Reflecting upon Grasse and the Côte d'Azur I find myself in an embarrassment of riches: Is it the Notre-Dame-de-Puy cathedral with its paintings by Rubens that I retain most dearly in my heart or the sweeping hill-top view to La Plaine des Roses where hundreds of roses are attentively cultivated for their precious nectar? Or is the afternoon sunshine that poored through the windows of our dilapidated old building, one among the many in the old town, making the ochre and Venetian-sienna-shaded walls come alive four hundred years after the original stones had been lain? The quaint, small region of Grasse, awash with both aromata of fine perfumery and diesel fumes of the traffic of the greater area, as well as the larger town of Cannes, are like two faded princesses retaining their past memories hidden into the corners of dusty rooms where old, yellowed letters of paramours were carefully tucked away in secret drawers.
Semi-rural but devoid of a matching atmosphere, Grasse especially is less romantic than anticipated, yet for the eternal student of both perfumery and culture it poses its own special challenges that seem none the less rewarding. Delving into the perfumery firms and factories through trusted connections is the best lesson of them all and I am glad I am able to offer an unprecedented gift for our readers: A Sampler of Raw Materials procured in the Grasse area for one lucky reader who will state their interest in the comments. Thus, we’re giving everyone a chance for pedagogical familiarization with the inner workings of fine perfumery. I trust you will appreciate the novelty of the offer!
|photo by Elena Vosnaki|
The mimosa which garlands the area in late winter and early spring is perhaps the most famous of the local flora, imported originally by Captain James Cook from Australia and soon a favourite with the British aristocracy for their villas at Cannes. Queen Victoria herself used to sojourn at the Grande Hotel Grasse, a beautiful white building that is now referred to as Palais Provençal. Jasmine, a key ingredient of many perfumes and famously the culprit in the conception of Chanel No.5 by Ernest Beaux, was brought to the South of France by the Moors in the 16th century. Even though reputation has it that several tons of jasmine are harvested in the area still, the vines were not in bloom yet and even so the notorious Grasse jasmine is used in minute quantities in only the extraits of some prestigious perfumes. The 1860 construction of the Siagne canal for irrigation purposes is aiding the preservation of both these and (the very sparse) tuberoses fields. Wild lavender, as well as tamer varieties, grow around the area; hand-harvested selectively and distilled producing an exceptional aromatic oil. The town is awash with local aromata of various origins: In the lively market at La Place aux Herbes, Provençal herbs (rosemary, thyme, estragon), carrots and lettuces are sold by the kilo, tempting you into buying a little of each. Even the very area code of Grasse, 06130, has found its way into the name of a niche perfume brand, parfums Zero Six Cent Trente by local enterpreuneur Nicolas Chabert.
|photo by Elena Vosnaki|
VISIT HIGHLIGHTS & GUIDE
firstname.lastname@example.org (Visiting hours: Jun-Sep: 10a-7p M-Su, Oct-May: 10a-12:30p, 2p-5:30p W-M.)
Reopened in 2008 (it was originally inaugaurated in 1989), with a futuristic interior designer by Frédéric Jung, the Museum encompasses a large area that is best savoured slowly. The “scented” video screening is the most tourist-attracting but it is the presentation of plants used in the perfume industry which presents the most interest. Roaming amidst the exhibits that included thousands of pieces of scented memorabilia and beautiful bottles in every material imaginable, we’re struck by the travelling grooming essentials of fated Marie-Antoinette or the Japanese Koh-Do ritual utensils (Koh-Do is an ancient Eastern game involving smoking incense being passed to the participants)
BP 22060 1er Etage de l'Usine Historique
20 boulevard Fragonard 06132 Grasse
Phone : +33 (0)4 92 42 34 34
Email : email@example.com
Visiting hours: 9a-noon, 2p-5:30p M-Sa, Summer: 9a-6p
60, boulevard Victor Hugo, 06130 Grasse
Tel: +33 4 9336 0162
Visiting hours: Oct-May: 9a-12:30p, 2p-6p M-Su, Jun-Sep: 9a-6:30p M-Su.
73 route de Cannes - 06131 Grasse
Tél : 04.93.09.20.00 Fax : 04.93.70.36.22
International: Tél : +33.4.93.09.20.00 Fax : +184.108.40.206.36.22
Visiting hours: 9a-noon, 2p-5:30p M-Sa, Summer: 9a-6p
The Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard perfume factories offer free guided tours with multi-lingual options (including Russian and Japanese) while lush, floral scents fill the atmosphere with their delicious aroma. One is invited to watch part of the production and packaging process of the eaux de toilette, perfumes and surprisingly refined soaps first-hand, while the old perfumery equipment and several collectible bottles are also on display. The gift shops are awash with products at advantageous prices, if only a little pushy sales assistants, as is customary into tourist places. The Fragonard perfumery was founded by Eugene Fuchs paying tribute to local artists family, the Fragonards. Today the remains of the old factory are visited, while the production area has been transplated outside the city.
