On a spring or summer day, when you find yourself seeking a unique experience after enjoying many of the sights and sounds of Cannes, drive away from the Riviera and enter the interior of the French Riviera. With the windows open and less-traveled country roads, you will soon sense a change in the air. The enticing and invisible scents of jasmine, mimosa, lavender and others assail your senses as you drive past open fields and gardens of flowers bathing beneath an intensely blue Provençal sky. You will turn a bend in the road and feel a slight disappointment while leaving the fields behind, but will soon see rising on a hill before you, the celebrated town of Grasse. You are about to enter The Perfume Capital of France.
Grasse is a modest-appearing town, but it has a rich heritage in French history and a reputation par-excellence in the world of perfumery.
But Grasse wasn’t always noted for its pleasing scents! During the Middle Ages, it was a major tanning center, renowned for the quality of its leather goods. Much of that success was due to the small canal that ran through the city, providing ample water for the tanneries and a route for selling the tanned leather to distant markets. Unfortunately, a rather powerful, nasty and invasive odor was the bi-product of the tanning efforts. Here, major leather accessories were created. Most popular were belts and gloves needed to fuel the fashion trends led by Queen Catherine de Medici. She complained – according to legend – about the stench from the tanning processes coming off the gloves!
Jean de Galimard, a tanner in Grasse, came up with the idea of scented leather gloves. He gave a pair to Catherine de Medici, who was enraptured by them. Quickly, scented gloves spread throughout the Royal Court and high society, creating a powerful reputation for Grasse. As a result, many farmers around Grasse turned to growing a variety of scented flowers to combat the stench of the tanned leather products, leading in 1614 to the king officially supporting a corporation of “glovers perfumers.” However, high taxes on leather and competition from Nice brought a decline for the leather industry in Grasse, and production of leather fragrances ceased.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the perfumery industry became a genuine business able to use innovative production methods adapted to increasing market demands. The perfume industry became a profitable and formidable force in France. Several of the earliest companies are still major economic forces today. Galimard, established in 1747, is the oldest French perfumery and the third oldest in Europe.
Due to increased consumer demand and limited supplies, by the nineteenth century, the factories began to import raw materials. The ever-increasing demands from the public led to synthetic products being used in the creation of perfumes, as well as in related products such as deodorants, hand lotions and body creams, shampoos and detergents. Scents were also added to various dairy products, pastries, creams and soaps as well as syrups and preserves, drinks, and ice cream, among many others.
The rare scents from the fields and gardens of Grasse led to the town becoming known as The Perfume Capital of the World. The town still enjoys an international reputation in the perfume industry and is the home of dozens of fragrance companies. Even the flowers used for making the world-famous Chanel N°5 are grown and harvested there.
Explore the world of perfume
The best way to appreciate Grasse and the perfume industry is to take a guided group or personal tour through one of the ursines (factories). This way, you gain an in-depth understanding of how perfumes and other fragrances are created and revel in the scent of exquisite samples available for purchase at the end of the tour.
You can even create your own fragrance. Several of the perfumeries offer workshops, including Galimard, Fragonard, and Molinard. A perfumer or “Nez” (Nose), an expert in the field of creating essences, after studying and training perhaps longer than a doctor, will help you. They possess exceptional skills at identifying several thousand unique scents. To protect that specialized talent, they must not smoke, drink or eat foods which might affect their olfactory skills. Workshops may include the process of deciding from among more than 100 scents: Peak Note (top note), Heart Note (middle note), and Base Note. The Nez will then have you smell several perfumes or fragrances and decide which you prefer. With each step, the added scents change the fragrance; also, over a few weeks, the overall fragrance will evolve.
At the end you are given a bottle of your custom fragrance. You can even order more of it as your ingredients are recorded.
What to see in Grasse
Learn more about the history of perfumes in the Musée International de la Parfumerie (International Museum of Perfume) covering more than 3,000 years of perfume history.
You can also explore Old Grasse, which has medieval ruins, 17th and 18th century buildings, enclosed town squares and the Cathédral Notre-Dame-du-Puy containing paintings Rubens and Fragonard. Other sites include the Hôtel de Ville (former Bishop’s Palace, now City Hall), the Monument aux Morts (war memorial), and the Jardin de la Princesse Pauline (garden).
There is also a Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Provence, which covers the art and history of eastern Provence, while the Musée Provençal du Costume et du Bijou has a collection of Provençal clothing and jewelry from the 18th and 19th centuries. There is also the Jean-Honoré Fragonard Villa-Musée, once the home of the French artist Fragonard. The Musée de la Marine offers insights into the life of the 18th century Grasse seaman, François-Joseph Paul; it also details his role in the American Revolution.
Two annual festivals are also worth enjoying. In May is the international Expo Rose and in early August the Fete du Jasmin or la Jasminade which celebrates the jasmine flower.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA