Audrey Hepburn once said, “Paris is always a good idea,” and I couldn’t agree more — but if you haven’t ventured to the southwest coast of France to the idyllic town of Biarritz, you are doing yourself a disservice. Dubbed the “queen of beaches and the beach of kings”, Biarritz has long been a summer getaway destination of the rich and famous, situated along the Côte Basque in the French Pyrénées-Atlantiques. It is also home to the majestic Hôtel Du Palais Biarritz, the “jewel of Biarritz”, founded in 1855 — the ultimate lap of gilded luxury and five-star hospitality, and once the summer residence of Napoleon III and his Spanish-born wife, Empress Eugenie.
Droves of royals, aristocrats, and celebrities have flocked here over the years, including Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Hemmingway — and, famously, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. She opened the first Chanel couture boutique in Biarritz in 1915 with the help of investor and lover Arthur “Boy” Capel.
It’s not every day that one abandons the warmth of a South African summer for the lingering chill of an early French spring, but this was in pursuit of experiencing first-hand the unmatched savoir-faire behind the skincare craftsmanship of one of the world’s most luxurious maisons. After landing in a crisp and breezy Paris, all roads led to Biarritz on a four-hour train ride in a private Chanel wagon for a very special invitation to Château de Gaujacq, a hidden gem one hour outside the town.
If you’ve ever indulged in the luxuriously decadent formulas of Chanel skincare ranges such as Hydra Beauty and N°1 de Chanel, you already know about the powerful benefits of their unique core ingredient — the camellia flower. Less well known are the expertise, research, and dedication that go into the development of these formulas, as well as the cultivation and conservation of camellia plants at the Chanel Open Sky Laboratory in Gaujacq in a 25-year labour of love centred on the study of these flowers.
Gabrielle Chanel’s favourite, the Camellia japonica “Alba Plena” (white camellia), is a delicate, captivating flower native to Asia that populated the world via the Tea Road in the 17th century. It has long been the symbol of the house, but it was only extensive research by Chanel Research that uncovered its powerful active components and age-fighting properties. Never before has the camellia been used in a skincare range or for its cosmetic benefits.
The Chanel Open Sky Laboratory experience is like no other — a project that puts nature, people, biodiversity, and sustainability at the forefront. Decades of botanical, phytochemical, and agroecological expertise go into every plant, resulting in these sustainable, effective, and luxurious skincare products.
Established in 1998, the Chanel Open Sky Laboratory is the result of a collaboration with international camellia expert Jean Thoby, whose family has been involved in botany for over five generations. As custodian of the botanical conservatory garden in Gaujacq, Thoby is responsible for the cultivation of the rarest species and varieties on nearly 5ha, with 3 000 plants that have been collected from around the world.
“In 1998, we began a collaboration with Chanel Research, in order to carry out experiments, sampling, and planting... From trial to trial, following numerous exchanges with the phytochemistry laboratory, we managed in 2009 to carry out a first cultivation of Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena’,” he says.
An early start to the day slowly cools the warm air of Biarritz’s Basque coast into a limb-numbing chill at Chateau de Gaujacq — a quaint, blue-shuttered building that feels like a postcard from another time. Set against the dew and grey of a light, rainy morning, there are euphoric bursts of colour from camellia shrubs of varying hues surrounding the chateau grounds. Owing to Gaujacq’s humid and wet climate, with year-round rainfall, conditions here are similar to that in the camellia’s native countries of China and Japan, making it the ideal location for these plants to thrive.
Kitted out in custom Chanel gumboots — a staple for any guest visiting the somewhat muddy grounds — we are guided by Thoby through a rusted gate into the remarkable plant conservatory, home to 2 000 camellia varieties, including two seedlings from mother plants ordered by Gabrielle Chanel over a century ago. The delicate yet voluminous petals of the white camellia are a clear standout. Thoby’s passion for plants and dedication to this research is a driving force behind the conservatory’s ever-growing collection. As a result, the Open Sky Laboratory has been integral in sustaining plant diversity, having saved 75 species of camellia to date and helping to conserve the white camellia, which was close to extinction.
A few kilometres away from the plant conservatory is the phytoanalysis laboratory, tucked away in the camellia fields and headed up by phytochemist Nicola Fuzzati. This is where nature meets science. The director of cosmetic ingredients innovation & development at Chanel Research, Fuzzati and a team of scientists develop and extract active ingredients and camellia molecules, such as polyphenols, used to make skincare products. “Our increased presence on the ground and scientific expertise give us a unique perspective on nature’s potential to serve beauty,” he says. But nature can be unpredictable.
They have had a fruitful harvest this year, and up to 400kg of camellia petals can be collected in a single harvest. The risk of being on nature’s clock is that, next year, conditions may not be as favourable. To counteract the possibility of not having any harvest owing to bad weather or crop loss, the flowers are harvested and frozen before the maceration process. Here, different active molecules and by-products are obtained from the whole camellia plant. With a no-waste policy, every part of the plant is used in the formulation, as well as in the packaging, plastic alternatives, ink, boxes, and lids. “It depends on the molecule you are looking for.
In the white camellia, we are looking for polyphenols because they have antioxidant and hydrating properties. Once I have extracted and taken away the polyphenols, I still have the petals — what is inside? You have cellulose, from which you can make paper,” says Fuzzati.
Across from the phytoanalysis laboratory, the 40ha of camellia fields are where Philippe Grandry, Chanel’s crop operations manager, applies sustainable, agroecological production methods that respect both ecosystems and biodiversity. “We are in a true open-sky research laboratory, and experimentation is central to our approach. We work to ensure that our production methods preserve local ecosystems, maintain biological equilibrium, and contribute to biodiversity conservation.”
The Chanel Open Sky Laboratory is more than just a farm or science laboratory — it is an exciting hub of innovation that’s about more than (admittedly wonderful) face creams. It’s about the preservation of the emblematic camellia and the wellbeing of both environment and people. Driving education around sustainability practices and agroecology expertise to other farms in the area, the Chanel Open Sky Laboratory is on the cusp of changing the way skincare is produced and how we begin to restore nature’s true potential.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2023.