Grasse - At the Heart of the World of Perfume

Feted as the heart of the world of perfume and bestowed a ‘Ville d Art et d’ Histoire’ (town of art and history) in its own right, its population of just over 50,000 is devoted to its love of art history and perfume.

Grasse, Provence - France – where the sense of smell is revered, worshipped coming alive tantalising long embedded memories. Of all the senses – smell is perhaps the least acknowledged though no less powerful.

The elusive charms of Grasse trigger senses we’ve all experienced from time to time, a subtle scent drifting by casts us back through time .. it may be wild roses, lilac, jonquils, jasmine or violets. In Grasse those memories bottled and distilled unveil, releasing the essence and mystique of perfume.

The town itself against a background of fields of flowers is a breath of fresh air, elevated from the bustle of the coastal Riviera, with its elegant shops, houses and narrow laneways is steeped in history. The three major perfume houses of Grasse, Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard still very much in evidence, each offer glimpses into the origins and processes of perfume production with their own museums and tours.

On tour we visit the House of Fragonard, a unique experience to whet your appetite and tempt your nose to discover a little more of origins of perfume. Fragonard celebrate four generations and their 90th anniversary this year. The current heads of the family business, granddaughters Ann and Agnes and Francoise Costa enthusiastically continue the tradition of maintaining the history of the area, much of its heritage perhaps otherwise would surely have been lost. The Costas have established several museums showcasing the rich cultural history of the region including thousands of artefacts belonging to their family, ‘we were born into a family of collectors’ explains Agnes of the vast collections of paintings, fine artworks, costumes, ancient bottles, perfume paraphernalia and copper stills spanning years, displayed throughout the family’s museums, housed in nearby landmark buildings in Grasse and Paris. The most famous, the Musee de Parfums on the first floor of the original Fragonard perfume factory in Grasse.  Each year Fragonard feature one bloom of their signature range of fragrances – this year, 2016 being the year of the Iris.

Of particular interest for Australians is the use of ‘Mimosa’ what we call wattle, the trees first arrived from Australia in the mid 19th century, originally as a decorative plant for gardens though it wasn’t long before the unique fragrance of their distinctive blooms excited the ‘nose’s’ potential and  have become a perfumers mainstay – highly prized and a key ingredient in many high end fragrances produced today.  (Mimosa featured as Fragonard’s 2010 fragrance).

The beginnings – back in the 12th century the main trade of the town was leather and tanning, developed on the banks of the small canal running through the town, producing a strong unpleasant odour.

During the Renaissance period the production of gloves acquired a reputation for high quality as well as leather handbags and belts to meet the new fashion demands from Italy. The strong smell of the gloves was off putting.  Galimard, a tanner in Grasse came up with the idea of scented leather gloves offering Catherine de Medici a pair. She was smitten. The product spread through the Royal Court and society, thus securing a reputation and demand from Grasse.  The surrounding countryside’s micro climate, away from the sea with a reliable water supply was ideal for increasing production, masking somewhat the overpowering smell emanating from the tanneries. Trade with commercial interests in Genoa and Pisa intensified production of flowers. 

High taxes and competition from Nice later brought about a decline in the leather industry of Grasse and production of leather fragrance ceased making way for the now more lucrative commercial production of flowers and thus the perfume industry blossomed.

Jasmine the key ingredient of many renowned perfumes was originally brought to the town by the Moors in the 16th century and now harvests 27 tonnes annually.

Each spring Grasse pays tribute to its roses with a four day festival, this year May 5 to 8 bringing 50,000 roses from across France and Italy for the Rose Expo. During the six-week harvest lasting through mid-June, the roses in Grasse’s gardens are picked the same day they open to fully capture the signature scent.  August is the month for Jasmine harvest and the annual 2 day Fete du Jasmin attracts travellers from near and far to immerse themselves in the heady scent.

Not to be missed before you leave town is a visit to the Cathedral which features two works by Rubens and one by Jean-Honore Fragonard.

Other little facts of interest - the iconic Channel No 5 was developed from the fields of Grasse.

Today Grasse produces 2/3 of France’s natural aromas locally.

Visit Grasse on Day 11 on tour with TIKI TOURS Elegant Italy and France at Leisure tour. Departs Australia Wednesday, 28 September 2016  as well as 27 September 2017.