Between Paris and perfume, it’s a love story that has been going on for a very long time! But why is the City of Light so closely linked to the history of perfumery? Is there a smell that can define the city by itself? As a symbol of an art of living between luxury and elegance, Paris has been forging olfactory trends for centuries. Embark on a Parisian escape to discover this heritage rich in scents.
From Grasse to Paris, Perfume made in France
From a historical point of view, Grasse is often considered the capital of perfumery. And rightly so, because this city located in the south of France is home to a unique and artisanal know-how. Since the time of the glovers-perfumers, Grasse is still and always a reference in the cultivation of perfume plants and the creation of precious essences. But the French capital is also intimately linked to the history of perfume. Indeed, for many centuries, it has seen the arrival of great master-perfumers who have participated in the cultural and olfactory influence of France.
It is as early as the 18th century that these masters in the making of compositions settled in Paris. They were notably found on the Parisian bridges. It is moreover in a building built on the Pont au Change that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the hero of Patrick Süskind’s novel, The Perfume, became an apprentice to the master-perfumer Giuseppe Baldini. Halfway between perfumery and pharmacy, these craftsmen developed in their shops new ways of extracting odors from raw materials through distillation. At the time in Grasse, the ancestral technique of enfleurage was used. Paris and the Perfume industry then began to forge very strong links.
Paris and Perfume: a story full of twists and turns
When Paris didn’t smell good…
In the middle of the 17th century, Paris does not really look like the refined and elegant image of today. And we can even say that the city is far from smelling the cleanliness! Elisabeth de Feydeau, historian of perfume, even says that it was nicknamed “the muddy city”. The streets are narrow and very dirty, like real open-air trenches. Until the middle of the following century, the sewers are almost non-existent. Each house then dumped its waste in front of its door.
To enjoy more pleasant smells, you have to enter the houses. The contrast with the outside is striking: the perfume is still as powerful, but its nature is quite different. Laurel, lavender, spices and other aromatics fill the interiors with fragrance. They are burned, sprayed, rubbed on all surfaces to clean the air of possible miasmas. These ingredients are also used to wash the bodies that were not used to being in many bathrooms! The potpourri blooms on all the consoles of Parisian homes, the height of chic and refinement.
The wealthiest Parisian women have the luxury of wrapping themselves in floral essences created around rose, iris or orange blossom. They then abandon the animal scents of castoreum, musk and civet. The nobility obtained from master-perfumers bottles of spirits of wine, the ancestor of eau de Cologne, as well as small sachets filled with dried plants to be placed everywhere in the clothes.
A perfume of seduction in the streets of Paris
It was not until the second half of the 19th century that the face of Paris changed completely, thanks in particular to the work of Baron Haussmann. After the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, there was a desire to clean up and brighten this urban landscape. The sewerage system installed in 1850 will participate in this renewal.
Slowly, the noses become clearer and new scents are expressed. A woody and sensual scent makes its way on the Boulevard des Italiens in particular, where cashmere shawls from far away are sold. Wrapped in patchouli leaves to ward off moths, these fabrics exhale an irresistible smell. And this scent will not be long in conquering the whole Paris. Patchouli will become the seductive asset of the courtesans who find a great sensuality in it. The woody notes of these women with light morals will rub shoulders with the more floral and chaste essences of the wives of the bourgeoisie who buy their eaux de toilette in these new fashionable department stores, at Bon Marché or La Samaritaine. For this population, perfume thus became a daily consumer product.
At the beginning of the 1900s, modern perfumery was booming, synonymous with an industry in its own right. But the arrival of the First World War quickly dampened the impetus of Parisians who had many other concerns than perfume. During this period when men were absent, it was the women who took over. Thus, new female icons, far from the stereotypes known until then, make their appearance. Gabrielle Chanel or Jeanne Lanvin will revolutionize the world of fashion and perfumery with unusual silhouettes and scents. Parisian women are the reflection of these new models. They dress in an androgynous style, smoke a lot and perfume themselves with essences which smell leather or tobacco.
Paris in turmoil: from post-war to May 68
At the end of the 40’s and after a new conflict that turned the world upside down, it was the couturiers who perfumed Paris and Parisian women. On the avenue Montaigne they sewed as they made perfume. A new tone is set, that of the New-Look by Christian Dior, feminine and curved silhouettes, combining elegance with modernity. Paris acquired the status of fashion capital, revealing a very special art of living to the world. This French style will also pass through even more elegant and refined wakes, made famous by major fashion houses.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that the codes began to change again. Young Parisian students rose up against the Vietnam War, burned their bras in the streets and set off in search of new spiritual models. Patchouli makes its big comeback and is very concentrated, almost overdosed. It then becomes the emblem of this new generation.
Paris, between tradition and daring
Since May 68, trends have continued to evolve but Paris remains firmly rooted in the history of perfumery. Today, the capital reflects these changes, between tradition and modernity. The major fashion and perfume houses share the most beautiful squares and avenues. But Paris is also the cradle of niche perfumery. Following in the footsteps of the master perfumers of yesteryear, certain niche brands are developing their creative workshops in the heart of the capital. These more confidential fragrances have thus found their place in the City of Light, by taking over the rue Saint-Honoré or the narrow streets of the Marais. Enough to stroll with your nose wide open…
In short, between Paris and Perfume, it is a true French love story that is not about to end!
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