Before I became passionate about perfumes 12 years ago, my vocabulary for describing smells was limited to words like “woody” or “floral”. Later, I found myself trying to enlarge it in order to describe the increasingly complex perfumes that came into my house in small samples.
At the time, perfume blogs and some books were revealing well-kept secrets from the industry. I fell in love not only with perfume but also with the clever and curious descriptions of fragrances made by talented critics.
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More recently, I decided to go deeper into the fragrance industry and knew that there was no better place to do this than Grasse, in France, a medieval city in the south of Provance, known as the world capital of perfume.
In the city and its surroundings, further away from the sea and therefore protected from the sea, a confluence of soil, sun and temperature feeds the flowers that were the genesis of the French perfume industry in the 17th century.
Grasse is especially known for its fragrant Mayan rose, the pale rose that blooms in May, and the jasmine. Both flowers are at the heart of several famous fragrances, including Chanel’s most famous star, No. 5.
The quick version of Grasse’s position in the history of perfume is the one that starts with the bad smell. In the Middle Ages, the city had a thriving leather trade, but the tanning process generated a very bad by-product. A leather maker from Grasse presented a pair of perfumed leather gloves to Catarina de Médici, queen of France from 1547 until 1559, and thus an industry was born.
Until today in Grasse, Dior, Hermès and Chanel cultivate roses and jasmines in protected fields. Every year, the city celebrates these two fragrant flowers with two festivals and, only now, Dior has re-established the famous Château de la Colle Noire, Christian Dior’s former residence in the city.
Grasse is also home to the prestigious Grasse Perfumery Institute, which offers perfume courses at various levels, including a nine-month immersion experience that accepts only 12 students per year.
The city is so associated with the perfume industry that its inhabitants have requested a place on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, an inventory of traditions that rely on transferable knowledge that can be considered fragile in an increasingly globalized world.
The three great historical perfumeries in Grasse – Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard – offer tours, perfume workshops and fragrance products.
Fragonard’s ochre multi-level building brings together shop, museum and perfumery. The building dates back to 1782, although the house was opened and named after the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard in 1926.
While I was waiting for a guided tour in English, I was thinking about the unpretentious Fragonard perfume museum and I remembered that, although the origins of perfume lie in ancient civilization, France transformed its humble use into a luxury industry in the 18th century.
A small group passed through rooms with massive stainless steel vases, while others walked with team members accustomed to intrusion. Our guide, Jessica, explained that after the harvest of jasmine, orange blossom, lavender and others – all on a schedule – the flowers are placed on trays on the water, which is brought to the boil.
As the steam rises, it captures the components that carry the perfume and transports them to cooler glass, where the mixture of water and essential oils is then collected.
We need three tons of flowers to get a liter of oil,
The next morning, I went to the Musée International de la Parfumerie, in the heart of the old town. The museum is a wonderful combination of vintage and contemporary, and traces three thousand years of perfume history, from ancient Greece to modernity, with artifacts, videos, olfactory installations and explanatory panels.
The museum has a plant conservatory in the south-west of Grasse, with two hectares of gardens that complement its mission, giving visitors the chance to smell and touch many of the botanical ingredients involved in perfumery.
Afterward, I left for Molinard, one of the most beautiful ancient perfumeries in Grasse. It was opened in 1849 when the company started to produce and sell floral waters in a small shop in the center of the city.
The interior mixes natural light from skylights with lighting from chandeliers to create a royalty effect – which goes well, since purple is part of Molinard’s color scheme. Like Fragonard and Galimard, Molinard offers free tours in several languages, as well as individual and group workshops.
I wanted to have my own fragrance created in Grasse. I had chosen Gallimard, Grasse’s oldest perfumery and certainly one of the oldest in the world. It was created in 1747 when Jean de Galimard supplied olive oils, ointments, and perfumes to the French court.
Tailor-made fragrances involve a considerable amount of time and testing, so realistically, I understood that I wouldn’t get anything spectacular with zero skills; I just wanted to have fun.
Our small group was sitting in front of a catalog – half circles of small bottles of essential oils – and an empty glass glass of 100 milliliters. I felt an acute pinch of uncertainty.
Our guidance counselor, Manon, explained the functions of the top classification, the heart notes (the main essence) and the base note, the three stages of the smell of a perfume over time. With a little guidance, it helped us to establish a prototype of what we wanted. Beside me, two twin sisters were fulfilling a birthday wish.
Instructions were provided during measurement, testing and smell. Manon kept an eye out for potential disasters that occur when using too much of this or that oil.
Two hours later, after making decisions that seemed to involve a risk of death, “Lark” was born, much better than I could have imagined, both light and dark (some of the notes were lotus, bergamot, sandalwood, gardenia, bamboo and sandalwood).