After weeks of abandoning grooming, we are realising the power of our favourite fragrance.
A single spritz can transport us to a better place, invigorating us in these trying times.
As the May rose is harvested for the most iconic scent of them all, Chanel No 5, Paula Burns reflects on the transformative power of a perfume
Chanel’s in-house perfumer creator, Olivier Polge, said, “When you think of a fragrance, of a smell, it’s often tied to a place. Motionless journeys, imaginary journeys — the kind you take with your eyes closed.”
It is true. Scent is a powerful thing. All around us we are surrounded by aromas that immediately transport us to a place once forgotten.
For me, it is the earthy waft of freshly-cut grass.
It’s usually around the middle of March when nature begins to awaken again after the winter months.
It’s the marking of spring but, more then that, it is a reminder of my Dad. You see, his favourite thing was to cut the grass.
A simple thing but I think after a long day of work, it was his therapy.
I can picture him, sleeves rolled up, cutting the grass verge with a push lawn mower — even in his early 80s, he refused to go electric — stopping to have the chats with passers by.
Since his passing a few years ago, it is the spring scent that stops me in my tracks.
Reminds me of what I have lost, but also of the beautiful memories I have of a man I am very proud to say was my Dad.
In the bleak times that have been bestowed upon us of late, we need to find that sparkle of joy to bring some light.
Scent can be just that. While most of us have gone minimal with our makeup and clothes, opting for the more comfortable.
It can feel that we are missing something. To take us away from the gloom, we need a little spray of happiness to invigorate us.
A dash of our favourite perfume can awaken our souls.
Chanel No 5 is one of the most iconic perfumes there is.
So iconic that Marilyn Monroe once famously told Life magazine that it was all she wore to bed.
What is it about a fragrance that makes it remain fresh almost 100 years since it came to being?
It seems that Coco Chanel was not only the wizard of French couture, but everything she touched turned to legendary status.
Former creator of perfumes at Chanel, Jacques Polge, said: “No 5 stands up to fads and the passing of time. More than that, it becomes even more fascinating.
“It’s as if Mademoiselle Chanel had discovered the formula of eternal femininity and created the perfect alchemy between the fragrance and the vital essence of women.”
To create a perfume so unique, its story feels as though it is conceived by magic — but it is one of legacy and tradition.
In 1921, Ernest Beaux the creator of Chanel No 5 chose the jasmine flowers at Grasse for part of his composition.
With fields of rose, jasmine, tuberose, mimosa, orange blossom, violet, and lavender spread throughout the Côte d’Azur it is easy to see why Grasse has earned its legendary status as the cradle of perfumery.
For five generations, since 1840, the Mul family have been harvesting the soil at Pégomas, Grasse, to help forge the perfumed destiny of their land.
The estate has produced not only the jasmine, but also another indispensable ingredient to Chanel No 5, the May rose.
Looking out on to the rose fields at Grasse during the month of May, you would be forgiven if you thought you had fallen down the rabbit hole only to land in a secret garden of one of the most stunning spectacles in the French countryside.
It is a wonderland of a bed of roses, so precious they can only be picked by hand.
May is a particularly special month at Grasse. It is when the fields are in full bloom of the rosa centifolia, the rose with a hundred petals.
There are only a few places in the world where it is grown.
A round flower with numerous petals, it has a very strong olfactory power.
Due to the unique climatic warmth of this region of France, it only flowers once a year for a period of three weeks in May.
It is almost an enigma — yet its scent is undeniable.
“The May rose starts to open in the evening and develops sweet, honeyed and spicy scents,” says Olivier Polge.
In keeping with tradition, Olivier has followed in his family’s footsteps.
A classical musician, Olivier saw the similarity in creating notes of music to that of a fragrance.
“Music and fragrance share the same language. I would compose and write formulas made of notes and harmonies,” he explains.
Since his father, Jacques was head of perfume at Chanel since Olivier was four years old, it was almost inevitable that he would follow.
In 2013 the draw of Chanel became too much for Olivier Polge to resist.
From his student days working summers at the Chanel fragrance laboratory, Olivier fell under the spell that is Chanel.
He marvelled over the creation process of the perfumes, how the ingredients fused together to create a scent so mesmerising.
“I like the idea that fragrance, so immaterial and impalpable, comes from something concrete, real, and very artisanal like the earth, flowers, and harvesting,” explains Olivier.
The relationship between Chanel and the Mul family at Grasse remains as imperative today as it did back in 1921.
So much so that, in 1987, an unprecedented partnership between the two was made, ensuring a lasting future for a rare heritage.
Today Fabrice Bianchi, Joseph Mul’s son-in-law is now an instrumental part of the estate.
The delicacy of the May rose is one of its most redeeming features.
No chemical fertilisers are used on any of the flowers at Grasse. Every year in May, 60 workers harvest the flowers by hand.
“We are continuing to improve our techniques to lead our plants to the highest possible level of quality, without ever taking the risk of depleting the soil,” explains Fabrice Bianchi.
From a childhood spent in the laboratories of Chanel, Olivier thought he had gained sufficient knowledge on the great house and the creation of fragrances.
However his sense of wonder at the fragrance creation, fully mastered from inception to completion, exceeded his greatest expectations.
If it can exceed the expectations of the creator of perfumes it is no wonder Chanel No 5 holds such iconic status.
It is a rarity in the world of fragrances in that it is a scent of many firsts. It holds rank above the rest. Its allure is uncompromising.
“A fragrance expresses something personal, something intimate, and by that, it becomes an instrument of seduction,” says Olivier.
Its seductive qualities led it to being the most sold perfume in the world. Maybe it has something to do with its name.
Some say “No 5” came from it being the fifth sample Ernest Beaux presented to Coco Chanel, while others believe Chanel chose the number because of its magical luck-giving qualities.
Whatever the reason, Chanel No 5 has surpassed other fragrances in its place in history.
US soldiers flocked to Chanel on the Rue Cambon after the liberation of Paris to bring bottles home to their wives and girlfriends.
In 1959, it was honoured by MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Andy Warhol depicted it in a silkscreen print.
It seems Coco Chanel’s aim to create “A woman’s perfume with a women’s scent,” was accomplished.
This is the power of scent. While life may feel that it is all of a flux at the moment, becoming in tune with our senses can be grounding.
As Olivier Polge says, “The key is to maintain a pure appreciation of what smells good, notwithstanding the complexity of the work behind it.”
We don’t need to think too hard to appreciate a fragrance.
Maybe this is the time for us to literally sit back and smell the roses.
Never before in modern times have we been so exposed to the simpler things in life.
Everything has slowed, so we now have the time to appreciate things that seemed inadequate before, yet are a stable force in our lives.
And, like Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers, a dab of our favourite scent can mystically transport us to a place as safe as home.