The hillside town of Grasse has been synonymous with perfume-making since the 17th century. Zoë McIntyre shows how you can create your own signature fragrance
Along with a handful of other aspiring perfumers, I have come to the Studio des Fragrances, run by famed parfumerie Galimard, for a masterclass in olfactory alchemy. I’m certainly in the right place: the Provençal city of Grasse has been celebrated as the world’s perfume capital since the 1600s. It’s a hilltop tangle of terracotta rooftops tucked between the hazy mountains of the Southern Alps and the sparkling shoreline of the Côte d’Azur, ringed by fields of blossoming trees, aromatic herbs and sweet-scented flowers.
While the chic couture houses of Paris lend their name to our favourite fragrances, it is here in Grasse where perfume guards its most secret skills, distilled from centuries of aromatic sampling. From Grasse blossoms some of the most sought-after natural essences, not to mention the finest perfumers – known as ‘les nez’ – who pore over undisclosed formulas and enact esoteric rituals to create intoxicating and enthralling scents.
For us amateur apothecaries, education begins with our tutor Nathalie explaining the basics of the perfume ‘organ’, named due to its tiered arrangement of nearly 140 essence bottles that resemble keys of the instrument. Like musical scales, the right blend of perfume notes can create a rich and harmonising aroma (or an ugly discord, she implies with a Gallic shrug).
On the wall, a pyramid diagram helps to explain the three scent categories. First come the fresh, citrusy ‘peak notes’: volatile and fleeting, they deliver that all-important first impression before quickly fading away. Then the ‘heart notes’ kick in; those soft, warm aromas of flowers, spices and sweet fruits that are detected only when the perfume settles on the skin. Finally, the ‘base notes’ anchor the perfume and last longest – that whisper of a scent that lingers on your clothes for weeks. As Nathalie talks, I’m struck by the magic of perfume; how a delicate balance of science and art can create something exotic, but tantalisingly ephemeral, blown away on the breeze.
Soon we are uncorking bottles and inhaling deeply to determine our favourite perfume palette: aromatic or floral, fruity or woody. I spend too long dithering over whether I prefer the aromas of myrrh to the woodiness of the patchouli plant, before a haze of lavender distracts my thoughts and evokes flickering childhood memories.
Thankfully, Nathalie suggests what base notes might work well together; “not ambergris – that will be too strong.” The addition of the heart notes changes my scent entirely, bathing it in warm bergamot and floral jasmine. For a fresh finale I use a plastic pipette to distil the right amount of grapefruit and mango into the aromatic concoction. “You should achieve the perfect balance between freshness and fruitiness,” says Nathalie.
Beakers filled and worksheets complete, I sniff gingerly at my final creation; not quite the refined elixir I had imagined. But before I can bemoan the extra few glugs of vanilla that I had tipped in on a whim, Nathalie assures me that the perfume requires two weeks to develop before it can be used. She whips away my beaker and returns minutes later with an elegant glass bottle labelled with my chosen name. “We’ll keep your formula so you can re-order your scent in the future,” she assures me.
I leave feeling fragrantly fulfilled but unconvinced that I’ll be abandoning my usual perfume for Eau de Zoë any time soon. Clutching my bottle, I make for the centre of Grasse, where intricately weaved cobbled alleys await, thrown into shadow by stone houses splashed in pinks and scorched ochre. As expected, the shops focus on selling all manner of scented souvenirs, with colourful soaps and candles, exotic oils and bouquets of dried herbs spilling on to the streets. Even the balmy summer air is laced with sweet jasmine.
I meet my guide Philippe at Place aux Aires, an arcaded square dotted with plane trees and café terraces. “This is where Grasse’s perfume story begins,” he says, “with the leather trade.” Spring water flowed from the mountains above the city and a canal ran through the square, where tanners could wash their hides – the arches were their workshops.
Leather gloves became particularly popular with the aristocracy, so tanners began to cure the leather with myrtle in order to mask the stench of the raw materials. Soon these gantiers-parfumeurs were in great demand. The canal running through the square was covered to make way for a flower market, and by the end of the 17th century, the business of making perfumes had overtaken the leather trade.
