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Discover Grasse, Provence capital of perfume in France

“Grasse didn’t always smell this nice. It used to stink,” my Nose told me. “It was a leather tanning town and the stench was unbearable. The first fragrance produced was for designer gloves. Rose water to mask the ghastly smell. Catherine de Medici endorsed them. And Grasse quickly became the perfume capital of the world.”

I was being shown round The Galimand Studio des Fragrances. My Nose was a perfume expert and professional petro-chemist.

How the Grasse perfume industry began

For four hundred heady years, the tiny village in the foothills of the Alps-Maritimes above the French Mediterranean coast has been the centre of the international perfume industry. “Chanel No.5” was invented there in 1922. It was the first perfume to use synthetic materials – aldehyde. But, every year twenty-seven tonnes of jasmine are still harvested from the surrounding countryside and used by the local “fumeries”. There is also a weekly market in the Genoa-inspired square, a rose festival in May and a jasmine festival in August. And the perfumeries are busier than ever.

My “perfumerie” crawl moved on to the museum on the third floor of the yellow-walled “Fragonard” factory where I was given a new Nose who invited me to take a deep breath. “You are standing in the most fragrant place on earth,” my Nose informed me. “You can smell the whole world from here. The finest smells the earth can produce.”

Using donkey-drawn carts, the earliest French “parfumiers” carried their primitive and very crude distilling vats into the mountains around Grasse. They gathered wild flowers and extracted scents on the spot in the open air by steaming the plants in large copper cauldrons. The still was introduced from Arabia and an Italian monk, Mauritius Frangipani, discovered that perfumes can be preserved in alcohol.

In 1759, using skills learnt from the pomade (hair ointment) makers of Montpellier, the people of Grasse began supplying Parisian scent-makers with their raw materials. Business grew and soon Grasse was producing iris, hyacinth and rose scented soaps in special containers. Antoine Chiris founded one of the first perfumeries in the town at the end of the century. There are now three times more artificial, man-made fragrances on the market than natural ones. Approximately six thousand essential oils are used by the cosmetic industry.

Smell the world in Grasse

My nose swooned and reeled off the aromas. “Turkish roses picked at dawn, Egyptian orange blossom, lavender from the plateaux of Haute Provence, local petal-less wild mimosa, Madagascan ylang-ylang, Californian lemons, Calabrian bergamot, Israeli grapefruit, Indian Ocean vanilla, Russian coriander, Somalian frankincense, Sri Lankan sandalwood, cloves from the Philippines, Japanese ginger, Kenyan cedar, Italian iris, Guatemalan cardamom, South African geranium…”

If you want to smell the world you need only to come to the French Riviera.

Perfume fans will love the The International Museum of Perfumery, a glassy modern makeover of an eighteenth-century hotel. Crammed with perfume-making paraphernalia, “olfactive stations”, “essence fountains” and “vapour trails”. It tells the story of distillation, absorption, supercritical carbon dioxide volatile solvents and how it’s become possible to smell like Beyonce and Lady Gaga.

The Grasse Perfume industry today

Today, the Grasse perfume industry employs a workforce of several thousand.  The global cosmetic industry is thought to be worth $72.7 billion. Four factories in Grasse are open to the public and guided tours explain the series of washing, filtration, purification, evaporation and impregnation which constitutes the highly involved and painstaking production process. All this is overseen by one expert who is affectionately known as “The Chief Nose” or “Le Composeur”.

La Musee International de la Perfumerie, which opened in 1989, has a collection of antique amphorae and stoppered bottles from famous manufactures like Lalique and Baccarat. Also exhibited is Marie Antoinette’s travel case and “chatelaines” – private perfume bottles on chains.

Someone once worked out that more than eighty-five of its products are bought every second – every day.  Which is a stat not to be sniffed at.

Surprising perfume facts

The story of perfume contains a few surprises. Russian astronauts went into space with phials full of perfume and essential oils to remind them of home. From its earliest documented use perfume has put man in touch with the heavens. The word “perfume” derives from the Latin “per fumum” meaning “through smoke”, The ancient Greeks and Egyptians burnt aromatic substances in their temples to placate the gods and mask the smell of burning flesh during human sacrifices.

As Christianity spread perfume was frowned upon as a vanity until it was revived by the Crusaders returning from the Middle-East. In Tudor times, Europeans sprinkled pleasant-smelling love-in-the-mist seeds into their hair to prevent lice.

Perfumes fall into three basic categories – floral, orientals and oceanics. The top sellers include Chanel’s “Chanel No. 5” which Marilyn Monroe wore (“and nothing else”), “Gucci’s “Envy”, Givenchy’s “Organza”, and Calvin Klein’s “Obsession”.

There are perfume workshops you can take in Grasse including at Molinard and Fragonard. Here you can create your own unique scent. As Georgio Armani once said “For those who live with style and elegance, dressing is a ritual. The final act in that ritual is fragrance.”

By Kevin Pilley, the UK’s most published, downright quirky travel writer!

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