Grasse, City of Art and History and Flowered City
Grasse is located in the department of Alpes Maritimes not far from Cannes.
It is considered the world capital of perfume.
It also boasts a beautiful architectural heritage that earned it the label City of Art and History.
Strolling along its winding lanes, the visitor discovers the 11th century Provencal-Romanesque Notre-Dame du Puy Cathedral, the Tour Sarrasine, a 30m high square medieval tower, and the vestiges of the ramparts built in the 16th century.
Medieval houses with arcades and private mansions built in the 17th and 18th centuries illustrate the rise of new bourgeoisie.
This new social class indeed made its fortune when Grasse perfume industry was at its beginnings.
From that prestigious era remains also the former Episcopal palace.
It now houses the town hall.
Perfume means flowers, so Grasse was also granted the label of Ville Fleurie – Flowered City.
Jasmine is one of the main flowers used in perfume making.
Grasse is very proud of its Jasmine Festival or Jasminade, which has been held every August since 1946.
Why is Grasse the world capital of perfume?
The origins of Grasse perfume production dates ‘only’ from the 17th century.
The city was indeed specialized in leather tanning during the Middle Ages.
It exported most of the production to Genoa and Pisa, two Italian cities with which the city had trade agreements.
Grasse was then a well trusted name for the high quality of its leathers.
Methods then used for tanning leather used to be very ‘natural’, however, quite foul and repugnant it must be said!
It is common knowledge that urine was traditionally used for tanning leather, because of the ammonia it produces.
However, what is less known is that the tanners of Grasse also used animal and sometimes human feces when necessary!
They produced quality leather, however, rather ‘smelly’ leather!
Grasse was not only specialized in leather tanning, but also in the manufacture of leather gloves!
The French aristocraty discovered new accessories such as handbags, belts and leather gloves!
The leather gloves fashion spread like wildfire.
However, the gloves’ ‘unworthy’ odour was not really to the taste of anybody really!
Something had to be done!
A tanner from Grasse had the brilliant idea to produce leather gloves perfumed with rose water in order to mask the ‘unwanted smell’.
He was even more inspired, when he offered a pair of these perfumed gloves to Catherine de Medici… who adopted them on the spot!
Galimard, that was his name, became the official supplier to the Royal Court!
But most importantly, this triggered the beginnings of Grasse prestigious perfume industry!
The ‘Tanners-Perfumers of Grasse’ not only started to produce perfumed gloves, but also developed a wider array of perfumes.
Thus appeared gloves perfumed with frangipani and various traditional Provencal flowers fragrances.
The city’s thriving glove-making industry began, however, to suffer in the following century, when taxes on leather were increased.
The ‘Tanners-Perfumers’ therefore abandoned leather tanning in order to specialize in the production of perfume.
The Art of Perfume in Grasse
The mild and sunny micro climate of the region of Grasse is ideal for growing flowers.
Grasse legendary houses of perfume, Gallimard, Fragonard and Molinard were funded during the 19th century.
They catered for a wealthy American clientele, eager for authentic French products.
These prestigious institutions founded trading posts in various parts of the world in order to import raw materials.
These included saffron, sandalwood and vanilla, which were then refined in the workshops of Grasse.
They also planted mimosa, myrtle, orange blossom and of course lavender in order to offer a wider range of fragrances.
A unique art of growing and harvesting was developed over the decades in order to ensure the quality of the perfumes of Grasse.
The flowers were harvested by hand at dawn, when their fragrance is at its best.
They were then immediately treated by cold enfleurage.
Harvesting and processing techniques have since been in constant evolution in order to produce unique fragrances that have earned Grasse the undisputed title of world capital of perfume.
That said, the perfume industry has considerably evolved and been diversified since the 1970s.
Grasse perfume industry today
Traditional methods disappeared at the same time, as most perfumes started to be produced from aromas of synthesis.
This turning time in the industry has therefore seen many family-run businesses bought out by international groups.
Those that remained evolved by adapting to this production, as well as to that of food flavorings.
It is now quite challenging for small family businesses to compete with large groups.
It, however, appears that the demand for authentic and traditional products is constantly increasing.
There are today about sixty perfume companies in Grasse.
Grasse perfume industry represents half of the production of perfumes and food flavors in France, and nearly 10% of the world production of perfumes!
The prestigious perfume museums in Grasse attract two million tourists worldwide each year.
The Parfumerie Galimard (Official site), the 3rd oldest perfumery in Europe, was founded in 1747 by Jean de Galimard; it became the official supplier to the Court of France.
The Parfumerie Molinard (Official site) was founded in 1849 and has remained in the same family for 5 generations.
The Parfumerie Fragonard (Official Site) was founded in 1782.
These three factory-museums offer free guided tours.
Finally, if you want to discover more about perfume, you can visit the International Museum of Perfume (Official site) that was opened in 1989.
Coordinates and map: Lat 43.660153 – Long 6.926492