In France, the perfume capital of the world, there is a world of beautiful perfumes

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Fragrant flower grower Pierre Chiarla picks jasmine flowers in his field in Grasse, France.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

GRASSE, France – The town of Grasse is located in the hills above Cannes, the most famous on the French Riviera, and does not have the Mediterranean Sea on its doorstep. What he has are fields of flowers – jasmine, May rose, tuberose, lavender. It is known as the perfume capital of the world.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the 18th and 19th centuries, industry took off in Grasse in part because it was a town with an absolutely putrid smell.

“Grasse, in the Middle Ages and especially in the 16th century, was well known throughout Europe for leather, not for perfume,” explains Laurent Pouppeville, director of the Grasse perfume museum.

Thanks to its tanneries, the city reeked of dead animals and laundry. It was the glove makers who first tried to make their product better, using a technique called maceration.

A view of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, in the hills above Cannes in southern France.

A view of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, in the hills above Cannes in southern France.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

“They used animal fat and they will put flowers in this fat and therefore the fat will take on the scent of the flowers,” explains Pouppeville. “And they’ll get a scented ointment after two months. And they’re going to perfume the leather gloves with these scent pomades.

Tanners switched to full-time perfume manufacturing after taxes on leather rose too high. The hillside springs that they once channeled to cleanse the skins were instead used to distill perfume and water the flower fields.

Pierre Chiarla, a cultivator standing in a field of blossoming jasmine, is with a small group picking the tiny white flowers from the bright green bushes planted in long rows. He says his grandmother and sisters picked jasmine in that same terraced field bordered by an old stone wall.

“In Grasse, perfume is often a family affair,” he explains. “She was only 12 years old. It was about 70 years ago. And do you see that little cabin?” he said, pointing to a structure with a terracotta roof covered with vines. “This is where the pickers cooked and slept, so they would be there at dawn to start working.”

Chiarla says jasmine is so delicate that it still has to be picked by hand. Before the small flowers wither, they are quickly transported to a factory less than a mile away, where the pure scent of the flowers, known as “concrete” and “absolute”, is extracted.

Pierre Chiarla, picking jasmine, says his grandmother and sisters picked jasmine flowers in this same terraced field 70 years ago.  But climate change is a concern. "We are worried because we see, for example, freezing temperatures and hail in the spring much more frequently," said Chiarla.

Pierre Chiarla, picking jasmine, says his grandmother and sisters picked jasmine flowers in this same terraced field 70 years ago. But climate change is a concern. “We are concerned because we see, for example, freezing temperatures and hail in the spring much more frequently,” says Chiarla.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

It takes between 7,000 and 10,000 jasmine flowers to make 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). And it takes about a ton of flowers to extract a kilo of jasmine absolute. Each kilo is worth more than 50,000 euros, or about $ 59,000.

Grasse has been a hub of perfumery since the 1700s

Grasse is a typical Provencal town, with ocher-colored houses and giant shutters that close against the midday sun. Laundry hangs from balconies or over labyrinthine little streets, and leafy plane trees shade the town squares and cafe tables.

The historic center of Grasse was once home to perfume factories which have since moved out of the old town.  Pink umbrellas hang above the streets from May to October, depicting the May rose of Grasse, which only blooms in May.

The historic center of Grasse was once home to perfume factories which have since moved out of the old town. Pink umbrellas hang over the streets from May to October, depicting the May rose of Grasse, which only blooms in May.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

Perfume factories from the 1700s – ornate buildings resembling jewelry boxes – dotted the old town. In the 1800s, says Pouppeville, Queen Victoria vacationed in the nearby town of Nice and came to Grasse to purchase her perfumes.

The factories have now left the old town. But Grasse is still the place to be for fragrance makers, whether they’re multinationals creating signature scents for shampoos and detergents or small, artisanal perfumers.

Canadian Jessica Buchanan came to Provence in 2007 to attend the Institut de Parfumerie de Grasse. Today she has her own shop, 1000 Flowers, in town and does a good business online.

Buchanan is what in business is called a nose, or a nose in French.

“Which means I mix the materials together and formulate the scents,” she says. “So as you can see behind me, the perfumer’s organ, which is the set of the different raw materials that I use to compose my scents.”

Jessica Buchanan, owner of the 1000 Fleurs boutique in Grasse, creates perfumes in the organ of her perfumer displaying hundreds of scent bottles.

Jessica Buchanan, owner of the 1000 Fleurs boutique in Grasse, creates perfumes in the organ of her perfumer displaying hundreds of scent bottles.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

A perfumer’s organ consists of hundreds of bottles of olfactory raw materials arranged at different levels, resembling a pipe organ. Composing a perfume is often compared to composing music, with base notes, middle notes and top notes. Perfumers learn the notes by heart.

