One green bottle: Meet the brains – and noses – behind Chanel No 19

Chanel No 19, the baby sister of No 5, is being reinvented. Susannah Frankel charts the evolution of this inspirational fragrance

Jacques Polge, exclusive composer of fragrances for Chanel, known in insider circles simply as 'le nez', has been thinking about the iris. When you or I think about the iris, we perhaps reflect on the flower's almost violent shade of blue, or indeed of the tiny, tongue-shaped flash of yellow at its heart. We think of its slenderness and upright, relatively minimal elegance as opposed to the blousiness of a Victorian garden rose. M Polge, however, has been dwelling more on the rather less aesthetically pleasing root of the flower. Or rhizome, to use the correct term.

"Yes, the iris flower is beautiful," says Christopher Sheldrake, perfumer and director of research and development for the same, grand French name, and today Polge's accomplice in the creation of scents divine. "But with the root, we're definitely in the potato category." And this, on the face of it, does not have quite the same romantic connotations. Appearances can be deceptive, however, because the iris flower is, in fact, odourless. "Yes, even I cannot smell it," says Polge in heavily French-accented tones. Instead, the scent comes from the rhizome, which, through a painstaking process is transformed into iris butter, which is among the most rare and precious ingredients in perfumery. "The flower doesn't smell at all," Sheldrake confirms, "but the root doesn't smell floral either. It's a very rich, creamy, powdery smell."

We are sitting in Polge's office, a glass-walled and -windowed space, in the penthouse of Chanel's fragrance and beauty headquarters located in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly. Both men seem entirely at ease, despite the fact that an awful lot is expected of them. It is well-known, after all, that it is the multi-billion pound fragrance arm that drives a brand, over and above the more rarefied fashion and even accessories, even though the privately owned house of Chanel does rather well with these, too. Polge, in charge of Parfums Chanel since 1979 – he is the brains behind Coco, Coco Mademoiselle, Allure, Chance and the Les Exclusifs series, to name just a few – has his work cut out for him, then. There have only been three master perfumers in the history of Chanel: the first was Ernest Beaux, in the 1920s, the second Henri Robert and the third, Jacques Polge. Their longevity in itself is remarkable.

Back to the subject in hand, this summer, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, a new interpretation of the most inspirational, iris-based fragrance of them all, Chanel No 19, goes on sale. It's called No 19 Poudré and is designed to draw attention back to this, one of history's most groundbreaking scents, but a perfume whose appeal has smouldered quietly under the radar for years, not least because of the long shadow cast over it by its omnipotent big sister, No 5.

It is said that a bottle of the latter, still the world's most famous fragrance by far, is sold every second somewhere in the world. "No 19 has suffered from the fact that it's a number, like No 5, it has the same packaging as No 5. And it's never been such a success, largely because of the success of No 5," Polge explains. "Many perfumes are influenced by No 19," he continues, and it's true that experts in the field are drawn to, among other things, the juice's innovative rose-iris and also iris-vetiver accords, both particularly of interest just now. "There's an enormous comeback in those fragrances," says Sheldrake. "And instead of sitting back and letting that happen," Polge continues, "we thought we should do something ourselves, that we should create something different that will draw attention to No 19 again."

No 19, if not a more complex fragrance than No 5, is certainly less approachable; No 19 is a cool green in appearance, No 5 a warm amber. Created by Henri Robert in 1971 for Gabrielle Chanel herself when she was in her eighties (No 5 was the work of the aforementioned M Beaux) and named after her birthday (19 August 1883) No 19 is what Englishman Sheldrake describes as "a perfumer's perfume, a connoisseur's fragrance, it's a great tribute that so many people have been inspired by it". A niche product, its allure has principally been passed down through generations of women by word of mouth without the push of big-budget, blockbuster advertising campaigns.

Here's the outspoken perfume critic Luca Turin on the subject. "For a fragrance with so many springtime references, all white blossoms [jasmine and lily of the valley both also play their part] and leafy greenery, No 19 never lands you in any Sound of Music meadows. It keeps you in the boardroom, in 3in stilettos and a pencil-skirt suit. Haughty and immune to sweetness with a somewhat antiseptic air, this extraordinary perfume appeals to any woman who has ever wished to know what it is to be heartless."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sheldrake's take is less extreme. "It's important to remember that No 19 was created at the beginning of the 1970s, an era notable for the fact that women's emancipation was at its height. The original No 19 was created in the spirit of the first wave of feminism and it therefore has something of an 'I'll walk all over you' aspect to it, I agree."

