France is renowned for its perfume industry and is home to some of the world's most famous perfumeries, such as the Maison Guerlain. The perfume industry centres on Paris, where the creators of prestigious perfumes are based, and Grasse, the historical capital of flowers and of the professional "noses" of the French Riviera.
The most delicate fragrances have been around since Antiquity and have been used in countries all around the Mediterranean. It is a well-known fact that as recently as the 18th century many people preferred to use perfume rather than soap!
With the exception of Cologne in Germany, which is famous for the invention of "eau de Cologne", it was predominantly in the hills around Grasse overlooking the Bay of Cannes that techniques developed to extract "pure" perfume using the method of distillation or using alcohol as an excipient.
With its mild climate, the town was able to grow fields of scented flowers such as roses, lavender and jasmine.
Modern production methods have of course evolved and the millions of flowers used by the industry are now largely imported, although the best "noses" - the professionals who design the perfumes - are still based mainly in Grasse and Paris. They work creating subtle blends of perfumes using a collection of tubes filled with different scents, known as a "perfume organ".
In these two perfume "capitals" we learn that perfumes are classified into seven olfactory groups (for example, the famous Chanel N°5 belongs to the Hesperides group). We also learn that perfumes are made not only from the petals of flowers, but also from other plant matter, such as fruit (oranges and vanilla), resins (myrrh and incense), grasses and roots (verbena and vetiver), spices (cinnamon) and even wood bark.
We're also told that perfumes are created from animal fats and secretions, such as musk and beeswax!
Visiting the distilleries in Grasse
Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard (three companies with strangely rhyming names!) all have "factories" open to the public where their workshops highlight modern production methods and their museums evoke traditional techniques. Other specialist local businesses have moved towards working with aromatic plants and fine chemistry within the food-processing industry, while still playing an important yet discreet role in the perfume industry.
Founded in 1782, this company is named after a famous painter. The company's workshop can be visited in Grasse, and there are also two "museums" open to the public in Paris, one on Rue Scribe (near the Opera House designed by Garnier) and one on Boulevard des Capucines.
A Provençal perfume-maker founded in 1849, Molinard also has a factory in Grasse, where special tour packages are available for groups (e.g. creating your own fragrance, olfactory games such as the "odorama" etc). The company brings together scents and flavours in its Atelier Gourmand (Gourmet Workshop), which focuses on themes based around coffee, tea and chocolate.
Don't confuse this Grasse perfumery with the famous literary publishing house based in Paris, whose name is spelt with two "l's". Galimard's workshop and boutique are both open to the public.
Several companies involved in the perfume industry offer perfume-themed tours which are much more than just visits to boutiques...
Détour des sens
Allow Sylvie Daumain to guide you on a short "journey" through Paris (3hr, 45€), visiting a number of different Parisian perfumeries. She also organises day trips, which include a delicious lunch at Apicius, the elegant restaurant run by Jean-Pierre Vigato.
Isabelle Ferrand and her small team have been creating perfumes for major brands for the past 20 years from her discreet laboratory in Compiègne, to the north of Paris. She also has a base in Paris and one in New York. Isabelle runs introductory sessions on perfume making, using an amusing miniature version of the "perfume organ", known as the "olfactorium".
The emblematic Maison Guerlain
The Guerlain brand has symbolised the spirit of perfume for close to 170 years.
Established in 1828, and as such one of the early pioneers in the development of perfumes, Guerlain represents both a Parisian family saga and a real cultural heritage, as five generations of creators have developed more than 600 perfumes, including the famous "Charade", "Parure", "Samsara", "Shalimar" and "Instant".
The design of the perfume bottles also adds to the prestige of Guerlain perfumes; bottles are often designed by internationally renowned glass-makers or artists who remain loyal to the company.
A training centre for the perfume industry in Forcalquier
A charming medieval town in the Alpes de Haute-Provence, Forcalquier is situated between the Luberon and the Durance valley amid a landscape of lavender fields, olive groves and hills carpeted with wild thyme. The town is the ideal location for a recently opened centre focusing on professional training and promotion within the local "perfume" industry (L'Occitane and Olivier et Cie are two examples of companies started in nearby Manosque).
Housed in an historic monument (the Couvent des Cordeliers), this private institute aims to develop a resource centre modelled on the Université du Vin (Wine University) in Suze-la-Rousse. The UESS (Université Européenne des Senteurs et Saveurs or the European University of Scents and Flavours) already runs lectures on the last Friday of the month, holds educational workshops for children on request and organises a "festival week" on the theme of scents and flavours. There are also plans to open a museum at some point in the future.
Grasse Tourism Board
Palais des Congrès
22, Cours Honoré Cresp
Tél: 04 93 36 66 66
Fax: 04 93 36 86 36