“We are learning to smell,” Buchanan says. “This part of the brain really grows. It’s like a muscle. It grows more in a perfumer than in an ordinary person who doesn’t pay attention to smells every day.”

She says she has been very careful about protecting her sense of smell since the start of the pandemic, with anosmia being a possible effect of COVID-19. “Absolutely, it’s been my fear from the start, when I found out it was a side effect,” she says. “I’m hyper-paranoid about this because my nose is my main tool.”

Climate change is a concern

In the Mediterranean garden of the Perfume Museum, you can smell all the plants that have made the economy and history of Grasse over the past 300 years.

General view of the gardens of the International Perfume Museum in Grasse.

General view of the gardens of the International Perfume Museum in Grasse. “The same rose or the same jasmine cultivated in Egypt or in Morocco, it will be different from the rose cultivated in Grasse”, specifies the head gardener Christophe Meze. “It’s like wine, you can have the same grape variety, but you won’t have the same wine because of the sun, because of the soil, because of the terroir.”

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

Christophe Mège is the head gardener. He says that with industrialization in the 19th century, perfumers from Grasse brought back specimens of scents from all over the world: patchouli from Singapore, pink pepperwood from California and jasmine from Egypt.

Mège says the perfume formulas are very precise. For example, Chanel # 5 was originally created with jasmine grown in Grasse, so it should always be made that way.

“The same rose or the same jasmine cultivated in Egypt or Morocco, it will be different from the rose cultivated in Grasse”, he explains. “It’s like wine, you can have the same grape variety, but you won’t have the same wine because of the sun, because of the soil, because of the terroir. “

American student Michael Nordstrand (left), 35, and Gabriela Santana, 30, from Brazil, sniff scents in a class at the International School of Perfumery in Grasse.

American student Michael Nordstrand (left), 35, and Gabriela Santana, 30, from Brazil, sniff scents in a class at the International School of Perfumery in Grasse.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

This French word sums up the specific characteristics of a place that create a unique agricultural product – the soil, the sun, the geographical location or the harvesting technique. In 2018, UNESCO recognized the know-how of Grasse perfumery as a world intangible cultural heritage.

Michael Nordstrand, originally from the United States, is one of a dozen students enrolled in the one-and-a-half-year program at the Grasse School of Perfumery. “The plants that you might see in an exotic garden grow here like nothing has happened,” he says. “Like everyone has jasmine in their garden or orange blossoms. Everything is kind of second nature in this region because of the microclimate.”

But climate change is a concern. “We are concerned because we see, for example, freezing temperatures and hail in the spring much more frequently,” says Chiarla. “For the first time, some growers of perfume plants lit candles between the vines – much like the winemakers did this year – because of the cold that came so late. It was something that was happening. every 50 to 100 years ago. Now we ‘I’ve seen it two years in a row. We’re also seeing more severe storms and flower fields flooding. “

Visitors can make their own perfumes

For those who want to try their hand at creating their own fragrances, almost all factories have workshops.

Paul Lokker, 45, and Mariska Lokker, 49, Dutch tourists, try their hand at creating their own perfume during a workshop at the Galimard Studio des Fragrances in Grasse.

Paul Lokker, 45, and Mariska Lokker, 49, Dutch tourists, try their hand at creating their own perfume during a workshop at the Galimard Studio des Fragrances in Grasse.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

At the Galimard perfumery, tourists are seated in front of their formidable perfumer organs.

“We are testing scents and trying to mix our own scent, so it’s very exciting!” says Mariska Lokker, visiting with her husband Paul from the Netherlands.

Ivana Ristevska, scent coach at Galimard, comes to help Paul balance his creation, which, according to her, contains too much musk.

“So you like him a lot?” she asks Lokker.

“Yes,” he said. “Is it too strong? “

“Even 10 milliliters is too much for me,” she laughs, “but let’s go.”

Mariska sounds like he’s going to be very smelly today.

“Yes, then good luck to you!” Ristevska replies, as they burst out laughing.

A good scent doesn’t have to recreate a scent you’ve worn in the past, she says.

The perfumer's organ that belonged to Jean Carles, creator of early 20th century perfumes including Miss Dior and Ma Griffe de Carven, at the International Perfume Museum in Grasse.

The perfumer’s organ that belonged to Jean Carles, creator of early 20th century perfumes including Miss Dior and Ma Griffe de Carven, at the International Perfume Museum in Grasse.

Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

“Be open-minded and follow your instincts,” she advises. “And most importantly, follow your nose.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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