Everything you wanted to know about the main ingredient in Chanel No. 5
What goes into the iconic Chanel No. 5 perfume? We travel to Grasse in France to join in the harvesting of the May Rose, the exquisite flower that anchors the maison’s signature scent.
There are many outstanding perfume creations but nothing quite as iconic as the Chanel No 5. Gabrielle Chanel had requested for “a woman’s fragrance that smells like a woman”, which perfumer Ernest Beaux duly delivered in 1921. He designed an unorthodox scent that broke perfumery norms then, mixing floral notes, including those from the May rose, jasmine, ylang‐ylang and sandalwood, with aldehydes.
Chanel No. 5 would go on to become an icon of the house, and nearly a century on, its formula remains faithful to the original despite various modern updates. In fact, the May rose has stayed on as a key ingredient in the formulation of the jus. Thanks to a partnership with the Mul family, the largest flower producer in Grasse, Chanel has ensured that it enjoys a consistent supply of premium May roses, whose extracts are used to formulate scents such as Chanel No. 5 and No 5. L’Eau.
According to official figures, one 30ml bottle of the No. 5 Parfum contains rose extracts from 12 May roses. So how many roses does Chanel need to harvest each season in order for its perfume production to stay on track? Olivier Polge, Chanel’s in‐house perfumer, and Joseph Mul, owner of the fields walked us through the process.
While Grasse is widely known as the birthplace of perfumery, it is very much a French countryside town with idyllic scenery of lush greenery and majestic mountains. The pace of life is relaxed, but every May, there is a surge of activity on Joseph Mul’s fields in the commune of Pegomas. It is the harvest season of the legendary May rose, from which rose essence will be extracted and used in the composition of Chanel’s many fragrances, including Chanel No. 5. Harvesters work like clockwork, moving from bush to bush, plucking roses in full bloom, which resemble mini, pink cabbages, and dropping them into the aprons worn around their waists. Their actions are swift and decisive, and almost machine-like. Harvest season is, however, only three weeks long, so they need to work fast. This way, sufficient roses are gathered for the year. Why are the harvesters mostly women, I asked Mul. He shrugged his shoulders and quipped, “They say women are more meticulous and the harvesting method requires more patience and care.”
After the harvesters fill their apron pouches with rose blossoms, the flowers are transferred into big burlap bags made of jute, which allow the blooms to breathe. The fabric bags also give the flowers sufficient space – this way, their fragile corollas will not be crushed. Each member of the harvesting crew picks five kg of flowers every hour, stopping work just before mid-day to prevent the harvested flowers from wilting in the heat. I was told every kilogram of rose contains about 350 flowers. If you do the math – if each harvester works for four hours a day, she would be harvesting some 7,000 roses. Laborious indeed.
Workers from the extraction plant then transfer the bags of roses from the fields to the nearby facility, which is situated next to Mul’s flower fields. Here, the harvested flowers are weighed and processed within the next hour. This makes for easy processing since it is a constant race against the clock. If left under the searing heat for any longer, not only will the flowers wilt, their olfactory properties also change with a sharp drop in the intensity of the fragrance.
It is during the extraction process that all the romantic notions of roses and love disappear. In its place are precise and almost cold, scientific procedures, which will guarantee Chanel a constant supply of rose extracts. The weighed bags of roses are poured into a giant metal vat stacked with five perforated trays. The facility workers use pitchforks to even out the flower pile, which contains about 250kg of blooms, before they are bathed in 2,000L of hexane for three consecutive rounds, stirred gently and subjected to high temperatures.
The entire process takes close to an hour before the vat is reopened. By now, the solvent has absorbed the fragrant components of the flowers, which appear, still stacked, in a cloud of steam. A slight burnt smell fills the air and the fragrance of the flowers is gone. Their bright pink hue has vanished too; what is left are stacks of brown, soggy petals.
At the bottom of the metal vat, the rose extracts are now consolidated in the form of fragrant wax, which is known as concrete. Nearly 400kg of roses are needed to produce 1kg of concrete, making it a prized possession.
Whenever required by the Chanel in-house perfumer, Olivier Polge, the concrete is transformed into absolute. First, the concrete is blended with alcohol several times in mixers. Then, the mixture is chilled and filtered to separate the wax from the liquid before it is steam-distilled to remove the alcohol. The entire process takes close to three days before the absolute is obtained. About 600g of rose absolute can be derived from 1kg of concrete.