Grasse: perfume's French center

Grasse, in Southern France, the place where most of the world's most exotic perfumes are made.

Grasse has been called 'the perfume capital of the world' and despite four centuries as the Queen of Perfume it still rightly deserves this title. The town has more to offer the visitor than wonderful ornate bottles of scent however, and this article will describe Grasse's rich history, it's many tourist attractions and will explain why the area is ideal for perfume production.

Situated a mere fifteen kilometers north from Cannes, the French Riviera's lure for the rich and famous, Grasse is also close to the city of Nice (30 minutes east by car). The town is nestled amongst wonderful countryside enjoying a backdrop of hills, forests, rivers and canyons. Public transport connecting Grasse with the other major towns in the Alpes-Maritime region is by bus - there is a regular service daily between the towns of Cannes, Nice, Vallauris (the 'home' of pottery), Antibes and Silicon Valley - Sophia Antipolis.

Despite being so close to the fine sand beaches of Cannes, with their stifling heat in summer, Grasse at an altitude of 300 - 400 meters enjoys a fresher climate all year round. The plentiful sunshine and mild temperatures make the town and surrounding areas ideal for flower growing, and thus ideal for the production of perfume.

The importance of scent in Grasses' history is brought to life at the Musée International de la Parfumerie - a museum in the town which provides details of the process of perfume manufacture and covers 3000 years of the industry's history. The museum's chief treasure is the travel case of Marie Antoinette and the building also houses a greenhouse where the public can experience the all-encompassing, aromatically fragrant plants and flowers growing at first hand.

There are also many perfumeries in the region, including Molinard, Galimard, Salon des Parfums etc, which are open year-round to the public. Visitors can enjoy the free, guided tours provided by the perfumeries, watch the process of perfume manufacture, learn the history of Grasse's importance in the industry and buy products in the on-site shops. The perfumes on sale are typically packaged in ornate bottles bearing a flower encased for perpetuity in the glass.

There are other sites of interest (besides those catering to the perfume industry) in Grasse. These include Le Musée d'Art et d'Historie de la Provençe - a museum using the old town house of the Marquise de Clapier-Cabris. Also referred to as Le Petit Trianon, this 18th century mansion houses a wonderful collection of Provençal paintings, pottery, archaeology and ethnology, while also providing a history of the Provençe region.

Another museum is the Musée de la Marine, situated in the 18th century Hôtel Pontevès-Morel, it depicts the career of the Admiral de Grasse, who fought in America's War for Independence and was instrumental in the victory at the Battle of Yorktown. The final museum in Grasse houses the work of the famous French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Housed in the 17th century Villa Fragonard it also depicts the life of the painter - in fact he actually stayed here with his family in March of 1791.

On the subject of paintings, three works of art by Rubens can be found in the Notre Dame du Puy cathedral on the Place Godeau. Dating from the 10th - 11th century the cathedral was rebuilt in the 17th century and a clock tower was added in the 18th century. Rubens paintings were originally commissioned by Archduke Albert for the Santa Croce di Gerusalemme in Rome and were completed by 1601. They were given to the town of Grasse in the 19th century. The cathedral also houses the famous painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard - the 1754 'Christ Washing The Feet of the Apostles'.

The main street in Grasse is the Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon and it is here that carnivals take place throughout the year, winding their way through the old part of town, past 17th and 18th century buildings, arched tunnels and tiny squares. The main square is the Place Aux Aires, which is picturesque with its three-tiered fountain in the center. A daily flower and local produce market is held in this square marrying the ancient with the modern.

Two major festivals throughout the year pay tribute to Grasse's most important commodity - flowers. The Fête du Jasmin is held in August while the International Rose Festival takes place in May.

Historically, Grasse has an interesting story to tell. Principally a medieval town (it still maintains this), ancient artifacts can be observed in the area. These include megaliths and mausoleum ruins amongst other archaeological sites. The town did not surrender to raids by the Saracens in the 9th century and by the 12th century it was an independent republic that enjoyed diplomatic relations with Genoa and Pisa (Italy). The surrounding area, including Grasse and Nice, was part of Italy for centuries and Grasse only became part of the Alpes-Maritimes region as recently as 1860 when the country of Nice became part of France. During the French Revolution Grasse was the capital of the Var region.

