Perched on a sunny hill, Grasse is an emblematic city where it is good to stroll but also to smell scented novelties. This small town in the south of France became famous a long time ago for a know-how transmitted from generation to generation. From the flower to the manufacturing, Grasse has a real living heritage, a legacy of a craft that keeps developing. Welcome in the world capital of perfume to discover all its secrets!
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 with Pisa. It exports and imports wine, cattle and wheat but also leather, raw or tanned skins.
The city is located in a strategic position on the path between the Alps and the sea, and that of Italy in Nice. This is how Grasse will quickly become the center of a flourishing business. Taking advantage of its soils and a favorable climate, in Grasse is cultivated various flowers, fruits and olive trees. Tanning is also becoming a new pioneering industry. The exploitation and the treatment of the skins is done easily thanks to the Foux torrent. Today covered, it crossed the city and allowed to wash the skins. In 1481, Grasse enters the kingdom of France, at the height of his power and wealth.
Grasse and perfume: the story of a craft
Grasse or Montpellier ?
When paying attention to the history of Perfume, we realize that Grasse is not the only city to appear on the map. Montpellier, another city in the south of France, has also played a key role. In 1220, the first Faculty of Medicine in Europe and the oldest in activity in the world, settled in Montpellier. The school has welcomed brilliant doctors like Nostradamus or Rabelais. Another student particularly erudite, Arnaud de Villeneuve, graduated in Montpellier. Thanks to his travels in the East and Cordoba, he made discoveries on distillation. The chemist worked on the distillation of alcohol and floral waters, at the time used as remedies. He paved the way for new pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications, and manufactured the first essential oils.
At the end of the Middle Ages, apothecaries of Montpellier use rosemary, jasmine, iris powder and many spices, amber or sandalwood, imported from the Orient. The city also enjoys various aromatic plants, grown in particular in its “Jardin des Plantes”, the oldest botanical garden in France. From the 16th century, Montpellier and Grasse are the centers of perfumery. But the harsh and too wet climate of Montpellier does not allow to produce the necessary vegetable substances. Grasse will therefore become the only figurehead of perfume.
From leather to perfumes
The city of Grasse will be specialized in tanning for several centuries. Its leathers will then acquire a reputation of high quality with the European nobility. But despite this, the smell of leather remains highly unpleasant because craftsperson often use urine or excrement to tan the skins. To counter this problem, Grasse craftsman Molinard has the idea to create scented gloves using the flowers and aromatics of his environment. This new find is spreading out everywhere in the Court of France and Grasse becomes the new cradle of perfume art, dethroning Montpellier. This is the great era of Glovers-Perfumers, whom story is related here. The tanning industry goes downhill and perfumery frees itself from leather. Perfume becomes an independent activity from 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, 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.
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.
The cultivation of perfume plants
Between the beginning of the Southern Alps and the Mediterranean, the lands of Grasse are fertile. This soil is full of clay that allows it to keep cool and it is perfect to cultivate different 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 artisanal or industrial methods. To know in detail the various techniques of perfume manufacturing, you can read or detailed review here.
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.
A craft finally recognized
Since November 2018 and after ten years of procedure, UNESCO world heritage of humanity Committee recognized the craft of perfume in 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.
And to keep perpetuating the heritage of Grasse, Carrément Belle naturally turned to this Provencal rock to work alongside skilled noses and guarantee a manufacturing made in France. This allowed us, for more than 30 years, to offer to our fragrances the best selection of natural raw materials.
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