Credit: Chanel

Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, who is also currently the face of Chanel No. 5, remembers how she discovered the iconic fragrance as a pre-teen. When she was 11 or 12, her mother had slipped a bottle of the perfume into Cotillard’s luggage as a gift for the family she was staying with during a trip to visit some pen pals in England.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mother had found this adorable, tiny little bottle,” she recalls. “My mother let me smell it and explained: This is the essence of French style. And then, I saw it as a sort of monument! I have to say, I loved it right away.”

A fan of Gabrielle Chanel, Cotillard recounts how Chanel decided to create a fragrance for herself because perfumers then were not making fragrances that she wanted to wear.

The 46-year-old is inspired by how Chanel let her own intuition and desires guide her through this process.

“I think that this creative approach contains a degree of authenticity and truth that moves people. By giving herself the freedom to be herself, Gabrielle Chanel was able to leave an impression on others.”

She adds: “As actresses, we carry a part of every character we play with us. It’s like a memory of all the roles, shaped by successive destruction and reconstruction. And No.5, which has so many facets to it, fits this idea of a woman who is many women at the same time.”

A long-standing collaboration

A rare look at Marion Cotillard in the Chanel fields during the May rose harvest.

It is precisely this complexity of layers that has drawn famous female icons, from Cotillard to Marilyn Monroe, to Chanel No. 5. Its timeless scent is a heady but elegant concoction of aldehydes and florals – ylang-ylang, jasmine, lily of the valley, vetiver, sandalwood and vanilla. But one ingredient remains key despite the scent’s various iterations since its launch in 1921: the May rose.

Also known as the cabbage rose or rosa centifolia (which means “one hundred leaves” in French), this hybrid flower, developed by Dutch breeders in the 17th century, is famed for its lush petals and honeyed notes.

The French town of Grasse is often referred to as the “perfume capital of the world”. There, you will find fields of flowers such as the May rose, jasmine and lavender. With a climate that favours such an industry – moderate temperatures, short periods of rain, long hours of sunshine, and very fertile soil – it comes as no surprise that perfume factories have operated in Grasse since the 1700s.

In 1987, Chanel signed an unprecedented partnership agreement with the Muls, a family of farmers in Grasse, securing the House an exclusive supply of flowers from their 30-hectare farm, located between the foothills of the French Alps and the Massif de l’Esterel mountain range.

The Mul family is the largest producer in Grasse, and the farm has been in business for five generations. Harvest season of the rose takes place over three weeks in the month of May – hence its name – and 12 May roses are needed to make just one 30ml bottle of the perfume. During this time, the harvesters meticulously hand-pick each flower, taking each rose between their thumb and index finger to harvest its petals, and repeating this ancestral technique with every bloom.

Chanel’s distillation facility is just a few metres away from these fields, so the flowers do not have to travel far before they are distilled (using a technique that captures essential oil from the blooms using water vapour).

This ensures that the flowers – and their scent – stay very fresh. This partnership has allowed Chanel to secure the quantity of five high-quality flowers (iris, jasmine, rose, tuberose and geranium) needed to create its fragrances. It has also helped sustain the production of fragrant plants in the Grasse basin, as well as preserve agricultural know-how.

These fields are now recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. It recognises the skills related to perfume in this region (the cultivation of perfume plants, the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials, and the art of perfume composition), the techniques they’ve created and the social bonds they forge.

Olivier Polge, Chanel’s perfume-creator, reveals: “It was my father, who was the House’s ‘nose’ before I came along, who had the idea to work with the Mul family, during a time when the idea of maintaining a close connection with the flowers, protecting the land and supporting responsible agriculture wasn’t trendy at all. No one was doing it.”

The eternal icon

A bottle of Chanel No. 5 may bring pleasure to perfume wearers all over the world, but it’s not just the end product that has immense value to so many. Numerous people are involved in the process of putting it together: from those who pick the flowers to those who work in the distillery, and even the likes of actress Marion Cotillard, the current face of the fragrance. The next time you get a whiff of this iconic scent when you pass a perfume counter or spritz it on yourself before a night out, think of the May rose and heritage behind this classic scent.