Jacques Polge

Head Perfumer, Chanel

Why has Chanel No 5 remained one of the world’s great all-time fragrance classics though it was introduced in 1921?

There are a lot of things to say about that. I don’t believe there is just one reason. Not only was Chanel No 5 the first couturier fragrance, but Mlle Chanel was the first to link the world of fashion and fragrance together.

Then there was the presentation, particularly the bottle. It was something very new at the time and proved to exemplify modernity from generation to generation. It is interesting to note that the bottle has been photographed more than any other in or out of the industry over these many years.

The name was also something new, as was the fragrance. In the 1920s, fragrance was always related to the precise smell of flowers, but Chanel No 5 was the first abstract fragrance. In a way, I believe this was the reason why it never went out of fashion.

At the same time, Chanel No 5 has become almost mythological, which is something very few fragrances ever achieve. Perhaps there are things you cannot explain. What can be said is that the fragrance has been managed, since the time it was created, by dedicated perfumers who are committed to the highest standard of quality. Chanel No 5 has always been very carefully watched and every element which makes a fragrance a success is there and has always been there.

When Mlle Chanel created the fragrance, she was fighting against perfumers. Her idea was that the bottle should be as simple as possible and everything should be in the fragrance.

What are your thoughts about how dramatically our industry has changed in contemporary times?

It is not enough to look to the past. We must all be concerned about what is around us. Obviously, when a new fragrance is introduced, we all want it to be successful. The question we face, however, is will it last? In reality, very few fragrances do.

What inspired you to become a perfumer?

It’s very difficult to say, because there are things you are aware of and things of which you are not aware. My father was a doctor and had no connection with perfume. But I think because I was living, by chance, in Grasse in the south of France, from the time I was twelve until I went to the university at eighteen, I became aware there was such a profession as a perfumer. If I had lived in the north of France or in Paris, I would not have known.

From your perspective, what do you think women want from fragrance in today’s world?

Women want to feel free and are eager to be comfortable with who they are. For instance, since I started long ago, the tremendous difference between what was called a woman’s fragrance and what was called a man’s fragrance has narrowed considerably. In fact, some companies have been very successful with unisex fragrances. Really, it all depends on what is right for a particular company. For us, there is still the important difference between the two and I think women want that, regardless of age.

As for the influence of fashion on the fragrance experience, how important is this connection in the creation of a fragrance?

Perfume is at the service of fashion. Fashion leads. It gives the style. The biggest problem for the perfumer is when you compare it with the business of fashion. In fashion, there are at least four shows during the year and many, many models. We launch a fragrance very seldom, so the problem is to choose a fragrance which will express different fashion trends. In the instance of Mlle Chanel, when she created No 5, it was her influence even more than that of the great perfumer, Ernest Beaux, who interpreted her vision. The same is true of all of the Chanel fragrances. It was always, and still is, Mlle Chanel’s influence, more than the perfumer, which gives each fragrance its unique character.

How would you convey your personal feelings about fragrance?

What I like about fragrance is the poetic element; the fact that fragrance is a silent language that does not use words. One can express with fragrance things that cannot be expressed in any other way. And, that’s what I like. It is the very subjective, invisible, silent part of fragrance which greatly appeals to me.

The moment has come that the perception of perfume, which for such a long time was only considered from the point of view of seduction, has changed and now many men and women cannot start their day without fragrance and that probably means all the psychological elements are important. The key, I believe, is that fragrance makes people feel good about themselves.