When you visit Grasse, you have to deal with the topic "perfume". Not only because of the topic, but because otherwise the understanding of the place through which one walks or drives remains closed. As always, everything here is connected to everything else and the development of the city is inseparably interwoven with the development of fragrances. After a while I had the feeling that the history, the past of the city and the region continuously and without breaks reaches up to the present and is simply there as a matter of course.
Numbers, dates, facts and history from the world of perfume, which certainly does not hurt to know before you arrive in Grasse...
Story, Camera, Editor : Bert Schwarz
© travel-magazine TV 2020
Totally uninformed and - honestly - not really interested in this topic, we came here and met people who let us discover this mixture of art, craft and industry. The more we get involved with the topic, the more interesting it becomes and the appreciation of the individual work of perfumers long before a perfume is released increases enormously.
I will tell you here the most important aspects of the history of the perfumes of Grasse, as we learned.
In the Middle Ages, the leather industry was the leading trade and tanners had spread their workshops throughout the city. Grasse leather was very well known and popular. The uric acid used for tanning at that time produced a penetrating, unpleasant smell. To put an end to this, baths with flowers from Provençal gardens such as lavender, myrtle, jasmine, rose, wild orange blossom and mimosa were tried.
This new trend spread to the royal courts and then to the entire high society. Orders came in droves and so the perfumers' businesses grew and gradually drove tanners out of the city.
The rare flowers of Grasse - lavender, myrtle, rose, orange blossom, mimosa and above all jasmine - the "mythical flower" of the city - became the local treasures. From the production of natural raw materials to the manufacture of concentrates, the entire centuries-old know-how is brought together here.
Grasse is a city of 51,000 inhabitants, ideally located between the sea and the mountains in this beautiful inland area of the Côte d'Azur, only 17 km from Cannes and 35 km from Nice. Referring to its main business, the French author Francis de Croisset said when speaking of Grasse that "Grasse is the only city in the world where the word factory sounds poetic".
It is no coincidence that this city, an ancient commercial center, became the cradle of the perfume industry. This region has always benefited from ideal conditions for the production of flowers and their products. It has a very favorable climate with mild, moderate temperatures, many hours of sunshine and short periods of rain. Then the earth is rich in alluvial deposits, which makes for very fertile soil and finally the character of the people who live here, who are very hardworking and equipped with creative imagination.
Already in the early Renaissance the town was a center of tannery and glove production (especially because of the numerous flocks of sheep and the simultaneous availability of spring water for the treatment of the skins). In the 16th century, Grasse also benefited from the fashion at the time for wearing perfumed gloves, made famous by Catherine de Medicis. The city soon became so famous at the court of King Louis XIII that in 1614 the Association of Perfumed Gloves was officially recognized.
The most important plants used at that time to produce the perfume were jasmine, rose and tuberose.
In the course of time, the production of perfumed oils became more lucrative than the production of gloves, which had declined in fashion, and by the 18th century a significant and important industry had emerged, namely the production of basic perfumed essences or primary products.
But it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that Grasse and its surroundings gained their international reputation. This was due to the skills and know-how of several large families of industrialists who had developed the industry over time. The factories thus created enabled the production of flowers, the import of raw materials and the production of essences and fragrant raw materials, often produced by their subsidiaries at the place of production.
Today, the industries in Grasse have continued to expand their field of activity to meet the demands of a changing market:
In Grasse, there are currently around 70 companies active in the perfumery industry.
These companies employ about 5,000 employees and export about 70% of their production.
The numerous visitors of the region search in vain for the large flower fields. In fact, the cultivation of perfume plants is concentrated on small family plots, where the harvest is seasonal and often done very quickly.
The rose (a special variety called "May leaves") is harvested from May 1 to June 1, the flower of the orange tree from the end of April to the beginning of June and the jasmine in July and August.
The most spectacular fields to visit are those of mimosa from January to March in the Massif du Tanneron region. You can admire the flowers of broom in June and lavender in July.
The most commonly used plants are mainly jasmine, rose, the flowers and leaves of the orange tree, tuberose, orange flower, jonquille, violet, mimosa, lavandin and lavender.
