Our sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses we possess. Whether it’s flowers, cuisine, perfume or home fragrances, the merest hint of a familiar aroma can trigger a special memory. And where better to enjoy fragrances at their finest than in Grasse, considered the perfume capital of the world. This is the birthplace of many a mythical perfume, with scents created here over the years for Rochas, Dior and Chanel.
How Grasse rose to fame
In the Middle Ages, Grasse’s speciality was tanning leather. However, to overcome the strong smell of leather, the local tanner Galimard hatched the idea of creating scented leather gloves. He presented a pair to Italian noblewoman Catherine de Médici, who immediately loved the idea.
The new fashion quickly took hold at the French court and amongst the upper classes. Orders began to fly which led to the tanners becoming glove perfumers. Gradually they forgot all about the leather and concentrated solely on the production of perfumes instead.
The special scent of Grasse
As a result of the perfume boom, flowers that grew in abundance in the Grasse area became local treasures. That is to say, lavender, myrtle, roses, orange flowers and mimosas. Above all, jasmine held – and still holds – a mythical status in Grasse. Twenty-seven tonnes of jasmine are harvested each year for perfume and there is an annual Fête du Jasmin at the beginning of August.
From the production of the natural raw material to the manufacturing of extract, all the technology of perfumery can still be found in Grasse. Even today, many professional perfumers – or ‘noses’ as they’re called in French – spend time in Grasse to hone their sense of smell. Their ability allows them to distinguish between over 2,000 scents.
In 1987, Chanel invested in a family-owned field in Pégomas, just outside Grasse. This meant the fashion house could guarantee the fresh, aromatic quality of the roses and jasmine in its Chanel No 5 perfume. More than 30 years on, the roses are still harvested in May and jasmine in September. Both are processed on site using a combination of historic Grasse techniques alongside the latest extraction and distillation technology. As a result, Chanel has never had to compromise the integrity of the perfume’s formula. One 30ml bottle of Chanel No 5 requires 1,000 Grasse-grown jasmine flowers and 12 May roses.
Making your own perfume
Visitors to the historic town of Grasse can learn about perfume making with Grasse’s renowned perfume houses. Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard offer a free tour so you can enlighten your senses. For instance, understand the ever-evolving techniques, the global supply chains of botanicals and the artistry and chemistry involved in creating the perfect scent. We recommend that you book a class in advance as sessions are limited to a certain small number per class.
In addition, you can even do a perfume-making workshop to create your own scent – creating a souvenir like no other! Moreover, you can discover the town’s unique history and France’s pivotal role in the industry at the International Perfume Museum.
There are many picturesque little boutiques, antique dealers and pretty buildings scattered around the Old Town of Grasse. Rue Jean Ossola is the main street and it’s worthwhile walking from Place Aux Aires down the sloping Rue Admiral de Grasse. If you’re feeling peckish, eateries abound, from typical French delicatessens to French haute cuisine restaurants like Au Fil du Temps.
Domaine de la Royrie is also worth a visit – it’s a 500-year-old olive grove set in breathtaking landscape. You can enjoy a tour of the estate and a tasting session to understand the complex flavours of award-winning olive oils. Further, the Jean-Honoré Fragonard Villa Museum celebrates the eponymous artist best known for his lyrical and occasionally mischievous late rococo paintings about love.
Getting to Grasse
We recommend arriving in Grasse early (before 10.30am) and staying until after 3pm, when tour groups depart. When the streets quieten, the quaint Riviera town feels even more magical. Grasse is a 45-minute drive from Parc du Cap.
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