GRASSE, France If you leave the Mediterranean Sea behind you at Cannes and head north toward the Maritime Alps, the road winds upward passing lush vineyards and fields of lavender. There are castles and monasteries hiding in the verdant hills, and knock you to your knees panoramas appear around every bend in the road. It isn’t long before you arrive in Grasse, a city that clings like a lover’s fragrance to the steep hills high above the French Riviera. It’s a city of flowers and perfume, a city you won’t soon forget.
The narrow cobblestone streets wind past well kept 17th and 18th century buildings, sometimes going through handcrafted stone tunnels that open onto large treed squares. The slight patina that covers the buildings is from the centuries of fragrance laden clouds that once floated in from the flower fields, for Grasse is where the perfume industry was born.
|Streets of Old Grasse|
Throughout town large pots of fragrant blooming plants and colorful flowers hang from every lamppost. Blood red geraniums, pink carnations and white Sweet William cascade from ancient wrought iron balconies. The air smells sweet in Grasse, and well it should, for Grasse is the birthplace of the perfume industry.
Along Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, you’ll find shops selling not just cut glass flaçons of delicious smelling perfumes, all tasseled and beribboned and crowned with gilded stoppers, but cologne, sprays, fragrant soaps, lotions, candles and essential oils. Perfume and scents have been a part of life in this small town since before the French Revolution. But it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1500s Italian leather artisans from the nearby Italian Riviera immigrated to Grasse and set up workshops. The town quickly became the center of a small tanning industry. The Italians produced gloves and other small leather products, often perfuming them with the flowers they found growing steps from their doors.
|Fields of Lavender Near Grasse|
Perfumes had long been popular in Italy, so much so that when 14 year old Catherine de' Medici of Florence, married the soon to be King of France, Henry II and moved to Paris in 1533, she brought her private perfumer with her. To prevent his much coveted formulas from being stolen, she kept him, and his formulas, locked away in a hidden laboratory. The only way in or out was through a secret passageway which was connected to her apartment.
As Queen of France, when Catherine started wearing perfumed gloves, they became very fashionable. But fashion aside, anyone who could afford them wanted perfumed gloves, or at the least a scented handkerchief, to hold up to their nose for in the mid 1500’s the cities of Europe were not as we see them today. Even two hundred years after Catherine’s death, the situation hadn’t changed much.
|Site of Original Flower Market|
In his book Perfume, author Patrick Suskind describes the cities of France during the eighteenth century like this: "there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us. . . the streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat. There was the stench of sulfur, the stench of caustic lyes and the stench of congealed blood from the slaughterhouses. People stank of rotting teeth, sweat and unwashed clothes . . .".
|Fountain Square Today|
It was during this period that Suskind describes in his book that Grasse prospered. The town became the largest production center for raw materials, specializing in jasmine and rose petals. Paris became the commercial counterpart to Grasse and the world center of perfume. Perfume houses such as Houbigant (which still produces Quelques Fleurs), Lubin, RogeR & Gallet, and Guerlain, which were in Paris, based their industries on the flowers they bought from Grasse.
|Processing Rose Petals|
In those days, an early morning walk around town would bring you face to face with mountains of freshly picked rose petals, vats of mimosa or baskets of violets and orange blossoms, harvested in the cool hours just before dawn when the oil in the flowers is the most concentrated.
But there are few mountains of flowers waiting to be processed these days, and no one talks about the price of jasmine or rose petals anymore. Today it’s the price of guaiacolo, ionone, chinolina, and the other chemicals used in the production of perfume that is discussed over lunch. Changing tastes and the development of modern chemistry laid the foundations of perfumery as we know it today. Alchemy gave way to chemistry and new fragrances were created.
Today both old and new perfume making techniques are followed in Grasse. This is where Chanel No. 5 was created, and is still produced, as are many other perfumes and scents for top Parisian couturier houses like Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. The scents are produced in small, private laboratories scattered throughout the town. The low concrete buildings are hidden away behind tall fences and large trees, their perfume secrets jealously guarded like a king’s ransom. The unfamiliar company names on the brass tags above the doorbells belie the contribution they make to the six billion dollar a year business called perfume.
|Everyone Loves Perfume|
Perfume is so seductive there was a time when young ladies were warned against smelling the scent of tuberose in the evening for fear it would make them overly susceptible to amorous advances. Even Father Lorenzo Quart, the hero in Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel The Seville Communion, falls under it’s spell.
"Macarena," he said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. As he did so, he smelled her perfume: gentle, like jasmine."
You can see how scents are created by visiting one of the town’s three large perfume houses: Fragonard, Galimard or Molinard. I chose to visit Galimard simply because it is the oldest. The original Monsieur Galimard supplied pomades and perfumes to the Perfume Court of Louis XV, and the company has been making perfume and scents ever since.
|M. Jacques Maurel and Madame Galimard|
At the Galimard factory I met Monsieur Jacques Maurel, the Galimard “Nose” or Master Parfumeur. Monsieur Maurel is one of fifty Noses in the world certified to make perfume. Noses, or ‘le nez’ as they are known in French, work at a desk called a perfume organ because of its similarities to a musical organ. But instead of musical pipes, perfumers are surrounded by hundreds of dark brown bottles filled with scents. As part of their training, Noses must be able to recognize and identify two to four thousand odors, and be familiar with the classical Renaissance techniques of perfume making.
While you probably won’t be able to get the formula for Chanel No. 5, a visit to the Perfume Museum, near Rue Jean Osola, will give you an idea of the serious chemical protocols that go into turning that cloud of scent the Romans called ‘per fumum’ into perfume. And while you are there take a look at the collection of antique perfume bottles. Some of the lead crystal bottles, particularly those designed by Renè Lalique, Baccarat and Louis Tiffany, are priceless works of art.
Just across the street from the Perfume Museum is the Fragonard museum, the family home of the artist Jean-Honore Fragonard, Grasse’s most famous artist. His large religious painting, Washing of the Feet, hangs in the 12th century Cathedral of Grasse, Notre-Dame du Puy, in Place du Petit Puy. From the Cathedral it is just a short walk to Place aux Herbes, and from there to the town’s principal square Place aux Aires where you can relax and enjoy lunch under the shade of large chestnut trees. The daily flower mart arranged around the three tiered fountain in the center of the square is reminiscent of the by-gone days when local perfumers came here to buy wheelbarrows full of rose petals and jasmine to take back to their workshops and process into perfume.
Grasse is an easy day trip from Canne or Nice, and a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. There are no long lists of must see sites to make you feel guilty about sitting around, sipping a cup of French roasted coffee, and watching as coiffured white poodles pull chic matrons around the square. Viva la France.
This article has also been published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and translated into Arabic for Al Buraq Magazine