INTERVIEW WITH OLIVIER POLGE, 11th October 2018
Every year in November, the British Society of Perfumers -BSP- presents a review of the best Fine Fragrances launched on the market. In 2017, the presenter, Virginie Daniau, asked our members to select their favourite feminine and masculine fine fragrance, unbranded and blind. This way, the vote solely focused on the olfactive qualities of the creations. The best feminine fragrance elected for 2017 was Gabrielle Chanel. In order to support this selection, Virginie interviewed CHANEL Fragrance-Creator Olivier Polge on the creation of Gabrielle. The discussion expanded into CHANEL’s 2018 fragrance creations and more broadly on Olivier Polge’s work as a perfumer creator for CHANEL.
Virginie Daniau: How has the name Gabrielle inspired you for the creation of the fragrance and why have you decided to create a floral fragrance to represent her?
Olivier Polge: What is really important for our fragrances is that they are abstract fragrances. This is linked to the character of CHANEL N°5. When Gabrielle Chanel contacted Ernest Beaux to create CHANEL N°5, she asked him to create an artificial fragrance, in other words, a fragrance that is a composition, not simply representing the odour of a rose or muguet. This seems to be true for all CHANEL fragrances: they are constructed fragrances.
V. D. : Out of the 4 white flowers you have included in Gabrielle, which one took the lead in the creative process, if any?
O.P.: It is important to note that some ingredients seem to have a more important role in the CHANEL fragrances: these are the white flowers, in which jasmine has a leading role. In all the fragrances that Gabrielle Chanel chose, the white flowers were always preponderant. This is why I thought that white flowers seemed to reflect her olfactive taste and possibly convey a sense of her personality. These notes keep coming back in the fragrances she liked, a little like a melody: Jasmine, Orange Flower, Ylang Ylang and Tuberose. In CHANEL we cultivate tuberoses ourselves and apply a specific treatment to the flower in order to reach a very unique character different from the other qualities available on the market. This floral bouquet of the 4 extracts is what creates the identity in Gabrielle.
We are going to discover the 4 floral extracts that compose the floral heart of Gabrielle:
We will evaluate them in order of volatility, starting with Neroli essence, then CHANEL’s unique Ylang Ylang quality, Jasmine and finally CHANEL’s unique Tuberose that we will compare with a traditional tuberose.
In each creation, the idea is to Capture CHANEL’s identity while creating a new fragrance. The floral notes are key for our brand: CHANEL N°5 has a very strong signature, Allure is a floral oriental fragrance, in Coco Mademoiselle, the woods play a key role. In Gabrielle, the idea was to create a true floral fragrance.
This is a distilled Neroli essence from Tunisia. This essence brings a lot of freshness and spark in Gabrielle, playing an important role in the luminous solar impression of the florality.
V. D. : For me, this essence presents particularly intense green and citrus facets.
O.P.: This quality of Ylang Ylang extra is unique to CHANEL: in addition to the well-known Ylang Ylang treatment process, we distil the oil further, in order to highlight the biting elements of the extract: therefore, creating an oil where the green fruity, more feminine, elements are apparent.
V. D. : For me, this Ylang Ylang extract is also much less medicated than the oils I have experienced before.
O.P.: This is true: the medicated facet that is present in traditional Ylang Ylang extracts has also been attenuated and the more luminous elements brought to the front.
In CHANEL compositions, jasmine is often paired with Ylang Ylang.
The quality of jasmine used in Gabrielle is an exotic Jasmine sourced in Egypt, which is different from the one used in CHANEL N°5, that originates from Grasse. This extract displays a deeper floralcy, that remind me of flowers basking in the generous sun of warm countries. It is more opulent than Neroli or Ylang Ylang, with very light indolic elements. This essence has a light fruity, slightly sweet aspect, reminiscent of boiled fruits.
V. D. : I always perceived a brown sugar note in jasmine, yet this is true, I understand what you mean, there is a Mirabelle plum jam impression in this jasmine extract.
O.P.: Yes exactly. Through these association of ideas, we can anchor the character of a given extract in our memory.
The specific fine character of natural jasmine that CHANEL use, is based on a selection of jasmine from various provenances in order to achieve the optimum olfactive character required, based on the communelles.
It is important to know that one Kilogram of Jasmine Absolute is extracted of two Kilograms of Concrete, which is equivalent to 700 Kg of Jasmine flowers, or 7 million Jasmine flowers. This also leads me to explain that each of the four natural white flowers extracts of Gabrielle has a different density. For example, the Orange Flower absolute extends the Jasmine absolute note. If only jasmine was used, the fragrance would be too dense and closed. Each extract helps refine the texture, and the density of the fragrance to achieve the optimum harmony.
