Flower Power on the French Riviera

The arrival of spring on the Côte d’Azur is heralded by an explosion of yellow. Clouds of bright mimosa flowers, the first to bloom, speckle the hillsides above Nice and Cannes. During Nice’s Carnival, in full swing this week, photographers jolly up the local paper with pictures of enthusiasts lobbing bunches of these yellow blooms around at the ‘batailles des fleurs‘, and there is much press buzz about an upcoming, new French Riviera garden festival. Large-scale cultivation of roses, violets and jasmine is less extensive than it once was, when local growers supplied traditional perfume makers in Grasse. But flowers still have an economic role on the French Riviera – and there is enough pollen floating about at the moment to make many a resident sneeze.

Closely-guarded secret

Even with an invitation, I didn’t receive the final confirmation of my visit to Les Fontaines Parfumées until 22:00 the night before. Security checks at the gate and door were extraordinarily thorough. This 17th century building, hidden behind high terracotta walls in the centre of Grasse, is a source of intense local curiosity. Press colleagues, journalist and photographer friends of mine, had tried to get access and failed: “You’ve been inside? Wow! What’s it like? What did you see?

Photograph of a green vase of pink flowers on a table in an empty room
A modest meeting room bouquet

An old perfumery, Les Fontaines Parfumées had lain in ruin for decades…until it caught the eye of the decision-makers at Louis Vuitton. After a 70-year break from perfume-making, Vuitton was planning to get back into fine fragrances and this building, at the heart of the world’s historic perfume capital, was chosen as the place in which to do it. Last autumn, after a few years’ preparation, Louis Vuitton was finally ready to launch its new line of 7 original perfumes. I had heard that this event was a Very Big Deal in the closed and highly secretive world of luxury scent, so when the New York Times: Fashion & Style asked me, as assignment photographer, to visit the new Scent HQ and meet Vuitton’s master perfumer, I enthusiastically agreed.

World-famous nose

I certainly didn’t see any formulae lying around, or any alchemy at work, as I was shown around. Empty salons (or were they offices?) were minimally-yet-impeccably decorated, and giant, extraordinarily beautiful flower decorations stopped me in my tracks. Finally, I was ushered into a luxurious office (or was it a salon?) with particularly stunning views down to the sea at Cannes, and came face-to-face with…The Nose.

Portrait of perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, at work smelling scents in his perfume laboratory
The Nose, at top-secret work

Jacques Cavallier Belletrud is a third generation ‘nose’ [a master perfumer] and something of a celebrity in the perfume world. Creator of the likes of L’Eau d’Issey, Midnight Poison and Stella, he now appears to have found a nice role for himself at Louis Vuitton. He doesn’t have far to go to work at the Les Fontaines Parfumées‘s brand-spanking-new top-floor laboratory (Cavallier Belletrud was born and lives in Grasse). Here, without limitation of either brief or budget, and aided by highly-qualified-yet-deferential lab assistants, he carries out the mysterious tasks needed to design Vuitton’s perfumes. Creating a new scent can take years, but as there is a limit to the number of smells a perfumer can properly discern in a day, Cavallier Belletrud can only really work in the mornings. I was a little surprised, prowling around later outside, to find that he smokes…and unsurprised to find that he wasn’t keen on a photographer witnessing this (I left him in peace: I guess reflection in the beautiful perfume garden is part of the process).

Not for a shrinking violet

A few months later, I was sent as photographer on another floral-theme assignment. Wizz Air’s in-flight magazine was to run a no-less-than 6 double-page feature entitled ‘Flower Power on the French Riviera‘ and the Nice-based writer had sniffed out an unexpectedly broad range of angles on the business of blooms. I made portraits of the charming and talkative Jean Mus, a prominent landscape architect (who, co-incidentally, designed the perfume garden at Les Fontaines Parfumées), the surprisingly solemn artistic director of Nice Carnival (perhaps years of flower battles take their toll) and a florist in Nice’s famed Cours Saleya flower market. Photographing at a flower cookery school around lunchtime certainly had its perks, as I found myself munching on some (surprisingly tasty) violet petals at La Cuisine des Fleurs in Antibes.

Overhead photograph of a cookery class, showing a student adding violet petals to the top of a batch of cheese toasts
The delicate making of violet-cheesy-puff-toasts

Spring, however, was still some way off when the magazine assigned me. To say that December was a sub-optimal time to commission this photography would be an understatement. While a writer can chat to interviewees and write gloriously about a bloom-filled South of France, a photographer needs something concrete to work with. The French Riviera may get an over-the-odds number of sunshine hours, but during the short, chilly days of winter, flowers are about as hard to find as bikini-clad women on the beach. If the editors wanted rose-filled gardens and swathes of sunflowers, then they would have to dip into stock photographers’ treasure troves. But as I found myself moving a lone plant pot with two small blooms into the edge of my portrait of Jean Mus, or crouching close with a wide angle lens to exaggerate a few rows of cyclamen, I realised that there was an up-side to photographing a flower story with no flowers: no pollen = no sneezing.

Page spread from Wizz Air magazine showing photographs of Nice Flower Market and a portrait of a florist posing at his stall
In December, the displays at Nice’s famous Flower Market are mostly limited to cyclamen, and leaves
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