To mark today's announcement that legendary Chanel nose Jacques Polge will step down in September, replaced by his son Olivier, we revisit our feature from the A/W12 issue of AnOther Magazine. Here, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni traces his legendary career and celebrates his Coco Noir fragrance...
Coco Noir is Chanel’s latest scent for women, and it is hard to disagree with Jacques Polge, the megabrand’s legendary “nose”, that the black rectangular bottle is “chic and very Chanel”. “The flacon inspired me to create the perfume,” admits the softly-spoken 68-year-old. Made out of black opaque glass, it also inspired Polge to hide the scent’s liquid, a first for Chanel even if Coco Noir is the third in the Coco series.
Although Polge’s talent is considered mythic in the perfume industry – before arriving at Chanel in 1978, he conjured up Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche, Emanuel Ungaro’s Diva and Tiffany’s namesake perfume – he is refreshingly intrigued by reactions to his latest baby. “You find Coco Noir sensual, rich and romantic?” he asks. “Those three words make me very happy.” Insistent that only a mysterious scent defines “interesting”, he describes Coco Noir’s heady aroma as evoking Venice.
"Insistent that only a mysterious scent defines 'interesting', Polge describes Coco Noir’s heady aroma as evoking Venice"
Initially, Polge gets shy talking about ingredients. “Do you really want to know?” he asks. “Because according to Karl (Lagerfeld), people don’t care about ingredients, they are only interested in whether a scent smells good.” After a little goading, Polge cannot help enthusing about the grapefruit and vanilla “fresh” ingredients, the use of geranium, which hails from Chanel’s harvested fields in Grasse, the Santal, which was sourced from New Caledonia and the key importance of Frankincense. Suddenly, his bid to describe the Tonka bean leads to a quick whirl in his laboratory, a few doors down from his office at Chanel’s Neuilly headquarters. As expected Polge’s worker bees are in white lab coats, experiments are underway and as if to explain the dark blue bottles and rigid temperature requirements, Polge reveals that the three enemies of perfume are “air, heat and light” adding “yes, packaging has a point”.
Back behind his desk, Polge describes key childhood smells such as Lanvin’s Un Voile d’Arpège, a cream that his mother wore; large bonfires, drenched by the rain at his grandmother’s home and the abundance of jasmine perfuming the car journey from Grasse to Cannes where his family spent their summer holidays. It was Polge’s strength in English, which resulted in his working at Roure (now Givaudan) the famous perfume establishment and eventually being sent to New York in 1969. “An explosive time,” he says, eyes shining. Military service forced Polge to return to Paris where his growing reputation caught Chanel’s attention and made him the perfect candidate to replace Henri Robert when the perfume director retired. Since then Polge has created the wildly successful Coco Mademoiselle and Allure, as well as Antaeus and Égoïste. However, he still makes time for less celebrated tasks: checking on all the ingredients of Chanel No. 5 through the year. “It’s the one way to ensure the highest standards,” he says.
Text by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni