As the son of the legendary perfumer and head of Parfums Chanel, Jacques Polge, it could be said that Olivier Polge has fragrance in his blood. Polge didn't set out, however, to join the family business. He studied art history before turning to making scents. He has now created over 60 fragrances, including Balenciaga Paris, Jimmy Choo, YSL L'Homme Libre and Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb. We met with the premier nose in Paris to discuss the makings of a perfume, the fragrance influences of his father and his latest big scent creation, Lancôme La Vie Est Belle.
You collaborated with Dominique Ropion and Anne Flipo on Lancôme's newest fragrance, La Vie Est Belle. What was your goal with this new fragrance, and how does it stand out from the rest of Lancôme’s scents?
This scent has a sense of modernity. It is definitely timeless. When you create a scent with other people, it is exciting. It is three different noses bringing their own unique take on a fragrance. It is also exciting to gather ideas about the scent and hear different perspectives of the scent.
You also created Lancôme Miracle Forever with Ropion. The scent is said to have been made to attract a younger consumer to the brand. How did you update Lancôme Miracle to appeal to a younger audience?
We looked at the classic Miracle and we thought of what a younger consumer would want. We knew she would want something lighter and fresher. She wants you to notice her fragrance, but not be overpowered by it as well. We worked from there.
How does the fragrance creation process change with more than one collaborator?
Collaborations are similar to an architecture studio. We all work on the same blueprint, but with our own vision, respectively. We each bring varying fragrance components and we layer and layer until we agree on the final fragrance.
You have a background in art history. How does that influence your fragrance development and current career?
I use my love of art and relate it to ingredients. When I visit a museum and look at art, I notice the colors. From there, I begin to think of ingredients that match the colors of the painting or the mood of the painting. I take those ideas and make notes. I may use those notes the next time I create a fragrance.
What did you learn from your father about creating fragrance?
My father was very encouraging when I decided to attend perfumery school because I started out studying art. I believe somewhere in his heart he hoped I would follow in his footsteps, as most parents do. He taught me to follow my dreams and passions in life. He also taught me that instinct is important in creating a fragrance. I smell scents daily. But when I find the perfect combination for an assignment, I trust my instincts that the client will be happy with the end result.
Your hometown of Grasse in France is known as the home of fragrance. How did Grasse influence you as a nose? How did you deal with all the competition there?
Grasse is known for raw materials for fragrances. I grew up with these raw materials around me. So from an early age, I knew different fragrances compared to most people. But fragrance creation is primarily done in Paris in a lab with all the essences coming from these raw materials in Grasse. Most of my work is actually done between Paris and New York.
You've been involved in creating hugely popular scents, including Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb. Though Flowerbomb is meant to evoke a huge explosion of flowers, it actually has a lot of sugar-candy accords, too. What about such gourmand notes do you think has mass appeal?
It’s hard to believe how well Flowerbomb continues to do around the world. I wanted to create something that would be remembered. I thought of the Viktor & Rolf brand. They are a bit avant-garde and the fragrance needed to capture it.
You also created the popular Armani Code for Women. Does the creative process change when creating a fragrance for an Italian brand versus a French brand?
Not really. Each fragrance starts with the brand. The brand decides to make a fragrance and my work starts there. I work on gathering essences and crafting various iterations of the scent and present a few choices. I explain which ingredients were used and the various combinations of ingredients.
Describe your process for developing a fragrance. Do you begin with the inspiration or feeling you want to evoke first, or the specific notes you want to use?
I work every day with various essences that are sent from Grasse to me in Paris. I go into my lab and create fragrances based on these essences. The essence is everything in a fragrance. I enjoy finding specific notes that work well together. It’s part instinct and part chemistry in developing a fragrance.
How has your creative process changed since your first scent creation?
I am a student of fragrance creation. I continue to discover ways of improving my craft. I have grown in my fragrance combining since the first scent creation. I’m able to create using a variety of essences and trust what I’m creating.
Do you have any signature ingredients you prefer to work with?
Currently I love gourmand scents—vanilla, tonka bean, anything that smells of food.
Fragrance is a big part of a woman's "wardrobe." What suggestions do you have for a woman looking for a signature scent?
A woman must test multiple scents in order to find that one scent. Women should take time in finding a signature scent. It may take more tries than they realize. A fragrance will smell different in the morning than it does in the evening. Try to apply on fresh clean skin in the evening and you will notice a difference than if you had sprayed it in the morning.
Do you recommend that women embrace one signature scent, or have a stable of interchanging fragrances?
I like for women to mix it up. That’s the great thing about creating fragrances. Fragrance allows you to wake up and be a new woman with a scent.
What fragrance do you wear personally?
I am around fragrance all the time so I choose not to wear any scents. I know it seems that I would wear something, but I find fresh air is as beautiful as a fragrance.