In Part I of my trip, I showed you around the town. Now, let’s turn our attention to that which has made Grasse famous: perfume. Trade with the Moors in 16th century brought jasmine to Grasse, which is perfectly placed to grow these fragrant flowers. It enjoys year-round warm conditions, is far enough inland to protect the plants from the sea air and is well irrigated from the surrounding hills.
By 1747 the oldest parfumerie in France, and the third oldest in Europe, Galimard had been established, first selling scented leather gloves – using scent to hide the smell of the leather. And it was to be the scents and not the tanning that eventually made Grasse so famous.
Perfume put this town on the map and there are plenty of places where you can find out about its illustrious past. There are three historic perfumeries, open to the public, that still operate in Grasse: Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard, though there are many other less well known perfumers all over town.
The third oldest European perfumery, after Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz (1709) and Floris of London (1730), launched its Studio des Fragrances in 1997.
Founded in 1849, Molinard caught everybody’s eye because it used beautiful Lalique glass and Baccarat crystal bottles for its products. You can visit the Molinard perfume factory and learn about this perfumery’s history, discover the raw materials for which it is famous and check out their savonnerie (soap workshop) where they’ve been producing beautifully perfumed soap since the 1920s. In addition, its collection of glass and crystalware is impressive.
My personal favourite, even though it was founded later than the others, Fragonard was named after the famous French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a native of Grasse.
I always enjoy a tour of their Grasse Fragonard Perfume Factory (and museum), set in the oldest factory in town. Once an 18th century mansion, the International Perfume Museum opened in 1989. Around ten years ago it underwent significant renovations and doubled in size. Dedicated, of course, to all things perfume, it takes you on a 5,000-year journey through the history of perfume, including sections on how Grasse and the surrounding area has made an impact on that history.
Another thing I like about Fragonard is that it’s still a family concern. Started in 1926 by Eugène Fuchs based on the then novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to the tourists who were beginning to discover the French Rivera’s charms. However, it grew under the tenure of Jean-Francois Costa through rapid expansion and modernisation. As an avid art collector, during the 1970’s he amassed a large and unique collection of antique perfume-related items now on show in the museum. Today, Jean-François Costa’s daughters, Agnès and Françoise preside over the perfumery’s destiny.
The importance of Grasse and its flowers cannot be understated. In fact, the jasmine and May roses that go into making the world famous Chanel No. 5 only ever come from Grasse, no flowers from anywhere else in the world are allowed.
Jasmine, rather than lavender, is the much celebrated flower of the town. So much so that every year, for three days in summer, the town puts on the Fete Jasmin or La Jasminade, symbolic of the traditional beginning of the plucking of this fragranced flower.
Up until only a few decades ago picking jasmine was a labour-intensive process. The flowers had to be picked at dawn and immediately treated in cold enfleurage (odourless fat used for capturing and preserving scents).
It’s well-worth visiting one of the factories to learn more about the fascinating history of perfume and its production processes. Plus, you get to sample some of their wonderful products!