It is a very particular French summer morning, the kind where the sky is so blue that it looks as if it has been inked into exaggeration. The air is fresh, the sun is beautifully mild as it delicately highlights the picturesque drive from Nice to Grasse. I find myself inhaling deeply over and over again. I don’t want to miss the first sign or smell of the May Rose. After all, my job today is to visit the perfume capital of the world and see how the iconic fragrance Chanel No 5 gets its distinctive notes. The amber-coloured liquid with its “art-deco inspired, classic square-faceted” design holds a special place in my life. It was my grandmother’s favourite perfume. A bottle always lay on her dressing table. Today, I don’t leave home without generously dousing myself with it. Somehow, Chanel No 5 manages to remind me of my childhood even as it makes me feel all grown up and womanly. I am not in a minority. Every 30 seconds, a bottle of Chanel No 5 is sold somewhere in the world. Rather impressive for a product that was launched in 1921.
Its most discernible ingredient is being gathered today. In the early hours of the morning, when the May Rose blooms. Done the old-fashioned way by pickers who have worked in Grasse for decades, it is a delicate, time-consuming process. Each flower is twisted off gently, never snapped, one by one. And when the bag is full, the precious cargo is taken to the factory and processed within the hour. Standing in the fields you can feel the fragrance clinging to your clothes. It is magical. The blooms have an uncontained beauty, nothing like the manufactured, almost antiseptic, roses you see in flower markets in big cities.
One of the first trips I made to Paris on work was for an introduction to the house of Chanel. We were taken to her apartment, 31 Rue Cambon. A three-storeyed building in the first arrondissement, it has the boutique on the ground floor. The first floor is reserved for private showings and custom fittings. The third floor is where Karl Lagerfeld sits—and you are not allowed to visit. But it is the second floor where you get to meet “Coco”. Her apartment is preserved so pristinely it seems as if she has just left the room. You imagine that if you looked out of the window you would see her crossing the street to enter her suite at the Ritz in Place Vendome. Mademoiselle never lived here—she only came here to create—and preferred to have her quarters in the hotel. Since she worked across the road, she always took the shortest route home—through the kitchen’s back entrance. On that first trip, even though it is no longer permitted, the Ritz allowed us to walk in her shoes. From the quilted cushions to the camellia flower to the intertwined Cs on the chandeliers, you can see the palette of her inspiration. The most amazing thing is how her legacy is kept alive. Her team speaks of her as if she was still there. Not in a creepy Ghost kind of way, with her watching over your shoulder. It’s with reverence for what this unique woman managed to achieve.
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(This story appears in the May-June 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)