Thursday, April 29, 2010

Grasse-hoppers part2: tour highlights & raw materials draw!

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
But to revert to mapping out the rich experiences that the Riviera holds, one is at a loss on what to enumerate. Grasse holds a privileged spot, a few kilometers north of Pégomas, past Aurbeau-sur-Siagne and only a 20-minute ride from Cannes. The production of leather goods during the Renaissance took place principally in Montpellier, a town famous for its tanneries, which was closely rivaling Grasse. However it was only the later that rose to perfumery through the habit of scenting gloves and leather goods with floral essences from the abundant-producing area so as to dissipate the strong, pungent smells of the hides. Although initially Catherine de Medici, proud of her hands and a fan of leather gloves to protect them, ordered products from local artisans, it was Marie de Médicis (1575-1642), queen consort, who ~lured by perfumes from Cyprus, the famous chyprés~ sent for her Florentine perfumer Tombarelli to come to Grasse, where the flowers were renowned, instructing him to capture their ambience in perfumed essences. It was thus that Grasse knew a rebirth in economical terms and became The Perfume Capital ever since the 18th century thanks to the mild climate and the protected, sheltered embrace of the hills around.

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
Nevertheless, today oils and essences for both fragrancing & flavouring come from around the world finding their way into Grasse and not one but four establishments dedicated to perfume touring grace its streets: The International Museum of Perfume and the parfumeries de Fragonard (with its own small museum), Molinard and Galimard. Besides those, there are factories of Mane, Robertet and Firmenich which operate producing their own products.

  • Musée International de la Parfumerie
  • (International Museum of Perfumery) is located at 2 Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon, 06130 Grasse. Tel: +33 4 9336 8020 (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)

  • Fragonard Parfumeur

  • BP 22060 1er Etage de l'Usine Historique
    20 boulevard Fragonard 06132 Grasse
    Phone : +33 (0)4 92 42 34 34
    Email :
    Visiting hours: 9a-noon, 2p-5:30p M-Sa, Summer: 9a-6p

  • Molinard perfumery

  • 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.

  • Parfumerie Galimard

  • 73 route de Cannes - 06131 Grasse
    Tél : Fax :
    International: Tél : + Fax : +
    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

  • La Villa-Musée Jean-Honoré 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!

  • Robertet essences producing company

  • 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

  • The Firmenich perfumery branch in Grasse

  • 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.


    1. Oh yes please! I would love to enter. Your travels sound delightful, I really do want to go myself as well but really want to have time to do everything properly.

    2. What a trip! It sounds divine. Please neter me in teh draw for the sampler.

    3. Wow, I want to go! Now! What a great post, thanks! Lots to mull over here. Please include me in the drawing for this very special set of samples. You are very fortunate, you know! I am *very* jealous.

    4. Please enter me in this fantastic draw!

    5. A wonderful draw (and a lovely description of your sojourn in Grasse) - please enter me.

      Thanks so much!

    6. Your blog is great and I have read so many interesting and useful articles about scents here. I would like to enter too. thanks
      lubaska dot k at gmail dot com

    7. You really captured the essence of Grasse! It is a captivating place to visit with its parfumeries and museum, and to learn about history of western perfumery.

    8. I so wish I could go there myself. It sound lovely and interesting.

      Please enter me in the draw. Thank you.

    9. Heather B17:19

      Oh I would love to be entered in the draw. How exciting to be able to smell all those raw ingredients. Thanks for such a generous giveaway!

    10. Anonymous17:20

      Put me in the draw.

    11. gautami17:27

      Please enter me in the draw. Thanks for the giveaway and the lovely description of your sojourn.

    12. Just yesterdy I was talking to my parents about taking a trip to Grasse, maybe next year. Please enter me in the draw, thank you!

    13. What a fabulous draw! Please enter me as well.

    14. What a great trip! Makes me want to go pack. So many fun and interesting things to see and experience. Thank you for sharing. Please enter me as well in the drawing.

    15. Helle19:54

      Your trip sounds wonderful! I would love to be in the draw for the raw materials, thank you!