This extract is hazy even at low concentration, as it is not fully soluble in alcohol when pure. Once in the fragrance composition it becomes soluble.
We are comparing Tuberose from Grasse, used in Gabrielle with a traditional Tuberose, that we call exotic, sourced in India.
CHANEL has taken to work on the natural essences qualities that they are using, creating new natural extracts, a little like a painter would create his very own palette of colours. We have what we call a flower to perfume philosophy. One often considers that a fragrance formula is secret. It is important to understand that in the CHANEL creations, even the essences hold a secret, linked to CHANEL unique extraction processes. CHANEL perfumers have a unique and exclusive palette of ingredients.
The traditional tuberose extracts can sometimes have a rendition that is far from the scent of the natural tuberose flowers in the fields: these extracts are greener, almost leathery, waxy, when compared to the flowers.
V. D. : I can distinctly perceive the leather and waxy elements in the traditional tuberose when compared to CHANEL Grasse extract, that is much brighter by opposition.
O.P.: CHANEL Tuberose from Grasse, benefits from the specific regional conditions linked to the soil, local climate, and agricultural treatment. It also receives a unique extraction treatment that improves the olfactive quality of the extract: it is rounder, creamier and much more floral. This in turns allows me to highlight the tuberose in the floral bouquet of Gabrielle, without having to disguise the green, leathery and waxy elements that would otherwise appear with the use of a traditional exotic tuberose.
As you know, the tuberose facet is subtle in Gabrielle, still it enriches the texture and intensifies the creaminess of the jasmine note, breathes a veil of sensuality, and all together brings longevity to the floral bouquet.
Gabrielle the fragrance:
The opening is composed of delicate fruit touches reinforced with citrus elements, for a dynamic opening. The idea was to focus the character of the fragrance on the floral bouquet, reinforced in the back with carefully balanced wood elements and benzoin in order to soften the tonality.
V. D. : I have always found that Gabrielle has a light chypre aspect in the back.
O.P.: This can easily be explained: indeed, I can’t mention all the fragrance ingredients in the Press Release, as there are over 50 ingredients in the fragrance. But there is a hint of patchouli in the base that would give this light chypre character.
V. D. : What I find really interesting is that even unbranded, Gabrielle has been voted best feminine launch of 2017 by the BSP members. I think that we are one of the only organisations to evaluate fragrances blind.
O.P.: I think that it is important. I often meet with journalists and I like to explain that a perfumer works without visual references, (for example, the trials are carried out in laboratory bottles not market bottles), and that it is best to focus on olfactive aspects, because the olfactive sense has this strength and weakness in a way, that it can be influenced by our other senses. We are visual animals, after all!
V. D. : This leads me to another question: I read that you don’t work with visual elements, (such as mood boards) to create. So, how did you organise the creation of Gabrielle did you have the name of the fragrance, the concept…? what tends to spark your creativity?
O.P.: Actually, when you create a fragrance, especially at CHANEL where we do everything in-house, all the elements evolve in parallel. There are different stages: the research of the name, (here we settled on Gabrielle), then there is the impact of colour. Colour has a strong connotation in Gabrielle: the gold aspect echoes the luminous aspect and the freshness of the floral bouquet. This is turn, prompted us to create a concave bottle, as we felt it was beautiful to have the light that came from the centre of the bottle.
V. D. : What would you say sparked the idea of light: what is your creation that influenced the marketing of the final product, or was everything really done in parallel?
O.P.: It was truly a collaborative work, and what is interesting is to see how a common idea and a holistic approach leads to a product where everything is completely coherent, and where the different elements echo each other’s.
V. D. : I do perceive this coherence in between the fragrance, the name and the bottle of Gabrielle, creating a strong identity and appeal.
V. D. : Out of your latest creations Paris-Deauville/Biarritz/Venise, I am particularly fond of Deauville. Could you please tell us a little how Deauville inspired you? Why did you build a light chypre aspect in the base of Deauville?
O.P.: I am really fond of chypre notes, with the patchouli tonalities. The original idea was to work on colognes, focussing on freshness, and highlighting the difference that characterise the 3 towns: Deauville, Biarritz and Venice.