Molinard worked with Baccarat and René Lalique who widely contributed to the House's reputation with sober and elegant scent bottles for their first "soliflores" perfumes (jasmine, rose, violet). But in 1930 René Lalique created exclusive flacon designs for the House of Molinard and this saw the conception of the prestigious bottles such as "Iles d’Or", "Madrigal", or "Le baiser du Faune". Yet say Molinard and everyone recalls their exceptional tobacco oriental "Habanita", meaning "little girl of Havana".
Parfumerie Galimard on the other hand was founded by Jean de Galimard, Lord of Seranon, (a relation of Count de Thorenc and friend of Goethe), in 1747. Founder of the corporation of "Maitres Parfumeurs et Gantiers” (Glovemakers and Perfumers), he supplied the court of Louis " the well-beloved ", King of France, with olive oil, pomades, and perfumes of which he invented the first formulae. Their products still retain a charming rural air.
|photo by Fragonard|
23 boulevard Fragonard 06130 Grasse. Tel: +33 4 9336 0161/+33 4 9705 5800
Visiting hours: Jun-Sep: 10a-7p M-Su, Oct & Dec-May: 10a -12.30p, 2p-5.30p W-M
A villa turned into a museum, not to be confused with the Fragonard perfumery, this charming place buried amidst tall palm trees pays homage to three generations of Fragonards: Jean-Honoré, the father; his sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard; his son Alexandre-Évarisre; and grandson Théophile. The most famous, painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) ~whom you surely know through The Swing and Young Girl Reading~ is omnipresent through a copy of his work The Progress of Love originally rejected by the Duchess du Barry and now residing in New York City. The style of his paintings, French, elegant and erotic, is well transported into the Fragonard perfumes and scented goods as well, all lively and bursting with joie de vivre!
Established in 1850, Robertet counts itself among the oldest perfumeries in Grasse, but their creations are thoroughly modern as well, having created scents for Gucci, Bond No.9 and L’Oreal. Still, it is their high-quality raw materials which made them the stuff of legend among perfume cognoscenti. Earthy treemoss, iris rootlets, animalic beeswax, vanilla from Madagascar orchids, Amazonian tonka beans, champaca from India, and maté from Brazil produce an intoxicating blend of earthly delights enough to make the head spin. The refining process which happens repeatedly until the finest grade of raw material is attainable (especially when rendering absolute oils out of waxy concretes off precious flowers such as jasmine) can be customized to the client. It is here that the fractionizing of certain oils happens, such as patchouli where some of the headier more hippie-like facets are subtracted; thus the perfumer can custom the essence to their needs (For instance they might want more of the naturally chocolate-reminiscent facets emphasized or the more camphoraceous ones and so on). Among the loveliest of the raw materials here is the iris absolute: Initially herbaceous and almost medicinal, heavy and full of the earthy accent of the soil, it soon attains a woody and powdery prolonged skin-like effect. Roots can be left unpeeled to produce “iris noir” or they can be peeled to make a pale-shaded concrete (waxy substance) which is then refined through solvents into the absolute oil.
I was surprised to learn that iris is currently customarily paired with red berries; not only in perfumery such as in Insolence by Guerlain but also in the flavouring business, as it enhances and prolongs the tang of the berries! Even though originally perfumery iris best grade came from Florence, Italy, a variety known as Iris pallida, today different species come from Morocco and China (much like jasmine does) with shorter maturation periods lowering down the production cost. The original Italian iris needed a long careful harvesting of the rootlets, a drying out phase of a fortnight followed by three year period of maturation resulting in stratosperic prices.
|photo by Elena Vosnaki|
Firmenich technicians and perfumers seem to favour the CO2 extraction process, also referred to as "supercritical fluid extraction" process; technologically speaking the most advanced method of oil production of them all, resulting in stunningly realistic essences such as pepper, heady tuberose or earthy carrot seeds. Carbon dioxide usually behaves as a gas or as a solid called "dry ice" when frozen. When the temperature and pressure are both increased, the material takes new properties behaving as a "supercritical fluid" ~above its critical temperature (31.1 °C) and critical pressure (72.9 atm/7.39 MPa)~ expanding to fill its container like a gas but with a density like that of a liquid. Supercritical CO2 is used as a perfect solvent due to its role in chemical extraction in addition to its low toxicity and environmental impact, but in what concerns perfumery it's the relatively low temperature of the process and the stability of CO2 which allows most compounds to be extracted with little damage or denaturing.
The white-coat lab technicians work silently for an array of products including detergents and cosmetics scents, while on the second floor where the fine perfumery is located people write up formulae up in their computer for the printed data to be given to laboratory assistants for the blending, before perfumers step in to evaluate and adjust. It’s a fascinating process, not to be missed if you have any sort of access!
For our readers, a sampler set of precious raw materials of fine perfumery is offered for a draw! Please leave a comment if you wish to enter. Submissions are open till Monday 3rd May 9pm.
Related reading: Read the rest of the Perfume Pilgrimage to the Riviera in part 1.