For those who love perfume and follow its intricate ways, Jacques Polge is a name that resonates. He’s up there in the pantheon of the greats, an acknowledged maestro of the art of perfumery. Ever since 1978, he has been the in-house “nose” at Chanel (though the house prefers to call him “composer of fragrances”) – only the third after the great Ernest Beaux (responsible, along with Mlle Chanel herself, for the inimitable Chanel No 5) and Henri Robert, who devised Chanel No 19. But, at the start of this year, he withdrew from the day-to-day creation of fragrances to become an “advisor” to the Chanel Fragrance Laboratory. And the big news is that his son Olivier is its new “creator of fragrances”.
It would be a daunting legacy for anybody to take on, but being the son of Jacques must surely make it even more of a challenge. For some 37 years, Jacques has held the Chanel ship more than steady (working with, among others, Christopher Sheldrake, who has long been part of the creative team at the Chanel Fragrance Laboratory), concocting not only hugely celebrated fragrances – of which Coco Mademoiselle is perhaps the most commercially successful, often rising to the top of the world’s bestseller lists – but also establishing Les Exclusifs, a collection that has grown to be 15 very special scents. Some of them, like my favourite, Cuir de Russie (to which I see renowned perfume connoisseur Luca Turin gives five stars in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, calling it “an undamaged monument of classical perfumery and the purest emanation of luxury ever captured in a bottle”), are long-lost scents rescued from the archives. Others, such as 31 Rue Cambon (to which Turin also awards five stars, calling it “one of the 10 greats of all time” and saying that he cannot remember “the last time … a perfume gave me such an instantaneous impression of ravishing beauty at first sniff”), were devised by the great man himself.
Speak to experts such as Dariush Alavi (the man behind authoritative perfume blog Persolaise), and he thinks Jacques Polge is “one of the most accomplished perfumers of his generation” with “Antaeus easily one of the greatest masculine scents of the past few decades: a growling, leather beast, which, paradoxically, also has the power to soothe”.
And on top of all that, he showed tremendous commercial foresight when he realised that access to the finest ingredients was going to be crucial to maintaining Chanel’s famed quality. In 1987, Polge persuaded the house to form a partnership with the Mul family, owners of the jasmine and rose de Mai fields in Grasse, thus guaranteeing permanent access to key essential ingredients for fine perfumery. Some clue as to how critical this decision was can be deduced from the fact that every single 30ml bottle of Chanel No 5 needs the essence of 1,000 jasmine flowers (and it has to be a specific jasmine found only in Grasse) and 12 roses de Mai.
Olivier Polge is clearly under no illusion about the giant footsteps in which he has to tread. For he already has behind him some of the world’s most recognisable perfumes that he has either created alone or helped devise (he has worked with celebrated parfumeur Dominique Ropion) – some of the Burberry scents (Burberry The Beat), for example, as well as others for Salvatore Ferragamo (“F” by Ferragamo Pour Homme Black), Bulgari (Mon Jasmin Noir), Jil Sander (Jil), Kenzo (Kenzo Power), Viktor & Rolf (Flowerbomb), Lancôme (La Vie est Belle) and Dior, most notably Dior Homme, generally considered to be a modern classic and the perfume that really launched his career.
He has also been completely immersed in the world of fragrance (and Chanel) for many years. “I was four when my father joined the company,” he tells me, “so I’ve lived and breathed it all my life.” In the summer holidays Olivier used to work in its laboratories and became seduced by the metamorphoses that absolutes and essences underwent when they were magically combined. When he finally realised that fragrance was where his future lay, he gave up his original dream of being a musician or an artist. “My father was a bit afraid,” he says now, “but he sent me to study at Charabot in Grasse, where the great Ernest Beaux had trained. There I learnt the typical accords, the archetypes, the structures of fragrances, just the way a musician might learn his scales.” After that he became a trainee perfumer at IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances) where he worked until he joined Chanel, quietly winning the respect of the industry – and the Prix International du Parfum in 2009.