    16. Anonymous19:57

      Dear E,

      Lovely post as always. Please enter me in the draw. I recently had the opportunity to touch, crack and smell a tonka bean and now I am hooked on getting at the raw materials of all the scents I love.


    17. I love reading about your trip. I wish I could go to Grasse. I suppose until then the raw materials sampler is the closest I can get--please enter me in the fabulous draw!

    18. I'm still in that phase where I'm "training my nose" so a raw materials sampler would be just the thing!

    19. Stephan23:37

      It would be a very interesting experience to get to know the smell of some of the raw materials going into perfume compositions. Please enter me in the draw.

    20. what a lovely trip. Please enter me in your drawing.

    21. How wonderful! Please enter me in the draw, this sounds amazing.

    22. chris g02:56

      Sounds exciting - please enter me in the draw. Thanks!!

    23. Stinky in Toronto03:01

      What a great article. I've always wanted to go to Grasse and I feel much more motivated now, even though I live in Canada! Thank you for the great article and the high calibre of the posts you write. Please enter me in the contest!

    24. Mystic Knot03:45

      How wonderful Helg ! I would LOVE to go to Grasse .Excellent piece as always ! :)

    25. I would love to be entered. I've been enjoying pretending your fragrant adventures were my own, and day-dreaming about Grasse!

    26. Gisela08:26

      What a great post - I love to read your blog! Please enter me in the draw.

    27. What a fantastic draw -- please enter me.

    28. Wow, what a great post (as always). I cant believe I missed part 1; I am now off to read it out of order, but most definitely please enter me in the drawing! Kristen

    29. I have been a reader of your column for a few years now, but this is my first comment. Please enter me for your draw. Even if I don't win, I have already learnt a lot from this blog.

    30. Please enter me in the draw, which would help in my training of appreciation of scents.

    31. Fernando15:43

      Neat! I love the idea of trying some raw materials, and right now getting to Grasse sounds unlikely... so sign me up.

    32. Please enter me in the draw. This opportunity comes at the perfect time in the education of my nose. Thank you and thanks for your excellent travelogue.

    33. I so enjoy reading all your informative perfume articles. Please enter me also!

    34. Wow, that's one of the coolest draws I've ever heard of. Please enter me!

    35. Anonymous03:28

      oooh! how lovely! i agree with daniele, this IS one of the coolest draws ever! please throw my name into the hat.

      and, have a wonderful day de muguet saturday!


    36. Anonymous05:55

      Would love to win this. Great piece of writing, this is one of the two journeys I really want to go on, the other being the incense makers in Japan.

    37. Like many other readers, I hope to make my own pilgrimage some day. Meanwhile, please enter me in the draw so I can dream about it.

    38. I'm overjoyed this special draw has cornered such interest from you and you enjoyed the travelogue to Grasse. I hope that whoever gets this will get a good education through it in some building blocks.

      Good luck to all!

    39. I was in Grasse years ago and took the tour of the Fragonard perfumery; naturally I had to buy something there, so I bought a bottle of their Vetyver which is long gone (I encountered Vetyver in a shop in Canada a few years ago and of course it's been reformulated). You've brought back some wonderful memories of Grasse for me!

      Of course I would love to be included in the draw.

    40. Please do enter me in the draw for the sampler set, would be fantastic to try out those raw materials!

    41. Anonymous21:42

      What a treat it would be to smell all the raw ingredients of the perfumery - please add my name.

    42. So happy to drink in your travels with you = I guess you won't be in Paris May/June, as I had hoped you might be ; ) I came to your blog to read (much belated) your Spring Picks, and found so many fascinating tidbits -- my fave is probably the Arsene Lupin intrigue, but I'd be fascinated to try the sampler! OXOX

    43. Thanks for this post. Please enter me in the draw:

    44. Oh, I think I'm not too late. :) I was away and just had the time to read this. :) Please enter me for the sampler set.
      I keep thinking what a wonderful time you must have had there!

    45. What a lovely article. Its a long time since I've been to France, and you have brought back some lovely memories. I love Lalique perfume bottles and Art Deco!


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