Grasse smells of roses
ust a few drops of Chanel No. 5’ was all Marilyn Monroe wore in bed. A revalation that helped build the legend of the French company’s most exclusive scent. However, the true secret of its success has nothing to do with the blonde bombshell’s bed.
It was Ernest Beaux who was responsible for carrying out Coco Chanel’s wish: ‘I want a woman’s perfume that smells like a woman’. To achieve his goal, he headed to Grasse, the perfumers’ promised land.
Haute couture flowers
The formula for Chanel No. 5 has hardly changed since it was launched in 1921. Its secret resides in the raw ingredients. In 1987 Chanel decided to establish a closer relationship with its suppliers in Grasse and it formed an alliance with the Mul family, the biggest local flower producer. Every year five harvests are reserved exclusively for Chanel.
This city in Provence is where most of the perfumes in the world are produced, though its Medieval streets and Baroque-style palaces remind you of a village, not an industrial centre. History is the reason: the tradition is over three centuries old, and although some of the techniques have changed, their ‘savoir-faire’ is remains the same. At the beginning they specialised in scented gloves, a trick for getting rid of the unpleasant smell of leather that fascinated nobles, including Catherine de Medici. However, from the 17th century onwards, the local artisans embraced the Art of Parfum, and these day, over 10,000 people live from this art and about 60 factories here produce for more than half of all the perfumes made in France.
The fragrance escapes from the factories and impregnates the air in the gardens where the flowers are grown that will later fill the designer bottles of important brands, such as Chanel or Dior. Jasmine, lavender, May roses, sensitive plants… A wide variety of flowers that are grown in large amounts, as you need hundreds of kilos of petals to make just one kilo of fragrance. The microclimate in Grasse, nestled between the Maritime Alps and the nearby Mediterranean Sea, makes these colourful harvests possible.
The gardens of the International Perfume Museum offer just a small sample of the ‘region’s ‘olfactory landscape’. In an area of two hectares you’ll be able to see the first plants that were used to make perfumes back in the 16th century, such as wild orange or lavenders, as well as May roses, smaller but with a more intense fragrance than common roses. Inside the museum visitors can learn about the history of perfume from antiquity to the present day.
It is not the only building dedicated to the art of smells. Fragonard, Molinard and Gallimard, three of the city’s historic factories also open their doors to visitors so they can see the workshops and laboratories where the alchemists perform their magic. The first factory pays homage to Grasse’s most distinguished citizen, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, an 18th-century Rococo painter, whose paintings hang in his house-museum and the cathedral of Notre Dame du Puy, where there are also three original works by Rubens.
You notice art in its broadest sense with every step you take. It can be found in the churches, gardens, perfume factories and nearby castles, such as Château de la Colle Noire, which was purchased by Christian Dior in 1951 and where he wanted to establish ‘his real home’. Each one of the different essences gives a unique fragrance to this spot on the French Riviera.