It’s early morning as we drive through the medieval town of Grasse, towards the iconic rose fields of Chanel Nº5. The light is soft, casting a warm tone over the passing villages and farmlands. Our destination is Pégomas, a small village between the mountains and the sea. Here, time has stood still so to speak, or more accurately, its heritage is preserved thanks to CHANEL. It was in 1987 when CHANEL secured an exclusive partnership with the Mul family to grow jasmine and roses when the world’s wealthy, who were drawn to the glitz and glamour of The French Riviera, saw many farmers selling their land as property prices soared. This partnership not only guaranteed that CHANEL would maintain both the olfactory quality and quantity of flowers required for their fragrances, but it was the beginning of a relationship that would continue throughout future generations; theirs a story of family, loyalty and tradition.
Sheree wears CHANEL tweed jacket and CHANEL Coco Crush earrings 18K white and yellow gold with diamonds
Sheree wears CHANEL straw hat and CHANEL lambskin waist bag, ArtClub vintage skirt and top
Once upon a time there was a businesswomen who was the belle of Parisian high society. Mademoiselle Chanel was her name. Have you heard of her? Of course you have; that French woman, famous for breaking all the rules so women could write their own destinies as she so scandalously did! Mademoiselle Chanel blurred all the preconceived lines on how society deemed a woman should behave, and the creation of her trademark fragrance, Chanel Nº 5 was the perfect sensory definition of the new modern woman she had helped create.
As legend has it, Chanel was holidaying during the late summer of 1920 along the Côte d'Azur when she crossed paths with the well-known perfumer (with Russian royal family ties) Ernest Beaux who was living in Grasse. The daring chap was up for the challenge that Chanel had set, to create “…a perfume like nothing else. A woman's perfume, with the scent of a woman.”
Sheree wears CHANEL cotton toile blouse, ArtClub wide leg pants
Which brings me here, to the fields of Monsieur Joseph Mul, a fifth generation farmer whose family has been working with the house since the inception of Chanel Nº 5. For many the thought of the world’s most famous fragrance might bring to mind Marilyn Monroe, Ali McGraw or Catherine Deneuve, the very definition of an elegant and classy broad, but for me it will now always be Monsieur Mul, a grandfatherly figure with a warm welcoming smile and a twinkle of perhaps mischief in his eye. Dressed in his flat cap (of which we were matching and was the cause for instant mutual admiration) Joseph is officially the man who grows flowers for Chanel.
“One finger over, one finger under, then twist”, Joseph says in French, which I wish with all my heart I understood. Lucky for us language isn’t a barrier and between the smiles and gesturing Joseph encourages me to not be afraid of it’s delicate petals, but to be strong and respectful so the flower can bloom in it’s entirety again and again. Joseph is as mesmerising as the intoxicating pale pink roses he stands amongst as he softly talks about his love for this land and the rich history it holds. Maybe it is because he is a farmer just like my father that I feel we might be kindred spirits or maybe it is that undefinable thing that shines from within when someone is truly content and passionate about the way they live their life.
With the help of a translator, Joseph explains how every element is crucial to the exact scent that is uniquely Nº5. From the soil, to the sun and temperature, to the way the fields are farmed and how long it takes to get the rose from the field to the factory; all play an integral role in keeping the scent consistent. If the rose was no longer grown in the rich soil of Pégomas and nurtured by a different microclimate it would no longer be what Coco Chanel had so famously created.
“You can compare it to wine,” Joseph says, “a Burgundy from anywhere else isn’t a Burgundy.”
Sheree wears CHANEL J12 38mm watch in ceramic and steel and CHANEL Coco Crush Bangle 18K white gold and diamonds
The roses bloom only in May and the entire twenty acres must be harvested in two weeks. Joseph and his son-in-law Fabrice Bianchi supervise a crew mostly of Turkish women called pickers (many related) and four videurs (mainly French men, into whose burlap sacks the women empty their aprons). I asked Joseph why the pickers are all women and he tells me they have smaller hands and are more careful and more skilled at picking the flowers. I walk amongst them watching their hands move to a beautiful silent rhythm only they can hear. Their chatter floats in the air as they move in symmetry through the fields deftly filling their aprons with 'la fleur', their wide brimmed straw hats rise above the roses.
"It was what I was waiting for – a perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman." - Coco Chanel
I also ask Joseph about their sustainability practices and he tells me with a look of common sense that this has always been their way. Today, as was in the past, no chemical fertilisers are used to grow the flowers. In close cooperation with CHANEL, the Mul family continues to improve their techniques in keeping with sustainable farming practices, so that the flowers are at their best, and the soil is not depleted. Between crops, they conduct in-depth analyses on the fields to understand their composition.
Sadly my time with Joseph must come to an end, as he has to continue his work overseeing the important harvest of the brands most valuable asset. The burlap sacks are now filled with ten kilos apiece and must be transported on the flatbed truck within the hour to the on-site factory so the precious scent is not lost. It is here that the flowers undergo a number of processes, until the very precious absolute is extracted from the concrete, a waxy substance collected from the flowers in a three stage washing process (watch here). The absolute is then sent to the perfume laboratory in the final stages of its journey to becoming Chanel Nº5.
“We have a phrase, ‘la fleur au flacon’—the flower into the bottle,” Olivier Polge, Chanel’s head perfumer, or “nose,” once said. I love this poetic description to depict the transparency of the flower from field to fragrance. What an experience it has been, to understand how many hands tend to and care for each ingredient and each stage of this iconic creation. A symbol of not only elegance, style and independence but of family and tradition. Important roles within the house that I had not expected but now will always fondly associate with the worlds most iconic fragrance.
"It takes a thousand Pégomas jasmine flowers and twelve Pégomas roses to create one thirty millilitre bottle of Chanel No. 5"
Film + Photography Henry Cousins | Creative and Styling Sheree Commerford
Sheree wears CHANEL Tweed Jacket, Cotton Toile Blouse, Straw Hat, Lambskin Waistbag
CHANEL J12 38mm watch in ceramic and steel, CHANEL Coco Crush Bracelet and Earrings
Fragrance CHANEL N°5
1300 CHANEL (242 635)