Polge, you see, is a perfumer, or, as he is known in the business, a "nose". And not just any nose. He is in charge of perfumes at Chanel, one of the world's most prestigious, successful and luxurious fashion brands. Not only is he responsible for creating new fragrances - his latest, Allure Sensuelle, goes on sale in Britain on Monday - but he is the guarantor of quality for all Chanel perfumes. In other words, the company's fragrance heritage rests in his hands.
In a laboratory in one of Paris's anonymous but smart suburbs, Polge, a dapper, laid-back 61-year-old, conjurs up fragrances which evoke exotic climes, opulence, decadence and, above all, sensuousness. Over the course of more than 25 years as Chanel's nose, he has created one fragrance phenomenon after another: Coco, Allure, Coco Mademoiselle and Chance for women. For men his scents include Antaeus and Egoiste. If hit fragrances were feted like hit records, Polge's walls would be decorated in platinum discs.
Instead, the walls of Polge's very cool and clinical lab are lined with shelves packed with hundreds of vials of different coloured liquids. Every morning consignments of raw materials arrive from all over the world. On any given day these might include iris, one of Polge's favourite fragrance "notes" from Florence; patchouli, which features in the new perfume, from Java; and from the south of France, Rosa Centifolia and jasmine grown exclusively for Chanel No5. Polge and his team analyse every ingredient before making their selection. Given the amount of raw materials there are to play with, and blends to experiment with, it's obvious that the perfume-making process is a time-consuming one.
Sitting at his vast desk, half of which is covered with little bottles and jars of cardboard testers, Polge agrees. "Curiously enough, the longest part of the process is to find a name for the fragrance because more or less every name has been taken." By the time names are being discussed, Polge has usually had several different embryonic fragrances on the go for a long time, and has gradually been whittling them down. "Once we have the name, it's a question of choosing the perfume - usually it's a choice between two - and adjusting it to suit the whole idea. The process never takes less than three, sometimes four years in all.
"But, you know," he adds, "I consider that the time involved in the creation is nothing compared to the time the fragrance lives."
Certainly, timelessness is a key characteristic of Chanel perfumes. After all, Chanel No5, the company's greatest fragrance hit, has been popular since its launch in 1921. Its iconic bottle is the most easily recognisable and most photographed of any fragrance flacon. The scent is as admired by industry experts as it is beloved by women, and it is regarded as a pioneering perfume. Polge points out that when couturier Coco Chanel launched No5, it was the first time that fashion and fragrance had been successfully linked. Another reason for its status as the perfumer's perfume is that it broke with convention by being modern and abstract. "No5 was the first fragrance to use lots of flowers while not relating to the precise scent of a flower. There is a mystery behind 5, and that mystery is very important in a fragrance," says Polge.
There's also an agelessness about No5. It's a scent that has been worn by generations of women, including Marilyn Monroe who boosted sales significantly with her famous comment that all she wore to bed at night were "a few drops of Chanel No5". Another Chanel fragrance, No19, only came into being because of its ageless appeal. Leaving the Ritz one day in 1970, Coco Chanel was wearing the then not-yet-launched No19 when she was accosted by a stranger who asked her for the name of her perfume because his two female friends had fallen under its spell. At the time, Chanel was 87. The incident convinced her that the fragrance should be launched - although her advisors had reservations.
Despite the agelessness of the existing Chanel fragrances, Polge believes that the company mustn't rest on past glories. "A brand only shows it's alive by creating new product," argues Polge. "But we don't want to create too many new things because often new fragrances replace the old ones." And this is one of the main differences between Chanel and the competition: whereas many beauty companies launch a new fragrance every couple of years and phase out older ones or ones which aren't selling well, each new Chanel fragrance becomes a permanent fixture on the Chanel counter. Polge says: "We want our fragrances to complement each other, and to last. When we create something, we're always looking to the long term, we never do anything just for the short term."
Polge's tenure as only the third nose in Chanel's 85-year history as perfume makers began in 1978 and overlapped with that of his predecessor, Henri Robert. Robert was the creator of the sparkling, summery fragrance Cristalle, and No19, the last Chanel perfume in Coco Chanel's lifetime and Polge's personal favourite. "Mr Robert was rather old when I succeeded him - he was 80, so I still have some time to go," says Polge, laughing.
Originally from Provence, Polge moved with his family to Grasse, known as the capital of perfume, when he was in his early teens and soon developed an interest in the traditional art of perfumery. Had he lived in Paris or the north of France, he asserts, he is unlikely to have become a nose. "Being in Grasse, I became aware that there was such a profession as a perfumer." It wasn't merely the smells or the creative element which attracted the young Polge. Perfume making had a romantic appeal, too.
