For centuries, France has enchanted the rest of the world with its landscape, from lush green hills dappled with sunlight to the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean. The region of Provence and the Côte d’Azur famously even inspired an entire artistic movement to fall in love with it.
While the Impressionists, however, were entranced by its scenery and light, the region’s microclimate is crucial to satisfying another of the senses: that of smell. The picturesque Provençal town of Grasse, just north of Cannes, is revered as the fragrance capital of the world. Its combination of sun, warmth and mild winters not only creates an appealing climate but also works magic on the region’s flora, producing some of the most sought-after ingredients in perfumery.
‘The same plant can produce different scents depending on where and how it is grown,’ explains ethnobotanist Susanne Masters. ‘Grasse’s climate makes it ideal for cultivating a range of flowers with particularly aromatic properties. This is because winters are cool with little rainfall, so plants have enough water to survive without being damaged.’ Similarly, low rainfall in the summer months makes the climate ideal for harvesting flowers because rain can rinse off some of their scent, while Grasse’s position in the hills protects it from salty sea air and strong winds, and its high altitude means flowers smell fresher.
Despite all these natural advantages, Grasse did not set out to produce world-class ingredients for perfume. In the 12th century, the town was home to many of France’s leather tanneries and, while leather was functional and much in demand, its smell was far from desirable. By the early 1600s, local artisans decided to perfume the hides, taking advantage of the town’s geography to plant fields of orange blossom, tuberose, jasmine and roses, from which extractions were taken to fragrance the leather. It transpired that these extracts were of exceptional quality and, before long, Grasse had secured its fragrant reputation.
Centuries of experience in harvesting and processing the flowers have become just as relevant to Grasse’s success in perfumery as its clement weather. ‘The processing infrastructure that has developed over centuries in Grasse consistently transforms crops of flowers into high-quality extracts,’ explains Masters. Many flower farmers extract the essential oils of the freshly picked blooms on site to achieve the most intense scent.
In 1987, Chanel invested in a family-owned field in Pégomas, just outside Grasse. In this way, the house could guarantee the fresh, aromatic quality of the roses and jasmine required to make its Chanel No 5 perfume. Almost 30 years on, the roses are still harvested in May and jasmine in September, and both are processed on site using a combination of time-honoured Grasse techniques alongside the latest extraction and distillation technology. This means that Chanel has never had to compromise the integrity of the perfume’s formula, one 30ml bottle of which requires 1,000 Grasse-grown jasmine flowers and 12 May roses.
Perfume house Fragonard was founded in Grasse in 1926, and the brand combines production with keeping the town’s history alive. Run by the founder’s great-granddaughters Agnès and Françoise Costa, Fragonard produces fragrances and soaps from a dedicated factory in the town and also curates a perfume museum. ‘Fragonard is lucky to have settled in Grasse,’ says Agnès Costa. ‘The area has an exceptional microclimate, which ensures a very high standard in our fragrances.’
The orange blossom used in Fragonard’s Fleur d’Oranger scent, for instance, has a unique freshness that comes from the flowers particular to this region. The fragrance is Fragonard’s bestseller and the brand is issuing an Intense edition for its 90th anniversary this year. The house’s Belle de Nuit perfume contains extracts of locally grown violet, geranium and rose. The super-feminine scent has been so successful that Fragonard has recently reissued it.
The region’s flora is used by perfumers all over the world. For its Lavandula fragrance, luxury British brand Penhaligon’s will only source lavender from Grasse. ‘The lavender used in Lavandula has a particular quality that comes from the fact it is grown at a high altitude,’ explains chief executive officer Lance Patterson. ‘For this reason, we completely rely on Provence – the unique climate and location near the sea air and Alps means that the composition of the essential oil smells much fresher than other lavender extracts.’
Smelling is believing
Take it from someone who has stood in one of Grasse’s jasmine fields: the actual experience could never be summed up in words. The good news is, however, that you don’t need to travel to Grasse to sample its fragrant delights. As Masters describes, you can transport yourself there through one of the region’s intoxicating perfumes: ‘Dew-drenched roses at dawn, tendrils of jasmine unfolding in the evening — just lift the lid off a bottle, close your eyes and listen to what your nose is telling you.’