Gabrielle Chanel famously declared that “a woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”. And so the fashion doyenne called on Russian-French perfumer Earnest Beaux to create a signature scent with the simple brief that it should be “a woman’s perfume with the scent of a woman”.
Yet it took the master perfumer five attempts before winning the mademoiselle’s seal of approval. Hence, the name Chanel N°5. Fate would have it that the now-renowned fragrance was launched on May 5, 1921.
But what exactly was in the fifth prototype that reeled the mademoiselle in?
Jasmine flowers. Lots and lots of it.
(Video: Chuck Reyes for Chanel)
“Gabrielle asked Earnest what was the beautiful raw ingredient she was smelling and he told her it was jasmine. She loved it so much that she suggested to him to include more of it into the formula,” shared Chanel’s in-house Perfumer Creator Olivier Polge, during CNA Lifestyle’s recent visit to the brand’s scent-filled flower fields in Grasse, located in the south of France.
“Jasmine, to a certain extent, is the most important flower to Chanel,” he pointed out. It is after all the flower chosen by the mademoiselle.
“Jasmine is the main component of its identity, a key signature in our most important perfume that is Chanel N°5 Parfum.”
These fragrant flowers are so treasured that they are only used in the original Chanel N°5 Parfum recipe, to distinguish the OG from the other Chanel N°5 variations that came later.
Similar to the mademoiselle, the tiny star-shaped flower has a big personality. “Gabrielle must have chosen something that expressed her taste and personality. Jasmine has quite a strong scent, quite outspoken. I think these are certain aspects of her personality,” added Polge.
Something about the cool Mediterranean wind and the warmth of its sun, coupled by its fertile soil provided the Provencal region of the Cote d’Azur an idyllic climate that breeds flowers and botanicals with a distinctive and irreplaceable quality.
Said Polge: “The Grasse jasmine has a mild and soft scent that is probably fresher than the jasmine that grows in warmer countries and because of the soil and the climate (in Grasse) developed a green tea undertone.” It is precisely because of this geographical characteristic that the region is hailed as the cradle of French perfumery – an undisputed title it has held for some 300 hundred years.
Jasmine, the crown jewel of the field, is simply referred to as “the flower”. The small but mighty floret blooms from August to October.
The delicate blossoms, handpicked by flower pickers at dawn when they are at their most fragrant, are weighed and extracted within three hours of picking to ensure optimal quality before being converted into concrete (an aromatic wax) and subsequently into an absolute (a concentrated liquid used in Chanel N°5 Parfum).
Fun fact: Each gatherer (of which there are 25 to 50 on any given day) picks 350g of flowers an hour. Incidentally, 1kg of jasmine is the weight of 8,000 flowers.
Since its inception, the enigmatic scent has been represented by the entrancing likes of Ali MacGraw, Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and even Brad Pitt.
And who can forget sex symbol Marilyn Monroe’s own admission that she wears only five drops of Chanel N°5 perfume to bed? Though she was never a face of Chanel, her personal penchant firmly secured the scent as the pinnacle of seduction.
“Perfumes make great memories,” acknowledged Polge. “It’s a pity if you don’t fragrance yourself because you lose a way of expressing yourself. The way you perfume yourself tells a lot about you.” So, if you’re trying to develop a shorthand to express yourself in a meaningful way, you might only be five drops away.
CNA Lifestyle was in Grasse at the invitation of Chanel.