"I liked the idea, the poetic idea that fragrance is a kind of language. It doesn't use words. It doesn't use images. It's invisible. All these attributes, for me, made sense," he says.
Although he didn't study chemistry, Polge went to university before serving a traditional apprenticeship in Grasse, where he learned a great deal from Jean Carles, the creator of the classic fragrance Ma Griffe. However, he's quick to point out that, "You have to teach yourself - nobody can teach you how to smell. It's a very personal thing. There is a method, yes, but nobody can smell for you." Polge trained himself to memorise and recognise thousands of fragrance constituents; his memory is "a library" of different scents. His tip? "To memorise, you need to impose order by classifying smells in groups."
By the late 1970s, Chanel was one of the last few perfume houses to have its own in-house nose. (Now, it's the only house which can boast that every single one of its fragrances was made in its own lab by its own nose.) Robert had succeeded Ernest Beaux, the man behind No5, and both perfumers worked very closely with Mademoiselle Chanel herself. Polge was the first nose operating entirely by himself, with no input from Mademoiselle, who had died in 1971. However, he was keenly aware of her ongoing presence. After all, he was now responsible for ensuring that her fragrances continued to be made exactly as she had wanted them.
It's little wonder then, that Polge's first fragrance for women was an olfactory homage to the great lady herself. Coco, launched in 1984, was inspired by Chanel and, especially, her Parisian home. Polge explains: "The idea came from the way Mademoiselle Chanel had decorated her apartment above the shop on the rue Cambon. The three rooms had not been touched since her death. I was very surprised by the dcor - it wasn't what I had expected at all. There were lacquered screens, gilt mirrors, and treasures she had brought back from Venice. To me, this was the very opposite of the simple style I associated her with.
"It was so different that I tried to understand how it related to her fashion and her perfumes. And then I realised that she had created some fragrances early on - Cuir de Russie, Bois des Iles and Sycomore - which were as baroque as her apartment. At the time, all these fragrances had been discontinued, probably because they were not very successful. With their disappearance, a part of her style had disappeared so it became very important to me to create a fragrance which reflected that baroque side of her style."
The resulting Coco is a sensual, opulent and, as Polge puts it, "baroque" fragrance with a spicy floral heart, fruity floral top notes and a woody base which evokes the perfumes that Chanel had created early in her career. Two of these fragrances - Cuir de Russie and Bois des Iles - were later revived by Polge and now, along with the similarly resurrected No22 and Gardenia, enjoy something of a cult following.
Just as Coco was an interpretation of Chanel's exotically decorated home, Polge had a very specific inspiration when it came to creating his latest fragrance for women, Allure Sensuelle. He says: "One of the models for our fragrance Allure is an actress called Anna Mouglalis. By accident, I happened to hear her voice one day, and it surprised me. It was a deep voice, strong and almost masculine. I was very surprised by it, by the contrasts. I liked the idea of creating a fragrance after a voice because I think that one's voice is very important, it reveals an inner dimension. I think that perfume also has to do with an inner dimension, you see, so I thought it was a nice poetic idea. That was the starting point."
To create a version of the famously fresh, simple and understated Allure which reflected the provocative qualities Polge sensed in Mouglalis's husky voice, he went back to the original, floral oriental fragrance. "I added some characteristic notes that give more depth - for instance, I added a lot of woody notes, lots of spices, lots of amber notes, and musk. I don't know how people will see Allure Sensuelle. I think a lot of people see it as a new fragrance that has nothing to do with the previous Allure. There is a link but they are two distinct personalities: whereas Allure is fresh, simple and easy to wear, and its sensuality is quite discreet and held back, I would say that in Allure Sensuelle the erotic side is flaunted more and is more prominent. It's the scent of a great seductress!"
For his next project, Polge is planning to delve into the company's past once more. He is about to start work on some more lost Chanel fragrances. Slipping into conspiratorial mode, he says, excitedly: "I've not even told anyone in the company this but somebody at our factory at Pantin was going to throw away a lot of old papers. We have a conservatoire, a private museum where we keep lots of Mademoiselle's possessions and archives, and the person responsible for that went to see what they were going to throw away. Included in the papers were old formulas that Mademoiselle Chanel created, like Une Ide and 1940 - very old fragrances that nobody remembers and I have to see what can be done with those in the future." sm
• Allure Sensuelle goes on sale on Monday at major department stores. The eau de parfum starts at 48.50.