No 19 Poudré , as perhaps befits the time, "is a more obviously feminine fragrance," Polge argues. The clue's in the name although this, too, can be traced back to the use of iris in perfumery through the ages.

In the 17th and 18th century, wigs, which were never washed, were scattered with ground iris root then stored in boxes from where they would emerge deliciously perfumed as and when their owners saw fit. Unlike many fragrances which fade after time, the smell of iris powder only intensifies. In the early 20th century, rice powder was mixed with iris and ladies of style used it to improve their complexions. In Italy, bed linen was scented with iris to keep it fresh. And it is from Northern Italy, on the outskirts of Florence, that the finest iris pallida, the raw material used to produce the world's most exclusive iris butter, can be found. Today, less discerning noses might be persuaded to use iris from China which is both more abundant and more reasonably priced. Not so M Polge. "I don't think there is any difference between the flowers in China and those in Italy," he says, "it's the way in which they are treated that is the important." And there is a problem here. Because, due not least to the increased popularity of the flower, resources of iris produced in the time-consuming, artisan manner are dwindling.

With this in mind, four years ago now, Chanel planted its own iris fields in Grasse in the South of France, alongside those filled with rose and jasmine, the latter both reserved for their most enduring fragrances, in particular Chanel No 19 and No 5. "We planted the iris ourselves because we wanted to treat it in the traditional way and very few people have time to do that any more," says Polge. "And we've been planting iris every year since then," Sheldrake continues, "but our first harvest was only last year – it wasn't ready till then." Once the iris roots have been harvested, they are dried for no less than three years in order for the irone, the molecule responsible for the scent in question, to develop, and only then can they be peeled and turned into butter for use in any juice. The first iris grown by Chanel won't find its way into No 19 or No 19 Poudré for a further two years.

As well as iris, No 19 Poudré still contains rose, lily of the valley and vetiver, and has top notes of galbanum from Iran – "Very important because it gives the scent its so-called green aspect; it's also coming back into fashion," says Sheldrake, but its distinctive leathery base notes have been softened by musk. "We've found some new ones," Polge says, "and they are very interesting."

"No 19 Poudré has everything No 19 has, but it is much more comfortable," says Sheldrake, the idea behind it being to attract a new customer into the fold as opposed to encouraging the original No 19 devotee to defect. "It's gone from feminist to femininity. It's a very clean and sexy smell. I think women are looking for comfort, for reassurance and because of that No 19 Poudré is in keeping with the modern era. There's a lot of aggression out there and this is a cocoon, a perfume very much for yourself."

"It's more modern, yes," Polge concludes, "if that word means anything any more, and more feminine, certainly. No 19 Poudré is a new impression of No 19 and a better fit for today."

Chanel No 19 Poudré is launched on 15 July, enquiries 020-7493 3836

Five more iris classics

28 La Pausa

Chanel

Created by Jacques Polge in 2007 as part of the Les Exclusifs de Chanel series, this woody-iris scent is named after Gabrielle Chanel's Cote d'Azur retreat whose gardens were filled with iris.

Iris Silver Mist

Serge Lutens

Launched in 1994, Serge Lutens' uncompromisingly vegetal iris-based fragrance also includes notes of galbanum, cedar, sandalwood, clove, vetiver, musk, benzoin, incense and white amber.

Iris Poudre

Frederic Malle

Created for Frédéric Malle by celebrated perfumer Pierre Bourdin, this is an especially warm iris, softened by tonka bean, vanilla and musk, the appeal of which has been compared to wearing a cashmere sweater.

Iris Gris

Jacques Fath

The much sought after Iris Gris, launched by Jacques Fath in 1947 and discontinued shortly after his death in 1954, is now so rare that it's almost priceless.

Iris 39

Le Labo

This relative newcomer was created for Le Labo by Frank Voelkl. It's an unashamedly earthy iris which also includes notes of lime, patchouli, rose, ylang ylang, musk, violet, ginger, cardamom and civet.

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