My beautiful home country France is renowned for many iconic cities, towns and regions. Full of history, beauty, charm and wonder, France conjures up images of romance, culinary excellence, haute couture and of course, fine fragrance and perfumery. Perhaps the most evocative region of all, the south of France is home to a small town with a grand reputation as the perfume capital of the world – Grasse.
Situated in the hills above the French Riviera near Nice and Cannes where the gentle breeze from the Mediterranean sea and the temperate climate of the foothills of the Southern Alps allow for rich, fertile soil and sheltered fields. This provides an ideal microclimate cultivating the key floral ingredients that provided the beginnings of an early cottage industry which has blossomed over centuries into the world’s epicentre of fine fragrance.
Parallel industries of leather and perfume grew side by side until post-revolutionary taxes saw Grasse’s leather manufacturing subside while famed perfumers such as the aforementioned Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard, still major presences in Grasse today pioneered new methods of extraction from plants and less perishable materials such as woods, resins or leaves imported from around the world. In the 1800s, Queen Victoria visited Grasse to buy her perfumes when on vacation in Nice.
The reputation of Grasse was established out of the lucrative leather tanning trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. A world leader in advanced leather production and an industry thriving through noble patronage, the hides of Grasse were coveted across Europe. But, high-quality leather, at that time did not smell so good! In fact, quite the opposite due to the unpleasant raw materials required. Thankfully, a visionary or, should we say, an olfactory genius named Galimard created the concept of fine scented leather gloves which could mask the foul-smelling aromas of the tanning process.
It was scented leather that put Grasse on the international map and the town flourished in the 17th century. The perfect microclimate saw an abundance of gorgeous flowers such as mimosa, iris, tuberose, orange blossom, violet and of course, jasmine and May Rose bloom across the region. An exciting time, experimentation and development of Haute Parfumerie began in earnest!
Today, modern Grasse manages to uphold its fine reputation and resists the eagerness of the modern multinational corporations to drive down perfume production costs by adopting synthetic chemicals and cheaper overseas labour costs. It is testimony to the global reputation, legend and resilience of modern Grasse that it manages to be still regarded as the perfume capital of the world despite the globalization of the fragrance industry.
Grasse still accounts for nearly 10% of global perfume activity and nearly 50% of France’s fragrance production. Not bad for a small town of just 50,000 inhabitants! It is still the best place to be trained in the art and science of perfumery and anyone with serious aspirations to become a celebrated “nose” needs to spend time immersing in the history, knowledge and floral majesty of Grasse. Quite simply, Grasse is a wonderful place to visit. An archetypal French location surrounded by fields of flowers, evocative scents and packed full of the great stories and legendary fragrance houses that survive to this day. You can even create your own perfume at a workshop in one of the perfume factories – a divine experience!