Meet the farmer who grows flowers for Chanel
. . . and the perfumer, Olivier Polge, who creates new scents for the legendary brand
Chanel perfumer Olivier Polge with farmer Joseph Mul who grows flowers for the brand at his farm in Grasse
The Mul farm in Grasse
Monsieur Joseph Mul is the custodian of Chanel’s most important asset, though you might not realise it on meeting him. With his soft, open face, sensible boots and the flat cap he is known to wear always, even in this 25 degree heat, he looks firmly rooted in the rich, dry soil of his fields. If we weren’t standing amid a gently shuddering ocean of transportingly fragrant white flowers, you might mistake Monsieur Mul, who is now approaching retirement, and his son-in-law Fabrice, who mostly runs the farm now, for any other French farmers.
They are not like any other French farmers. Even in Grasse, an area ensconced in the history of fragrance as the perfume capital of the world, which it remains to this day, the Mul farm is special. Mul partnered with Chanel in 1987 to supply flowers for the brand’s fragrances (1,000 jasmine flowers from the Mul farm go into each bottle of Chanel No 5), though the farm was passed down from his great-grandfather, who worked the soil near Grasse since 1840.
Today, the jasmine harvest is underway, and the fields are aflurry with the soft movement of the pickers’ straw hats, as they gently pluck individual flowers from the soft, tufty bushes of jasmine. The fragrance is indescribably potent, and hums in the air all around. Picking must be finished by 1pm, before the sun gets too intense and while the flowers are at their most fragrant. Monsieur Mul tells us about his blooms in gentle French while expertly plucking dozens of flowers from a nearby plant. He appears to be a gentle, stoic sort of man, but when he talks about the flowers, he beams from within. They have been, after all, his whole life. He drops a pile of them into my palms like feathers, smiling.
We are not, however, here for the jasmine. Grasse is not simply the unique land and microclimate where the best floral ingredients come from. It is also where noses, or master perfumers, have come to train for centuries. We are here to see a new addition to Chanel’s arsenal of flowers – tuberose – and to meet the man responsible for its initiation into Chanel’s newest fragrance, Gabrielle, world-renowned master perfumer, Olivier Polge.
Polge seemed destined to be a perfumer, but resisted at first. His father, Jacques, was Chanel’s in-house perfumer for 37 years before the younger Polge took up the role, and created some of Chanel’s most beloved fragrances, among them Coco, Coco Mademoiselle, Allure, and Chance. Olivier Polge had his own tremendous successes before joining the brand, creating widely known and commercially successful fragrances including Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb, and Dior Homme.
Many perfumers, when asked, will recount a story of coming to realise their unique skill and relationship with smell. Olivier Polge is not one of them. “I was born into it, so it was just a part of growing up. As often happens, as a teenager, I wanted to do anything else.”
It was when he interned at his father’s office the summer before going to university that he began to appreciate the craft, and realised that working in fragrance was a deeply challenging amalgamation of chemistry and art, rather than a weighty legacy to resist.
It is this sense of pragmatism that sets Polge apart from the rest of the industry. Chanel gives Polge complete freedom to create what he wants, meaning that each fragrance is, for him, the product of genuine artistic freedom. He is immune to the influence of marketing forces within the brand, insulated entirely from brand managers, and given whatever time he needs to bring his ideas to fruition. This is extremely rare in the industry. Despite the freedom, Polge is also a pragmatist, and relishes the challenge of creating a fragrance within practical limitations. “There are only so many fields. We need the weather and the soil to be perfect. Next year, if I want to make another fragrance, I cannot use the tuberose from here [the Mul farm]. If I want to use jasmine, I have to source it somewhere else, because all the jasmine here is destined for No 5.”
Tuberose would have been lost to the region had the last grower, on retiring, not offered up his remaining bulbs to Joseph Mul. Tuberose does not normally grow in the south of France, but in India and Mexico, and those sturdy, waxy white flowers have a sharply green, twiggy scent. The Grasse tuberose is quite different, sharing the freshness of the Indian flower but having a much softer and more powdery top note which blooms gently and intensely from each hardy little flower.
The Mul farm, we are told, is home to the largest tuberose field in Europe. The process of growing and harvesting is laborious. Each November and December, the bulbs are removed from the soil to protect them from the cold, cleaned off, separated into smaller pieces and dried. In April, they are reacclimatised to ambient temperature and replanted in rows of six, but won’t flower for a year or two. When they finally flower, they are harvested in the cool of the early morning by hand, and placed in burlap bags before being sent for weighing and extraction of their unique fragrance.
Polge’s new creation for Chanel, Gabrielle, is a feminine symphony of white flowers – classic jasmine, earthy, powdery tuberose, fresh fleur d’orange and the ebullience of ylang ylang. It entirely escapes the tendency of white flower fragrances to be a bit much, managing to maintain a delicate balance of sophistication and effervescence. It smells for all that, like a warm afternoon on the Mul farm. I suggest as much to Polge, who smiles. “I love the idea of creating impressions with fragrance. It is something you cannot grasp, that you cannot see, but it creates a kind of intelligent feeling. I don’t have control of a person’s emotional experience when they try a fragrance, but there is a certain mind-opening immateriality to fragrance that we can all share.”