Famous people have always visited Grasse. These have included Napoleon's sister Princess Pauline de Bonaparte who spent the winter of 1807-08 recuperating from ill health here. Napoleon himself passed through Grasse and Queen Victoria stayed at the Grand Hotel or at the Rothschild's here. Tourists continue to visit, lured by the countless activities the town and the surrounding areas have to offer (including caving in the limestone hills north of Grasse) and to buy some of the famous Grasse perfume.

The French perfume industry began here in the 16th century. Grasse had been a center for leather and tanning and was famous for glove production since the 13th century. When fashions changed in favor of scented gloves Grasse provided them. Eventually the perfume industry surpassed its' leather industry. Perfumers and apothecaries began to settle in Grasse by the 17th century and the perfumeries were officially registered in 1729.

Today the industry relies more on synthetic chemicals then on the flowers that were always used. Some of the ancient factories have been abandoned and stand testament to bygone times with their brick smokestacks stretching across the south side of the old town. Perfume made from flower sources is still popular however, and the flower fields around Grasse though smaller and fewer in numbers than they once were, still use traditional methods. (In 1975 there were 2200 flower growers while by 1997 there were only 120 growing roses and 20 growing jasmine.)

Chanel No.5 is the best-selling perfume in the world and its principal ingredients are rose du mai, jasmine, and a synthetic musk. A few years ago jasmine production was disrupted by bad weather and Chanel took the precaution of buying their own farm in the Grasse area. Run by the Muhl family it produces 20 tons of jasmine and 50 tons of rose du mai annually, exclusively for Chanel.

Jasmine Grandiforum was initially introduced into Grasse from Nepal in 1560 and its delicate flowers require careful handpicking from expert pickers who are specifically employed for this purpose. About 8 to 10,000 flowers are equivalent to 1 kilogram and pickers typically manage to harvest ½ kg per hour. More expensive than roses, jasmine fetched 170 francs or approximately $28/kg in 1997 while roses sold for 30 francs or $5/kg.

The roses are picked for 6 weeks annually from April to June while jasmine is picked from August until September. Stored in sacks the petals are transported within half an hour at Chanel to the onsite production plant. At other farms extraction of the essential oils tends to take place the next day, but at Chanel freshness is a prerequisite. After weighing they are loaded into huge 50kg vats, raked and washed 3 times using over 2000 liters of the extraction solvent. The solvent dissolves the essential oils, resins and waxes from the petals.

Once the flowers are removed from the vats the remaining solvent is vaporized for 1½ hours, so forming a solid known in the industry as 'a concrete'. This can be stored for several years and when the essential oils are required, alcohol is used to extract them. Once the alcohol is evaporated what is left is the purest form of floral scent - known as the 'absolute'. Blending then occurs to create different perfumes.

Perfume has always been important in the history of mankind. Used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Chinese and mentioned in the Bible it has been used to seduce, to mask unpleasant odors and for other industrial purposes. France has always been a world authority in the industry - the first guild of perfumers was established in the 12th century by Philippe-Augustine of France.

Initially, scents were only the privilege of the wealthy, but François Coty from Ajaccio in Corsica changed that by making perfume affordable for the masses in the 1900s. A first cousin of Napoleon de Bonaparte, he studied for a year under the expert tutelage of perfumers in Grasse before opening the 1st mass-production perfume factory on the outskirts of Paris in 1905. After the 1920s many other countries began to manufacture perfume but French perfume is still regarded as the best in the world by scent connoisseurs.

There are 3 basic processes for making perfume including: distillation, enfleurage (which was developed in Grasse) and extraction. The four premier perfumeries in France - Fragonard, Galimard, Mane, and Moulinard are all based in Grasse. In conclusion, Grasse the 'Perfume Capital of the World' is truly that. A medieval town it is well worth a visit if only to experience the wonderful fragrances hanging in the air during the summer months. Every time we spray on some perfume, and when a memory is stirred by the whiff of a scent, we should remember that we owe the luxury to the pioneering perfumers of Grasse.

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