A short drive from the red carpets and yachts of Cannes on the French Riviera takes you to a small medieval town whose fragrance has drawn in visitors for hundreds of years.
Surrounded by rolling fields of flowers and spring-fed streams, the town of Grasse has been the heart of the world’s perfume industry for centuries. Though the town’s history dates back still further, and the bells of the 11th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy still ring through the ancient stone streets every Sunday.
During my visit to Grasse last year, I spent the day at the Fragonard perfumery and museum, built in 1926. I was fascinated by the tour of their factory, which is open to the public, where an English-speaking guide took me around to see perfumers and “noses” (the formal title of the artists who create the complex combination of smells that make up perfumes) meticulously at work on modern equipment set up inside a building as old as the industry itself.
Perfume is to the nose what painting is to the eyes. It is a powerful art form, and to see it being made first-hand is a truly unique experience. Even though huge factories in far-flung countries now produce most of the bottles sold in department stores around the world, many of the essential aromas still come from Grasse, and the noses who design the contents of those bottles have often trained here.
“Our ancestors in Grasse worked mainly in the perfume industry, and today the children of Grasse continue to join in harvesting each season’s flowers,” says a representative of the Costa family, who owns Fragonard. “The production techniques inherited from previous generations are handed down to them in addition to what they learn at school. So, naturally, most of the famous ‘noses’ come from the Grasse region or have completed their olfactory education in the area’s factories.”
Each summer, the entire region fills with the smell of jasmine, rose and tuberose, the “three queens” of the perfume industry, which to this day relies on the natural aroma of these flowers just as it did when the world’s first perfumer opened shop here in 1747. Today, the techniques of extraction have changed, but the natural beauty of Grasse’s flowers remains essential.
With glamorous beaches just 20 kilometers away, Grasse doesn’t make it on everyone’s to-do list when visiting the south of France. But if you’re looking for an escape, delight your senses and follow your nose to Grasse.
istockphoto.com/Fragonard Parfumeur/istockphoto.com/Fragonard Parfumeur