In its 19th-century heyday, Grasse became the realm of the rich and regal, who travelled from afar to buy their favourite scents. On the walk to the lookout point at Place du Grand Puy, Philippe points out the former Grand Hôtel where Queen Victoria stayed on her various visits. Back then, small artisan perfumeries plied their trade in the medieval heart of Grasse, but with growing industrialisation, production moved to factories on the outskirts.
There’s time for lunch at Lou Pignatoun – a cavernous restaurant serving imaginative Provençal fare – before visiting the Musée International de la Parfumerie. Set in a handsome yellow-ochre mansion built against the ancient city walls, the museum has spacious rooms filled with objects that relay the role played by perfume from antiquity to the present day.
I am fascinated by an old-fashioned chamber containing copper stills once used to extract oils from the plants. Here a wooden-framed glass panel smeared with an unctuous substance and lined with delicate petals demonstrates the traditional process of ‘enfleurage’ where pungent blossoms, particularly jasmine, are painstakingly placed on layers of fat for several days to extract their oils.
Up on the rooftop greenhouse, guide Laurent identifies some of the big hitters of the perfume trade. “The white flowers of tuberose are used in Poison by Dior,” he points out. Coming to the tall, delicate irises, I learn that it’s the root, not the flower, that is used for perfume – at an eye-watering €35,000 a kilogram. We discuss the hallowed Monsieur Mul, a fifth-generation farmer of Grasse, who harvests his treasured rose and jasmine flowers exclusively for Chanel.
We finish in a long corridor where glass cabinets display rare art-deco bottles. Their highly decorative forms and intricate detail marked the debut of mass-market perfume; fashioned by the likes of Lalique and Baccarat, these exquisite objects epitomise the luxury of the fragrant liquid they contain.
Next morning, I find myself back in a gleaming white workshop; this time on the polished third floor of the tangerine mansion belonging to fashionable parfumerie Fragonard. The room is a long, oblong temple to minimalism – white chairs, white table, white walls. Now, I’m making an eau de cologne – a fruitier, less concentrated alternative to my eau de parfum. This time, though, I pay more attention to the subtle notes of its essence and take an intuitive decision to include more bergamot than the bitter orange of neroli, resisting the temptation to overwhelm my scent with verbena. The tutor, Claire, fires my imagination with exotic stories of perfume as I create a subtle, fresh fragrance of which I’m secretly rather proud.
After a visit to the Fragonard shop and museum, I drag myself away, feeling as if I have only skimmed the surface of Grasse’s perfume trade. But I leave armed with an array of sensational new scents that will enable me to recall the perfumed memories of this blissfully sybaritic stay.
Sniff out the main attractions of a perfume visit to Grasse
By air: Zoe travelled from London to Nice with Monarch Airlines; single fares start from £29.99 (tel: 0871 940 5040, www.monarch.co.uk).
Studio des Fragrances
5 Route de Pégomas
Tel: (Fr) 4 93 09 20 00
www.galimard.comGalimard’s workshop lasts 1hr 30min and costs €45.
20 Boulevard Fragonard
Tel: (Fr) 4 93 36 44 65
www.fragonard.comAlong with a factory, shop and art gallery, Fragonard runs workshops where you can customise your eau de cologne for €65.
WHERE TO VISIT
73 Route de Cannes
Tel: (Fr) 4 93 09 20 00
www.galimard.comLearn about one of the oldest perfumeries in Grasse at its factory-museum.
Musée International de la Parfumerie (MIP)
2 Boulevard du Jeu
Tel: (Fr) 4 97 05 58 11
www.museesdegrasse.com Les Jardins du MIP
979 Chemin des Gourettes
Tel: (Fr) 4 92 98 92 69
www.museesdegrasse.comThe gardens affiliated with the museum grow roses, jasmine, mimosa and other blooms used in the industry.
WHERE TO STAY
Le Mas Candille
Boulevard Clément Rebuffel
Tel: (Fr) 4 92 28 43 43
www.lemascandille.co.ukHotel, spa and Michelin restaurant ten minutes’ drive from Grasse. Doubles from €315.
WHERE TO EAT
Rue de l’Oratoire
Tel: (Fr) 4 93 36 11 80
www.lou-pignatoun.comMenus from €13.50.
Grasse tourist office, tel: (Fr) 4 93 36 66 66, www.grasse.fr.