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Perfume in Grasse, France

Perfume in Grasse, France

Grasse, as many know, is the capital of perfume. Rose, jasmine, orange blossom, narcissus, mimosa and violet fields still surround the town (one should visit in May to see the vast fields of roses in bloom), as the tradition continues in this beautiful place. Many parts of various plants are used, from the petals and bark to fruit and seeds.

Since Antiquity, perfume has been used in various forms - during the plague in Europe perfume was seen as a protection from the epidemic itself.

In Grasse, it all started in the 12th century, when the town was a center for tanneries and leather workers. The town had abundant water sources (vital for the process) and a steady tradition and expertise for the work. Perfume and scents were used as a balm against the foul odours of the middle ages.

In the 16th century Catherine of Médicis invigorated the fashion world with a passion for perfume-infused leather gloves...there was no better place than Grasse to realize this passion of hers. It was in this time that Grasse became the center of perfumerie and perfume houses.

Fragonard offers a lovely tour of their factory, where they still make perfume. We began here in front of these vats, which are the tool to create the essences used in perfumes. Rose petals, for example, are placed into these vats and then filled with water and heated to 100 degrees C, which creates steam. The fragrant steam is carried up into the "neck of the swan" and then chilled with cold water that condenses the steam and infuses the scent into the water.

Three and half tons of rose petals are required to make 1 liter of essence.

Fragonard uses metal bottles for a very specific reason: perfume loses its qualities when exposed to sun in glass bottles. (So, if you have a perfume collection, make sure it isn't exposed to the sun on a counter, or that it is a dark glass jar).

This room is for maceration, chilling and filtering. Perfume essences are mixed with alcohol and macerated for a 3-week period, then chilled and filtered. These filters in the center are the traditional method of filtration. They act much like coffee filters do, where the essences are poured into the paper filters and the impurities are left in the paper itself. They all smell of their various designated essences (orange blossom, rose, lavender, etc).

But who is it that actually combines the essences together to create the perfume? It is no small job and it remains an elite and difficult profession. The artisans of perfume are called noses. There are only 50 master noses in the world today. Their training is a minimum of 10-years and they only become a 'nose' when they are capable of identifying 4,000 different fragrance essences blind. There are 4 training centers in the world - all in France. Two are in Grasse, one in Paris and one in Versailles (the most famous center).

A nose lives an exigent lifestyle - no spices or garlic in their food, no heavy alcohol or smoking, which all take away from keeping their nose as neutral as possible. If a nose were to inadvertently eat something with garlic, they would have to wait three days to clear the garlic before working again with scent.

This image shows what is called the organ, the nose's table - and all noses have a table that looks exactly like this one. There are three shelves here, which represent the makeup of any perfume. Perfume has three notes: the head, heart and base notes.

Head notes are citrus and fresh essences (lemon, lime, orange, mandarin, ginger, green apple). These are the first essences one smells in a perfume.

The head notes pass quickly and then one gets to the heart notes - a very important element of perfume indeed. These are the fruity, floral or spicy - the marrow of the formula.

The base notes hold the perfume together: woods (ceder, pine, sandalwood), amber, vanilla.

Any perfume contains not just one of each of these essences. Most perfumes contain a minimum of 50 essences and even up to 250 essences. A new perfume takes between 9 months to 5 years to create - a very complex process indeed. 

Photography and writing by Emilie Johnson. She lives in Provence and can be found on instagram at @emilie_joly_johnson