Perched on a sunny hill, Grasse is an emblematic city where it is good to stroll but also to smell the new perfumes. It has been known and recognized for hundreds of years for its know-how, which has been passed down from generation to generation. From the cultivation of the flower to the work of composition, the perfume of Grasse is considered as a real living heritage, a French craft that continues to develop even today. Let’s push the doors of the world capital of perfume to discover all its secrets!
Why is Grasse the capital of perfume?
The city of Grasse, a commercial crossroads
Behind its lovely streets that combine the authentic charm of Provencal towns with Genoese architectural inspirations, Grasse has existed for over a thousand years. From the end of the 12th century, the city is liberated from the feudal regime and will be manage by a consul of aristocrats. Became very powerful, the city signs a political and commercial treaty with the city of Genoa, one of the most important commercial Mediterranean port. Then it was Pisa’s turn to join in. In Grasse, wine, livestock and wheat were exported and imported, as well as leather and raw or tanned hides.
Positioned on the road between the Alps and the sea, and from Italy to Nice, Grasse quickly became the center of a flourishing trade. In 1481, the city became part of the kingdom of France, at the height of its power. It draws its wealth from its soils and a climate that favors the cultivation of various flowers, fruits and olive trees. Tanning also became a new pioneering industry. The exploitation and treatment of the skins is easily done thanks to the torrent of the Foux which crosses the city, today covered.
From leather to essences: the birth of Grasse perfume
The city thus specialized in tanning for several centuries. Its leathers eventually acquired a reputation of high quality among the European nobility. But despite this, the smell of the leather remains highly unpleasant because urine or even excrement is often used to tan the hides (not really glamorous, we grant you).
To mitigate these nauseating scents, the Grasse craftsman Molinard had the idea of creating perfumed gloves using the flowers and herbs that grew all over his town. This new discovery spread throughout the French Court and Grasse became the new cradle of the art of perfume. This was the beginning of the great era of the Glovers-Perfumers. The tanning industry declines and perfumery is freed from leather. The perfume of Grasse became a full-fledged activity at the end of the 17th century.
A fertile land
Maquis and garrigue lands are particularly favorable to the cultivation of plants which will serve to the dawning trade of perfume. Faced with an important demand, farmers of Grasse start to distill themselves the fruit of their crops. They resell these essences to complete their incomes. Different plants are grown such as orange blossom, lavender, myrtle or the shrub lentisque pistachio. With the opening of trade routes to India and the rest of Europe, new species are being imported to Grasse. This is the case of jasmine, tuberose and rose, still present today in the city. Gradually, farmers become perfumers and their know-how is renowned.
The city is surrounded by endless fields of flowers and the number of perfume houses shoots up. Noses are educated to select and assemble the best raw materials to produce perfume. Despite a growing global competition, perfumers of Grasse gather in a cooperative to perpetuate the tradition.
Perfume from Grasse… Or from Montpellier?
When it comes to the history of perfume, Grasse is not the only city to be mentioned. Montpellier has also played an important role. In 1220, it hosted the first Faculty of Medicine in Europe, and the oldest in the world. The school has seen brilliant doctors such as Nostradamus and Rabelais study in its classes. Arnaud de Villeneuve, another particularly erudite student, graduated in Montpellier. Thanks to his travels in the East and in Cordoba, the chemist used his discoveries to work on the distillation of alcohol and floral waters, which were used as remedies at the time. He opened the way to new pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications and produced the first essential oils.
In the late Middle Ages, Montpellier’s apothecaries used rosemary, jasmine, iris powder and many spices, ambergris and sandalwood, imported from the East. The city also benefits from an incredible wealth of aromatic plants, cultivated in particular in its Jardin des Plantes, the oldest botanical garden in France which you can still visit. From the 16th century, Montpellier and Grasse were centers of perfumery. But the harsh and rainy climate of Montpellier does not allow the production of the necessary plant substances. Grasse will thus become the only figurehead of the perfume industry.
The stages of perfume making in Grasse
Since the time of tanning, Grasse has remained a heavyweight in the perfume economy. Companies in this region account for 10%* of worldwide sales of scents and flavors. The craft and savoir-faire around perfumes is divided into three areas: the cultivation of perfume plants, the selection and transformation of natural raw materials and the composition of fragrances.
Perfume of Grasse : the cultivation of inspired plants
The soils of the Grasse region are loaded with clay. This is what allows the soil to keep freshness, ideal for cultivating various perfume plants. These flowers include the May rose or Centifolia rose which has become the emblem of Grasse. Tuberose, violet, iris or jasmine are also cultivated in these fields. Some of them are so fragile that they have to be treated directly after they are picked. This is why these fields are located close to Grasse, where the producers’ factories are located. Soil properties are different, and the producers have to adapt. These exceptional flowers bloom on strips of land called “extreme zone”. This means that beyond these locations they could not bloom.
This culture requires know-how and specific skills. The producers of these precious plants are at the same time farmer, botanist and sometimes even meteorologist! Grasse also supplies “wild” plants to the perfume, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. They are found in the surrounding hills, such as mimosa, broom, lavender and many others.
Transformation and composition
Once the flowers picked and the other natural raw materials imported, the producers move on to the next step of perfume manufacturing: the transformation. The goal of this process is to capture the odoriferous components of plants. To do this, factories develop different techniques of manufacturing perfume, both artisanal and industrial.
When concretes and other essential oils are ready to use, the nose steps in. He builds the olfactory architecture of a composition by assembling the different raw materials to create the desired fragrance. The nose follows the flower since its birth, during its cultivation and its transformation. He can then highlights it in the fragrant composition. And in Grasse, the mission of more or less old institutions is to transmit this know-how, even if the family handover is widespread.
The city of Grasse and its perfumes
A craft finally recognized
Since November 2018 and after ten years of procedure, UNESCO world heritage of humanity Committee recognized the craft of perfume of Grasse. This know-how is now inscribed on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of Humanity. It is detailed in three aspects according to UNESCO: “the cultivation of perfume plants, the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials, and the art of perfume composition“. The people of Grasse can be proud of the worldwide recognition of a centuries-old tradition. An increased resonance that will further preserve these lands and know-how.
Discover our perfumes of Grasse
To continue to perpetuate this Grasse heritage, Carrément Belle naturally turned to this Provencal rock to work alongside seasoned noses. This is how we can guarantee you fragrances made in France. And this has allowed us, for more than 30 years, to offer our eaux de parfum and pure perfumes, the best selections of natural raw materials. But that’s not all, the perfume of Grasse for candle also fills our beautiful scented candles!
You probably already knew the world capital of perfume, but did you know that this art was a tradition for centuries?
*Les Échos – Parfum : Grasse candidate au patrimoine de l’humanité – april 22, 2018
Discover our fragrances