When you think perfume, it’s probably Paris that springs to mind; elegant glass bottles, haute couture, and international fragrance houses like Chanel, LVMH, and Caron. But, while it’s undeniable Paris is inextricably linked to the fragrance industry, it’s the provincial city of Grasse, France, that lays claim to the title of International Perfume Capital of the World.
Set 12 miles inland from Cannes and positioned between the Alps and the Balearic Coast, Grasse is uniquely placed to grow the finest flowers and plants for use in perfume and essential oils. The narrow, winding streets have seen centuries of history, spanning from its roots as a cathedral city in the 13th century, to its burgeoning leather industry during the Renaissance, to its more modern role as the International Capital of Perfumery.
The town houses three museums to share this rich history. Olivier Quiquempois curates them, and explains how Grasse became synonymous with quality fragrance and essential oils.
He says: “The connection between Grasse and perfumery goes a long way, and at the same time, not such a long way. Perfumery has existed in Grasse since the 18th century. Originally, Grasse’s main industry was tannery.
“During the 18th century, the professions of glove and perfume manufacturing appeared. With gloves being made out of animal skins that had strong smells, they perfumed them to make them more pleasant to wear. Glove manufacturing and perfumery went hand in hand.”
As the tanning industry began to decline, and the industrial revolution brought about huge changes to the way people lived, worked and shopped, Grasse was well positioned to grow and manufacture perfumes for the mass market - and in the late 19th century emerged as the capital of perfumery.
Olivier puts this down to two main elements. The first being Grasse’s unique terrain and microclimate.
He says: “It is a place that is neither too hot or too cold - allowing plants to really develop all the aromatic molecules that allow us to make perfume.
“In Grasse, one can grow specific varieties of plants used in perfumery in an exceptional way, for instance the rose centifolia, which can be truly called the “rose of Grasse” as it is not cultivated anywhere else. There are also orange blossoms, tuberosas, and a variety of other flowers which can be grown thanks to the specificities of soils in Grasse.”
Apart from its balmy climate, the second element that distinguished Grasse as an authority on perfume production was its bustling industry. Thanks to the tanning businesses that came before, factories were already producing perfume to cover the strong smells of animal skins. This meant that entrepreneurs were ahead of the game when demand for fine fragrance increased, and were able to quickly adapt their businesses and production processes to meet the need.
Olivier explains: “Industries in Grasse were developing from the 1860s onwards, with technological innovations discovered by entrepreneurs and engineers. The most famous of them was Mr Schiris, who developed a machine to extract ingredients using a solvent. It was widely used until the mid-20th century.
“There were also a variety of smaller-scale technological innovations. To that, you could add the skills of Grasse inhabitants in terms of entrepreneurship and trade. Grasse is a city that is really open to trading and to international commerce. This commercial dynamism is very important, and is behind the success of the industry.”
The combination of strong industrial roots and a temperate climate meant factories could be located next to fields of the most fragrant ingredients. What started out as humble family businesses slowly evolved into large fragrance houses supplying ingredients or perfume to the most well known perfumers. A small number of these producers remain in Grasse today, manufacturing high quality essential oils, absolutes and concretes for use in fragrance the world over.