Deauville is a sea side town, but it is important to note that it is in Normandy, which means that it receives a strong influence from the land with plants and soil. This fragrance translates the feeling of a weekend on the countryside. Therefore, I have included fresh citrus touches on top., aromatic elements such as geranium and rosemary and patchouli in base in order to bring a sophisticated earthiness to the overall impression, still in keeping with the fluidity of the fragrance with transparent jasmine aspects. The idea was to work on an eau, building in wood aspects.
Venise on the other hand is much warmer rounder like a fresh oriental or an eau which borrows oriental tonalities.
V. D. : In your very successful career as a perfumer, I seem to perceive that a number of your creations are based on orris, violet, powdery notes, even in masculine fragrances. Would you think these might be at the base of the next Chanel creation? Would you like to reinvent Chanel 19 in the same manner you created Chanel 5 L’eau, from Chanel N°5?
O.P.: One of my favourite fragrances is CHANEL n° 19. I find that orris is a stunning ingredient for many reasons: first of all, the roots of the plant are used in order to obtain the extract, not the flowers. Secondly the odour is floral, powdery, and woody at the same time. In summary, there is something really hard to explain in orris extract that I am very fond of. This allows the perfumer to bring this note in very different creations. This is also included in Misia, with its powdery rose aspects.
V. D. : Misia is part of the Les Exclusifs collection. What about the main line?
O.P.: Venise also has powdery aspect in heart. It is true that as perfumer, we try to build an olfactive identity. We work on different olfactive themes, yet we can’t create a fragrance that we don’t like. There are always notes that come back almost as a watermark in the different creations. They express a perfumer’s taste and maybe also a little bit their personality?
V. D. : So, would you say that Orris is your favourite perfumery ingredient?
O.P. Orris is not the only ingredient of perfumery that I favour , yet, I believe that it is probably always in a corner of my head.
We mentioned Patchouli earlier on, I find that it is an extraordinary essence, even from an historical point of view. I remember when I studied perfumery, a gentleman mentioned that you could simplify the study of the genealogy of fragrances down to the fragrances that contain patchouli and the ones that don’t. This expresses at best the fact that patchouli is a pivotal essence in fragrances.
V. D. : On the other hand, which would be the most challenging fragrance ingredient for you? why?
O.P.: I find that tuberose is not an ingredient that is easy to work with, because it is very opulent and tends to take over the character of the whole fragrance. I would have to work very hard if I had to create a fragrance based mainly on tuberose.
V. D. : Out of the original fragrances based on colour, Rouge de Chanel has not been reinterpreted. Could this be a new creative source?
O.P.: This is not a project. Having said this, we are going to launch a limited edition of CHANEL N°5 in a red bottle. This is purely a different bottle, as the fragrance is still CHANEL N°5.
V. D. : Would you say that the constraints inherent to the creative process in perfumery are a limitation? Or rather a challenge that motivates you?
O.P.: This is a complex subject and I agree that constraints and freedom feed into each other. For example, when I worked on the CHANEL N°5 L’Eau, I found that what was interesting was to be restricted by the original character yet I also wanted to create a fragrance that I liked. I think that it is when we come close to the limits of our creativity that the most interesting creations emerge.
V. D. : What is the most modern fragrance ingredient for you? why?
O.P. Under creative constraints we sometimes need to reinvent ingredients. There might be a trend linked to animalistic notes, but I find that these darker notes are not the most modern ingredients today. For me, modern perfumery is moving towards fresher impressions, more colourful also. Creations from the past sometimes give an impression that they have a patina. While modern creations have much more vivid colour identities. For example, in Coco Mademoiselle, we worked on a Molecular Distillation of patchouli that allowed us to reinvent patchouli and therefore to have frank fruit notes in the fragrance, without the muted impression that a traditional patchouli extract would have induced. This is where I think modern perfumery is heading.
V. D. : Do you sometimes work with other perfumers in the creation process? Or with other professionals, such as marketeers?
O.P.: We have about 60 people in the Chanel Laboratories. I work with 2 other perfumers : Christopher Sheldrake and Gaelle Madiot. We work as a creation studio. We evaluate our work together, we advise each other’s, we select the perfumery ingredients, and are in charge of the production and the conservation of the fragrances. We also have an analytical laboratory. I would say that in Chanel the know-how and creation enrich each other: sometimes ingredients constraints can lead to creative ideas, and sometimes the need for a specific note might trigger the development of an unusual extraction method. I thoroughly enjoy all the different aspects of my role.
V. D. : I think you work with the Osmotheque in order to protect the older formulae?
O.P.: Yes when the Osmotheque requires the help of Chanel CHANEL in order to supply them with our classic fragrances.