The weather is perfect for picking roses: fresh and not too warm. We’re standing in a field four miles from the town of Grasse, in the South of France, on Joseph Mul’s 50-acre farm, which his family has owned for five generations. For approximately three weeks in May, every single rose that goes into each bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum is harvested by hand right here. We’re getting a firsthand look at how it happens, step by step.
For an iconic fragrance like No. 5—which was created in 1921 by Ernest Beaux for a rule-breaking couturier named Gabrielle Chanel—the story begins on this farm where Rosa centifolia (commonly known as the May rose) is grown. On the other side of the property lies the processing plant where the freshly harvested flowers are turned into what eventually becomes the absolute, the highly aromatic essential oil used in the formulation of perfume. Quality is a word that’s emphasized repeatedly in these parts, from the field to the factory, and all the way to Jacques Polge, Chanel’s master perfumer. “The jasmine and roses grown in Grasse have a special quality,” says Polge, “and we have remained faithful to it.”
Much like the concept of terroir in wine, the provenance of a fine perfume’s ingredients only underscores its appeal. A 30mL bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum contains 1,000 jasmine flowers and 12 May roses—all from these very fields that Mul inherited from his great-grandfather. “What I like about perfume is that it is a poetic form,” Polge says, and the process of creating it provides its own poetry.
Fabrice Bianchi, Joseph Mul’s son-in-law, is leading us through the rows of blooming shrubs. Workers in conical hats and head scarves work their way silently down the line; apart from the buzzing of bees, the only sound around us is the soft, distinctive snap made by each bloom as it is plucked. Bianchi demonstrates the technique with a slight rotation of the wrist. “You have to feel the bottom part of the flower, the calyx, then use your thumb and next two fingers in a slow, precise movement,” he says.
Richly aromatic and exuberantly ruffled, the May rose opens with the sun and can be harvested all day. Jasmine, on the other hand—gathered in these fields from July to September—is typically picked at dawn. The historic center of traditional perfumery, Grasse was once redolent with the scents of not only jasmine and rose but also orange blossom, violet, lavender, and mimosa. Along with the real estate boom of the Côte d’Azur, however, came the disappearance of the region’s long-standing farms. “We began to be afraid that we would not have enough production for No. 5,” Polge says. So in 1987, he and Chanel entered into a partnership with the Mul family to preserve their organically tended fields exclusively for the jasmine and roses used in the luxury house’s most famous fragrance.
Bianchi points out a rose that bloomed yesterday, one that will bloom tomorrow, and one that will bloom in three days. “There can be an explosion of flowers from one day to the next—we don’t know why. The harvest stops as quickly as it starts,” he explains. Thirty-five to 40 tons of May roses are harvested each year during the three-week period in May, and as Bianchi tells it, there’s no desire to increase this yield. What’s important is maintaining its essential character.
On average, it takes an hour and 20 minutes for a flower to go from being plucked in the field to being processed in the factory. Workers gently place the roses in the pockets of their aprons and transfer them into big burlap sacks; once these sacks are full, they’re loaded onto flatbed trailers and pulled by tractor to the plant. Bianchi describes it as a race against the clock. “We must all be very efficient,” he says. “We cannot afford a lack of quality.”
Jean-Francois Vieille, a cousin of Joseph Mul’s, oversees operations at the prettily landscaped Sotraflor plant, which lies just down the road from where the flowers are grown. The proximity of the factory to the fields is a distinct competitive advantage for Chanel and a major key to maintaining control of the entire production process.
The whirr of machinery makes it next to impossible to hear Vieille, but his staff moves with an oddly balletic beauty. Workers empty the burlap sacks from the field onto metal trays in a massive cylindrical vat called an extractor; once the stacked trays contain approximately 250 kilos of May roses, the vat is shut and the blooms are treated with 2,000 liters of hexane solvent in a series of three “washings.” After six hours, the waxy substance that remains is called concrete, which is mixed with alcohol and chilled to -15°C to obtain the absolute in a process that takes approximately three days. The solution is then sent to the Chanel laboratories to be turned into the fragrance and bottled.
As for the brown, spent blooms, they’re hoisted into the air and transported across the factory floor—destined for the flower fields once more, this time as compost.
VIDEO: THE MAKING OF CHANEL NO. 5
Jacques Polge is sitting in the shade of a tent on the grounds of the Sotraflor plant, reminiscing about his childhood summers in the South of France. “As a boy, I remember driving from Grasse to Cannes to go swimming, and when we would stop for gas the guy would give you a bunch of jasmine flowers,” he says. “Today they are not giving you anything. All of this has disappeared.”
After studying literature and English at university in Aix-en-Provence, Polge returned to Grasse to learn the art of perfumery. He was hired as the nose of Chanel in 1978—only its third, after Ernest Beaux and Henri Robert—and has since created some of its most popular fragrances, including Coco and Égoïste. He is also tasked with preserving the brand’s heritage, which means ensuring that its most illustrious product remains exactly as Beaux and Chanel envisioned it. “There is a mystery [about] 5. Nobody knows exactly what is the smell of 5,” he says. “It transcends fashion and it lasts.”
Legend has it that the fragrance was named after the fifth of six batches that Beaux created for Chanel. (It just so happened that five was her lucky number.) “At the time there was no couturier making a perfume. She wanted to do something different from what everyone had been doing,” Polge says, which is how she and Beaux arrived at the first fragrance that didn’t replicate the smell of a specific flower. The clean-lined, almost clinical form of the glass bottle was another departure. “The modernity is obviously in the shape of the bottle,” Polge says, “and in giving it the name of a number—which at the time was something very new, and is still very new, I think.”
With more than 90 years as a cultural icon—think of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art silkscreens and Marilyn Monroe’s famous bedtime quote—and advertising campaigns that have starred everyone from Brad Pitt to Catherine Deneuve, it’s easy to believe that a bottle of No. 5 sells every 30 seconds. And if Jacques Polge has his way, that won’t change anytime soon. Recently Polge’s son Olivier joined the house as perfumer and will eventually succeed him as creator of Chanel Fragrances. As for what Polge himself leaves behind? “There is no legacy except the perfume,” Polge says. “The perfumer disappears behind the perfume he creates.”