This is the oldest method and today almost forgotten and abandoned. This avoids any alteration and makes it possible to preserve the fragrance of the most delicate flowers such as jasmine, tuberose or mimosa.
A mixture of animal fats is spread on a long glass table. The petals of the flowers are sprinkled over this mixture and the process is repeated every two or three days. At the end of the season, the fatty substances are dissolved to eliminate the vegetation waste and then the aroma is reduced to its concrete form of a pomade by stirring in ethyl alcohol.
In this method the essential oils are extracted from plants in which they are contained in their natural vegetative state, such as lavender, patchouli, vetyver and geranium. This method cannot extract the aromas of the delicate flowers and their petals.
Distillation takes place in the Alemikum. In the steam generator, the resulting steam carries the odour particles of the plant. This vaporous mixture is carried by the swan neck to the cooling area or serpentine, where the steam is reduced to its liquid state. In the Florentine vase, the natural oils separate from the water by the simple difference in density..
To obtain one kilogram of essence, for example, 330 kilograms of patchouli leaves or 150 kilograms of lavender must be distilled.
The basic oils of the hesperides or citrus fruits (lemon, orange, bergamot or tangerine) can be obtained by using heat and suitable chemical means.
Although the most commonly used natural products are vegetable, 4 basic raw materials come from animals, e.g:
Today these animal substances are reproduced synthetically.
This method works because of the low boiling point of certain solvents (ether, benzene, alcohol, acetone, etc.), which makes it possible to obtain the basic product from fresh vegetation and resins from dry vegetation.
By separating residual waxes, the basic product can then be reduced to its aroma.
With this method, 600 kg of roses or jasmine are needed to obtain one kg of absolute essence.
The fragrance, which is created by the fine mixture of odorous substances, is the culmination of the perfumer's creative work.
Who is this mysterious person? What is his or her task? How does she or he work?
The perfumer or «nose» is a fragrance composer. In front of his working tool, a table called "organ", are all, at least 2,000 basic products, of which 1,000 are frequently used.
How is he able to recognize them all, then memorize their individual essences and finally use them according to his ideas?
Primarily, it is thanks to the natural innate talent:
It is therefore the memory that is used over and over again that is of great importance.
These natural gifts must be maintained through strong self-discipline: Protecting the sense of smell from external negative influences (e.g. tobacco); increasing sensitivity through olfactory exercises, building up the memory and a continuous search for maximum concentration.
In addition to these natural gifts, one must add a certain form of character with desire and strength to rise above the obstacles that stand in the way of ultimate successful creativity: the love of effort: What has been done must be constantly reviewed, because the fragrant world is transient; the possession of a certain sensibility that comes from a fertile imagination and a sense of beauty: Perfumes are forms, structures. Imagination conceives them and creates new forms, which should be beautiful and appealing. To be appreciated, perfumes must be the means of expression of the composer, whose special quality will be the sense of chords.
This often happens after the smell of a new product has been smelled, whether it is a natural or a new original synthetic essence.
His mind develops a series of ideas by association and translates these ideas into the sensual structural form and from there into a formula, because the art of perfume is also in finding the right proportions.
The recipes for a particular perfume consist of many different ingredients, measured according to the strength and purpose of the creator. It can take several years before the specifically desired fragrance finally comes to fruition.
It is worth mentioning that perfume manufacturers today have access to the most modern technological analysis tools, all of which are used by the companies in Grasse. For example, high-performance liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and the nuclear magnetic resonator are tools that allow perfumers to broaden and deepen their knowledge of fragrances and to carry out strict quality control of all raw materials. This equipment also enables the manufacturer to guarantee to his customers on the market that the products are completely harmless and safe, especially with regard to the regulations issued by the I.F.R.A. (International Fragrance Association) and the I.O.F.I. (International Organization of the Flavor Industry).
Sources: I have gained all these insights during my visits to the houses of the great perfumers in Grasse and my study of the corresponding Internet sites, in particular the house of Galimard.