“What do I wear in bed?” mused Marilyn Monroe. “Why, Chanel No. 5, of course!”
Perched in the hills above the Côte d’Azur in France, Grasse has been the world’s perfume capital since the 17th century. The countryside around this Provencal town is where the jasmine and roses that go into the country’s famed luxury fragrances are grown and harvested.
Its medieval core of skinny alleys and sunny squares celebrates all things flowery and fragrant. Shops overflow with lavender products, herbes de Provence and Savon de Marseille soap in myriad colors and scents.
Even the food is fragrant. I’d sampled lavender honey ice-cream before, but violet ice-cream was new. So was fougassette, a brioche-style pastry scented with orange blossoms.
I only intended on a quick look, but two hours somehow disappeared inside the International Perfume Museum. There’s a stunning collection of perfume-related objects spanning three millennia, greenhouses dedicated to the aromatic arts, and a viewing screen showing perfume featured in movies. (The 2006 movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was partly shot in Grasse.)
Yet Grasse once reeked of unlovely things. In medieval times, it was a center for leather tannery. All changed when Catherine de Medici arrived at the French court from Italy and introduced the fashion of perfumed gloves. Seizing on the new craze, Grasse exchanged its stinking tanneries for scented glove manufacture. In the surrounding fields, a new flower industry cultivated blooms such as gardenia and tuberoses for their essences.
Before her appointment with Madame Guillotine, the extravagant Marie Antoinette had 18 pairs of gloves scented with carnation, violet or hyacinth delivered every week. The Perfume Museum’s most treasured piece is her traveling case with compartments for lotions and potions.
If anything, things got even more fragrant after the French Revolution. To mark the aristocracy’s demise, a Parfum de Guillotine was created for the masses. Napoleon Bonaparte was rather more high maintenance, splashing his way through eight quarts of violet cologne each month.
Offering free guided tours, Fragonard is one of the town’s three major perfumeries. It’s as well I’m not seeking employment as a nez (nose), because my chances are zero. Professional perfumers need to identify thousands of nuances. For a nez, alcohol, spicy food and smoking are absolutely forbidden.
There’s no hard sell during the sniffing session, and I was fascinated by explanations of the head, heart and base notes of various perfumes.
All real parfums contain 25% concentrated essence, “the soul of the flower.” An eau de parfum uses a maximum of 15% essence, and eau de toilette a mere 10%. As Fragonard only has Paris and Provence outlets, finding its products is difficult in North America, On Ebay, a one ounce vial of Belle de Nuit parfum resells for around $113. At Fragonard’s Grasse outlet, it’s €37 ($48).
You don’t have to be a fragrance enthusiast to realize that France’s scented south could provide opportunities for nosing out some serious profit.
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