Joining Chanel must have seemed almost as if it were meant to be. “My father,” says Olivier, “brokered the marriage but, while the link with my father was a very powerful pull, there was also the draw of the house itself, with its great history. One of the charms of working for Chanel is that it has these long relationships, which means we can get farmers to grow the flowers we need.”
Olivier arrived at Chanel in 2013, but it is only now that his first perfume for the house is being released. He has called it Misia, after the woman whom Coco Chanel met just as she was left grief-stricken by the death of her great love, Boy Capel, in a car crash. Misia saw in the quiet, shy Coco something extraordinary and sensed that she would go on to change the way women would dress. Misia herself seems to have enchanted everybody who met her; she was painted by many of the great artists of the day – Vuillard, Bonnard and Renoir – and is rumoured to have been the model for Mme Verdurin in Proust’s famous work A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Olivier describes Misia as an “insanely captivating woman who was a catalyst in Coco’s life”. She and her husband, José-Maria Sert, whisked her off to Venice. They introduced her to baroque and Byzantine architecture, to museums, galleries and antiques and to the avant-garde artists of the day – Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Picasso and Jean Cocteau. An extravagant and romantic world was opened up to the young Gabrielle, whose bleak childhood had been spent in an austere orphanage after her parents died. The two women became great friends.
“They shared a certain idea of life,” says Olivier. “They wanted to keep boredom at bay and were determined to have a lot of fun together.” Coco said of Misia, “In a woman there is everything and in Misia there is every sort of woman.” Coco dressed her, gave her a new style and even employed her. It was Misia who suggested that she create a little “eau Chanel”, registering the name two years before Chanel No 5 was launched – the No 5 coming from Coco’s belief that it was her lucky number (her shows were always held on the fifth day of the fifth month).
This then was a rich starting point for Misia the perfume (from £115 for 75ml EDT), though Oliver insists that while “Misia inspired me, the fragrance is not just about her – it’s about the world she lived in. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of the Ballets Russes and the smell of make-up from that time”. He was very taken with one of the things Coco said when she was thinking about creating a perfume. “I want to give her [the modern woman] a scent,” she declared, “but one that is artificial – I mean really artificial like a dress, ie, manufactured. I am a dressmaking craftswoman. I don’t want rose or lily-of-the-valley, I want a scent that is a compound.”
That triggered certain associations in him. “I thought of the Palais Garnier in the days of the Ballets Russes: pearls and aigrettes in the women’s hair melding with the scent of red-tinted lips; the sound of musicians tuning their instruments; and the dancers wearing make-up from head-to-toe, warming up behind red velvet curtains. I thought of how to interpret lipstick and powders into a perfume and decided to use violet dressed with rose de Mai and Turkish rose, which trigger memories of lipstick, while the benzoin I added creates a powdery effect, like make-up. It’s very feminine and floral but it’s also sumptuous. The strong violet accord is a new ingredient in the grammar of Chanel.”
All along Olivier has been aware that the house of Chanel has certain codes. “It is a feminine house, often very floral,” is how he puts it, “but they are never trying to create only from nature. Perhaps, more importantly, given the length of time that most of the in-house “noses” have remained loyal, “the nice thing about my new job is there are many other chapters in the Chanel narrative that I can work on in the future”.
One sniff of Misia brings to mind glamorous evenings dancing the night away or that moment of hush before the curtains in the opera houses of the world are whisked aside. It’s a grown-up, sophisticated scent, one to keep for grand occasions and special evenings, not one to spray on for carefree days by the sea or trips to the shops. It is rich and floral, carefully made, and though violet is a new addition it still seems to be in a long and elegant, rather classic tradition. It’s a fitting 15th addition to the splendid collection of Les Exclusifs perfumes, the ones found only at Chanel outlets or its Espace Parfum boutiques, of which there are seven in the UK.
As Alavani puts it, “Olivier Polge is a dazzling perfumer in his own right and I hope the powers that be at Chanel will allow him to develop his own style and fulfil his considerable potential.” All the signs are that this is indeed the way things are going to be.