Grasse, a small town in the southeast of France on the Riviera, has for over four centuries been considered the â€œperfume capital of the world,â€ (la capitale mondiale des parfums) and long after the expensive and time-consuming enfleurage method of scent extraction fell out of favour, the town still deserves the title. Whether you shop for perfume
avidly, or indulge yourself rarely, the history of Grasse is rich and exciting.
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Only 15km from Cannes, and a 30 minute drive from Nice, the town is nestled amongst an Occitan backdrop of lush greenery and vivid landscapes, far enough inland to be sheltered from the sea air and high enough to be well-watered, its fields irrigated by the famous Siagne Canal. Mild temperatures and plentiful sunshine make for ideal flowering growing conditions, and thus, perfume production.
Curious visitors can have the vibrant history of brought to life for them by visiting the Musee International de la Parfumerie â€“ an impressively curated museum that details the perfume manufacturing process and spans over 3000 years of perfuming history, including much about jasmine, an ingredient central to many perfumes that was introduced to southern France by the Moors in the 16h century, and 27 tonnes of which are now harvested in Grasse, annually. As well, the museum has in its collection Marie Antoinetteâ€™s traveling case, and an on-site greenhouse, that offers the public the opportunity to experience first-hand many fragrant plants and flowers used in perfuming, including many rare genuses not usually available to the public.
Most of the perfumeries in the region offer year-round, free tours, which allow visitors to see the perfume manufacturing process, learn more of the history of the industry, and buy products on-site. Many of historical perfumeries, such as Molinard, Fragonard, and Galimard offer special editions of their fragrances in ornate bottles with a flower encased within the glass of the bottle itself.
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Throughout the year, there are two major festivals related to, and paying tribute to the flowers that made Grasse famous. The International Rose Festival takes place in May while August sees the celebration of the Fete du Jasmin (La Jasminade), with a parade and the highlight, a flower battle between festival participants.
The French perfume industry truly began in the 16th century after the Moorish introduction of jasmine and after a courtly fashion enthusiasm sprang up for scented gloves. The town, previously know for glove production in the previous 300 years, rushed to fill the need, and eventually the perfume industry became more important than the leather industry, as apothecaries and perfumeries began to settle in the small town by the 17 century, officially registering in 1729.
Although today the industry relies primarily on synthetic methods of fragrance production than flowers, and many of the older factories are abandoned, relics of a long-lost time, some flower fields, though in few in number, do still use traditional methods to produce perfume.
The iconic Chanel No. 5, the best-selling perfume has as its principal ingredients a synthetic musk, rose du mai, and jasmine, and after a seasonal disruption of jasmine production, Chanel bought their own farm in Grasse, run by the Muhl family, which today produces annual harvests of up to 20 tons of jasmine and 50 tons of rose du mai, all for use in the legendary fragrance.
The flower Jasmine Grandiforum was introduced into Grasse, making a long journey from Nepal, in 1560. The delicate nature of the flowers require the attention of expert pickers specifically employed to pick the flower, and at 9-10,000 flowers required to make 1 kilogram, these pickers usually manage to harvest Â½ kg every hour. Jasmine flowers are more expensive than roses, by almost six times as much.
The annual rose harvest happens from the middle of April to June, and within a month, (in August) the jasmine harvest begins and lasts until September. The petals are kept in sacks and transported immediately to the Chanel production plant for immediate processing â€“ a feature unique to Chanel, as other perfumeries will tend to wait until the next day. The petals are dumped into large vats, and washed 3 times using an extraction solvent that dissolves the resins, waxes and essential oils from the petals.
After removing the flowers from the vats, the remaining liquid is vaporized into a solid thatâ€™s known in industry speak as a â€œconcrete,â€™ and may be stored for several years until needed, at which point the essential oils are extracted using alcohol. After the alcohol evaporates, a pure floral scent, known as an â€œabsoluteâ€ remains, and is blended with other oils and scents to create perfume.
The 3 basic processes for the making of perfume are distillation, extraction and enfleurage (a complicated process that made its way into the popular imagination primarily because of Patrick Suskindâ€™s novel â€œPerfume,â€ and is now used by only a few perfumeries, primarily Creed); the latter a process which was developed in Grasse.
Though Francois Coty of Corsican Ajaccio (a cousin of Napoleon Bonaparte) opened the first mass production perfume factory in the early years of the 20th century, after studying with the master perfumers in Grasse, the methods and effectively brought perfume to the great unwashed, the perfumes of Grasse will forever be the best in the world.
Grasse remains the perfume capital of the world â€“ a charming medieval town full of with the echoes of a rich history, and offering any visitor the truly unique and Proustian experience of smelling a city alive with the floral fragrances of summer months, conjuring up memories and images like Platonic recollections of ideal beauty