perfume of Coco’s style, which was a little old-fashioned, you might say. Coco Mademoiselle was a ‘younger’ version of Coco. Allure had a simple melody for every woman… When she put on some sportswear by Coco to feel comfortable.
I believe the first perfume I remember was of my mother.
What are some of your own personal olfactory memories?
I believe the first perfume I remember was of my mother. It is no longer on the market; it was in the form of milk. It is still a good reminiscence. Also, I recall being in the house of my grandmother when I was a kid, and we burnt platan leaves and I remember the scent of that and of the beach and of the sea. The scents of nature.
What is more important for you – to create a timeless perfume or just something that is new?
The idea is always to invent something new and, at the same time, sort of timeless.
That must not be easy at all.
Every time I do something for Chanel, or every time a Chanel perfumer creates something, it must last. It cannot disappear. Some trends get abandoned if they don’t fit.
How has the perfume industry changed in the years you have been working in it? Is it more modern nowadays?
I can say that perfume has gotten more common. Each year the amount of sales goes up, and the Chanel brand must keep its individual style and not become something trite. Yes, we create new things, but according to our own principles, our own traditions.
What, in your mind, would be considered something “trite”?
We don’t make a perfume for a particular market, like the current trend with oud perfumes for the Middle East. We had the possibility to promote N°5, the first from the couturier, and it had vast success throughout the world. It was a truly universal product. We must admit that there are some particularities in different countries; no need to deny that. For example, the Japanese didn’t favor N°5 very much and preferred other Chanel products. But we didn’t elaborate anything strictly for them.
And now I have a question from my morning visit to the jasmine fields owned by Monsiuer Mul. How did you find a field big enough to supply the incredible amount of jasmine needed to sell one Chanel N°5 bottle across the world every 20 seconds?
The quality of jasmine added to this fragrance is so exquisite that it can only be obtained in small quantities. And we reserved it back when we created N°5 and we wanted jasmine and could get it only in one place. To conserve the perfume’s character, we had decided to work with that supplier to buy jasmine. That was an ingredient used by us in large quantities. It comes from Egypt and a little from India. There were only five tons of it on the market and we alone consumed 25% of that production.
This is clearly a very natural ingredient, which we don’t see much of anymore, as most perfume ingredients have become synthetic. Was that the case in your earlier years working at Chanel?
As perfume producers, we tend to use only natural ingredients but often work with synthetic products, also called artificial. The chemists analyze natural products and now we can use more that 200 instances of it, while we used to be able to use only 20 in the past. There happen to be synthesized ingredients which are very good and expensive, and there are natural ingredients which are not very good and are cheap. It is not that simple. In all Chanel products, there is a significant quota of natural ingredients. We use the essence of rose from Turkey, and we use the rose extracts from here [Grasse] or from Turkey, and we also use a new formula acquired by our chemists – fruit or fresh amber. Unfortunately we can’t use the Iranian rose because the Persian rose is the best in the world. Indeed. But it’s not easy to bargain with Iran at this point of time.
Yes, it is very renowned. It’s one of my personal favorite smells. Speaking of which – what are some bad smells for you?
[Laughs] The smell of sweat. Disgusting.
[Laughing] I’m quite certain that is everybody’s least favorite smell. But what I mean to say is, what happens that someone could love vanilla and another could really detest it? Is it genetic? Is it personal taste?
I think it’s a matter of personal taste. One can detest vanilla, but it can play an important role in any composition. Vanilla is usually used in small portions.
Perfume is something that is a part of yourself.
Monsieur Polge, what is a perfume? An accessory, an experience, or something else?
Perfume is something that is a part of yourself. This is something intimate for women. When you buy it, you buy something to be really “you”. When you will pass through a room, your perfume will stay. A perfume is a constant thing.
And my last question for you. Please complete the sentence: “Creating a perfume is like…”
It’s like kissing! More seriously, though, Mademoiselle Chanel always said that a tailor clothes the outside, and a perfumer clothes the inside. It is a prolongation of a costume, or as I put it, an invisible dress.