Within an hour drive from Cannes is the old town of Grasse, nestled in the foothills overlooking the French Riviera. By the 18th century Grasse was the centre of the world’s perfume making industry. Acres of land were dedicated to the horticulture of tuberose, orange blossom, mimosa and the infamous jasmine grandiflorum and rose centifolia that is considered to be of the highest quality in the world. The soil and climate in Grasse make it the perfect environment for growing these flowers. Pairing this with centuries of experience and know-how, the resulting essences produced in Grasse make them the most coveted in the world. In World War II when France was occupied by Nazi Germany the Wertheimer family, Coco Chanel’s business partners for perfume, were living in exile due to their Jewish heritage. The partners had Grasse rose and jasmine essence smuggled out of France so they could continue production of Chanel No. 5 in America. They knew that even with Ernest Beaux’s legendary formula, using raw materials from anywhere but Grasse would undermine the product they wanted to sell. They believed this so strongly they risked lives in order to retrieve the precious stock.
Today Grasse is a shadow of its former self. Although my guidebook told me the city was recently cleaned up to encourage tourism, the old town’s graffiti ridden walls are barely standing and a little imagination is required to picture the bustling industry that used to go on here over a century ago. A number of the town’s historic brands still exist and they aim to draw in tourists who pass by on day trips. Mollinard, Gallimard and Fragonard all offer tours of their workshops to give tourists an idea of how they create perfume today and how the brand’s forefathers used to extract scent from Grasse’s diverse flora. On display are copper stills for steam distillation and screens lathered with animal fats, used to extract odours from the more delicate flowers by the process of enfleurage. While these workshops offer fascinating tours for those interested in the history of perfume, the must-see attraction in Grasse is the Musee International de la Parfumerie. The museum is situated on the boulevard du Jeu-de-Ballon, a short walk from the town’s main bus station. Designed and built by architect Frederic Jung, the museum opened its doors in 1989 and was given a makeover in 2008. The museum promotes itself as the guardian of perfume industry history and contains artifacts that date back as far as 4000 years.
The first section of the museum has interactive displays about the theory of olfaction and the classifications of odours such as spicy, woody, animalic, floral etc. These classifications are presented in the form of an olfactory tree. In an adjoining glasshouse visitors can experience plants responsible for some of perfumes most popular odours.
Back inside, the museum corridors wind and turn leading you from one ancient civilization to the next. From ancient Greece to Egypt, the museum curator links these civilizations by three points; throughout history man has used perfume to communicate, to soothe and to seduce.
People of the Middle Ages used perfume as a means to soothe or to heal. The museum documents the life of an apothecary that existed in Grasse around 1475. His inventory of strange pharmacopeia and exotic purchases from foreign merchants gives you an understanding of what perfume during this period would have been like. In the Age of Enlightenment everything was perfumed; bodies, clothing, wall hangings and ornamental vases were all scented. It was believed that disease was spread by air and that perfume was a means of disinfecting oneself and the home from unwanted illnesses.
On the lower floor of the museum there is a large space filled with copper stills used for steam distillation, presses for the expression of citrus oils and tools used in the process of enfleurage. Before solvent extraction was invented this was the method used to extract the scent from delicate flowers such as tuberose and narcissus. There are interactive displays that explain the difference between pressed or distilled oil, concretes and absolutes. Motorised machines expel air perfumed with raw materials allowing you to compare the difference between rose oil from Turkey and synthetic rose aromas such as Geraniol.
One display I particularly liked was an interactive wall dedicated to lily of the valley. The French call it muguet and it was Christian Dior’s favourite flower. The soft green floral odour has been interpreted many times in perfumes of the past century. Visitors remove metal rods from the wall and each rod is lined with a core scented with different interpretations of the flower. Lily of the valley is one of few flowers too delicate to survive even the most gentle extraction methods. It has to be dreamed into being by the perfumer’s imagination. This means it is open to interpretation and even though there are some standard synthetic materials that have a muguet character, the note has evolved over time as new raw materials were discovered and trends changed. The display offers visitors five lily of the valley compounds from different periods in modern perfume history. The earliest example of muguet on display is a formula from 1900 followed by Muguet 16, the first perfume base for lily of the valley that was created by Marius Reboul for Givaudan in 1908. Reboul utilized newly discovered molecules such as heliotropin, methyl ionone and hydroxycitronellal in his base (a base is a substitute perfumers use if no natural essence exists or as a replacement due to cost or aesthetic needs). Next is Mayciane by Laire, a base created in the 1950s by Chanel perfumer Henri Robert. Robert revolutionized the muguet note with hexyl cinnamic aldehyde and indol nuancing the flower with jasmine notes. The fourth compound is Longchamp Lily of the Valley by I.F.F, which is an example from the 1970s. Adding to Robert’s jasmine touch, I.F.F added a fresh floral quality with synthetic carbinyl notes. The most recent compound is a lily of the valley base created using Headspace, a method developed in the 1980s. Headspace uses modern technology to read the molecules emitted by a fragrant object. This reading can then be recreated in a laboratory and has revolutionised the perfumer’s ability to create photorealism in perfume.
The museum has an exhibit on modern perfume trends of the past decade. The trends discussed are niche, vintage, urban world and celebrity perfumes. In the past decade, niche (the French term) or artistic (the Italian term) serve a clientele looking for originality through discreet retail stores. The term vintage was first used to qualify the date of wine production. It is a term that has since been transposed to clothing, accessories and now perfume. “Brands reveal a desire to return to their origins by re-editing perfumes as a way to give credibility to their roots in traditional perfumery.” This has brought about a resurgence of classical forms such as chypre, eau de cologne and unisex designs with retro notes such as violet, carnation and iris. The urban world trend the museum presents is measured by the globalization of culture and an awareness of the environment. New generations of consumers are global travelers and they value a brands commitment to recycled packaging and sustainable resources.
After exploring some of the decade’s key milestones, which includes a video of perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena exploring the Nile River in search of an olfactory story (the result being Hermes’ Un Jardin Sur Le Nil in 2004) the museum opens up into a space dedicated to the history of perfume packaging. The display can only be described as the best collection of perfume bottles I have had the pleasure of viewing. From the 1800s until present day, visitors can see examples of bottles that read as a collector’s wish list of vintage must-haves. Towards the end of the timeline you can also view the process of bottle design from the marketing brief to the prototype and the finished product.
And of course what visit to a museum isn’t complete with some souvenirs. While visitors may not find a high quality of perfumed souvenirs in the gift shop, there are some nice postcards and if you read French the gift shop has quite an extensive offering of books about perfume and Grasse history.
Below are a few favourite photos of bottles that are displayed in the museum. While it may sound like a cliche, they don’t make bottles like this anymore.