Since the 17th century, the French Riviera town of Grasse has proclaimed itself to be the world’s perfume capital. But does Grasse still carry weight in the international perfume industry? This summer, the editor of ‘N’ (Norwegian Air’s in-flight magazine) flew down to the South of France, photographer -me- at the ready, to investigate.
a perfume smokescreen
We began at the old perfumeries. You can’t miss them: the Big Three (Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard) advertise their museums and factory tours on billboards posted all over the countryside between Nice and Cannes. Tourists arrive in droves to “ooh!” and “ah!” over 18th century copper distillation vats and sample -or even create their own- scents. Instead of adding visitor centres onto successful commercial factories though, the Big Three seem to sell the majority of their products to the said visitors. Over one million people do a perfume tour here every year, filing through the gift shops afterwards. But this economic success doesn’t set Grasse at the forefront of today’s global perfume industry.
In fact it represents the tip of a hidden iceberg. Much harder-to-find industrial units in the town’s suburbs are home to the designers and creators of some of the world’s most famous scents. There are 60 active fragrance companies based in Grasse today, generating a whopping annual revenue of over €600 million. You might not have heard of Robertet or IFF, but you will be familiar with their clients, from Dolce & Gabbana and Marc Jacobs to l’Oreal. Unlike the Big Three, these laboratories neither advertise their presence nor welcome unexpected visitors (a photographer and journalist, for example) near their closely guarded fragrance secrets.
flowers no longer required
Carts laden with roses, jasmine and lavender don’t roll in through these gates anymore. Flower oils started to be replaced by synthetic substitutes as early as the 1940s and the fields of flowers which made Grasse famous have in many cases been replaced by villas and swimming pools. The few real blooms still required in the business are generally sourced in countries like Bulgaria, where they are much cheaper.
Apart from synthesising their perfume products, local fragrance companies have diversified too. Enjoyed a yoghurt recently? The taste might have been designed here. As well as making smells for high-end perfumes and lower-end detergents and washing-up liquid, Grasse today is in the flavour game.
However, notwithstanding the empirical reality, Grasse’s reputation as the natural, authentic and flowery capital of perfume has stuck. Today ‘natural’ sells, and the town’s image is precisely why many of the top worldwide perfume creators, as well as independent artisan perfumiers, still choose to locate here in the South of France.
the new natural
I was relieved to discover though, that natural flower products aren’t entirely extinct in the area. Down a single track road in a valley between Grasse and Cannes, I found and photographed a breathtaking blue field of blooming irises, while Toby (unsuccessfully) tried to coax a local farmer into divulging the names of their Grasse-based parfumerie buyers.
We met Michelle Cavalier too, at her idyllic flower-filled home Jardin de la Bastide. She was the first person to produce organic rosewater in Grasse 10 years ago and today sells a range of home-grown, home-made, organic pomades and flower oils at local markets. Producing commercial perfume from organic flowers is generally seen as too expensive and difficult on a large scale, but Michelle remains optimistic about a future market for organic flower oils, as major perfume houses look increasingly for the ultimate in high quality, unique and marketable fragrances.
Creating a new signature perfume can take up to 18 months and is definitely not something that just anyone can turn their hand to. The very best master perfumers, or “noses” as they’re known in the trade, can gain something of a god-like status in the rather inaccessible world of perfumery. Jean-Claude Ellena is one, François Demachy another – you may not have heard of them, but those in the know refer to these Grasse noses only in the most hushed, reverential tones.
What better place to study the art of perfumery and dream of following in the footsteps of the greats than at the Grasse Institute of Parfumery? I can’t imagine that there are many college application forms across the world that ask wannabes to smell 20 scents and describe each one in detail. Inside a suitably elegant Belle Epoque villa, I met the group of apprentices who had been lucky enough to be accepted onto this year’s course. Entering the classroom, my head reeled, as much from the formulae on the white board as from the heavy scent in the air. The 12 students present barely noticed a photographer in their midst, so deep in concentration were they, sniffing scent-soaked cards and discussing the component parts of each one with the lecturer.
the importance of coffee
When it comes to perfume, I tend to prefer toothpaste and clean laundry over potent bottled fragrances, and this was the end of a long two-day scentathon.” How do I clean all of these smells out of my nose?” I asked, as the class ended. Rather than waving the insensitive photographer’s question aside, or handing me a tissue, Mr Collet, professor and respectable Grasse nose in his own right, addressed me: “Smell some coffee beans“.
Well, I’d never have guessed that.