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Inside Grasse's perfume industry

The hilltop town of Grasse has been known as the world’s perfume capital since the 17th century. But with the rise of synthetic oils and cheaper scents from abroad, how has it stayed ahead of the game?

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Photos by Rebecca Marshall

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    The old Fragonard perfume factory, now open to visitors in the centre of Grasse

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Legendary Hermès nose Jean-Claude Ellena, considered by many to be the world’s leading perfumer

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Emilie Lavergne Lacroix, a student at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Grasse has a sunny and humid microclimate that makes it ideal for growing flowers

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Boulevard Fragonard: even the streets are named after perfumers

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Labelled jars of essential oil ingredients at the old Galimard perfume factory

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    In the lab at La Maison Galimard, another of Grasse’s old perfumeries

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry
  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Major industry figure Han-Paul Bodifée outside the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, which offers apprenticeships to budding noses

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    La Place aux Aires, in Grasse’s quaint old town, is close to a large number of boutique perfume shops

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Iris flowers being grown for perfume production outside Grasse

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    Guo Siliang teaches visitors to mix their own perfumes at Galimard’s Le Studio des Fragrances; galimard.com

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    The Robertet factory on the outskirts of Grasse: the huge company plays up its expertise in natural ingredients

  • Inside Grasse's perfume industry

    A worker fills a bottle with Journal Intime eau de toilette at the Galimard perfume factory and visitor centre

Text by Toby Skinner

Grasse leaves you in little doubt that it’s the perfume capital of the world. On the 35km drive inland from Nice, huge signs point you to Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard, the old perfumeries that continue to draw one million people a year for their organised tours, during which visitors get spritzed with scents they’ll hopefully buy. In the pretty old town itself, which is packed with boutique perfumers, they pump wafts of jasmine or mimosa into the streets, just in case you missed out on a tour.

But Grasse – whose citizens were induced into a giant orgy by the perfect scent in Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume – is about more than history and tourist dollars, more even than just perfume. There are more than 60 active fragrance companies in the town, including giant world-leaders such as Robertet, IFF and Firmenich, the little-known creators of some of the world’s most famous smells. These companies employ more than 13,500 people, directly or indirectly, and make up more than half of the French fragrance industry, with annual revenues of more than €600 million (NOK4.6bn). The output, however, is not limited to perfumes, and Grasse’s laboratories are just as likely to be creating the perfect scent for a detergent or a particular brand of yoghurt, with food flavouring making up half of the fragrance industry here.

In some ways, it’s surprising that Grasse remains at the epicentre of the scent world. The fields of rose, jasmine, tuberose and mimosa that annually blanket the hills around the town are no longer the precious resource they once were, when back in the 17th century the town’s leather and glovemakers started creating scents to overcome the foul odours of the tanning process. The rise of synthetic production in the 20th century democratised perfume and completely changed the industry. Chanel No 5, famously the only thing Marilyn Monroe wore in bed, was the first scent to be dominated by synthetic smells when it launched in 1921, a trend that exploded after World War II. More recently, global economics has also played its part – 1kg of roses from Grasse today costs 10 times as much as the equivalent from Bulgaria, which has helped contribute to flower production in Grasse falling from around 5,000 tonnes a year in the 1940s to less than 30 tonnes today.

So why does the town’s fragrance industry continue to thrive? “Because it has adapted,” says Han-Paul Bodifée, a major industry figure who is president of the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and the PASS fragrance research cluster, and was until last year the president of the French Fragrance Producers Association. “Fifty years ago, most perfumers in Grasse were producing ingredients as their main source of income. Today, it’s a predominantly creative industry. You can import essential oils from India, Egypt or South America, but what can’t be imported is the know-how that’s here. [Grasse] is like the Silicon Valley of perfume.”

If Grasse is a Silicon Valley of scent, then its king geeks are the “noses”, the master perfumers who decipher, define and develop fragrance compositions. Legendary nose Jean-Claude Ellena, creator of Un Jardin sur le Nil for Hermès, was born here – and Hermès still has its own rose and jasmine fields around the town, just as Chanel does. François Demachy, formerly of Chanel and now with Dior, has lived here most of his life. Noses are one of the town’s greatest assets, so it’s no surprise they’re also carefully nurtured here. The Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP), in an elegant Provençal townhouse on the edge of town, was formed in 2002 to teach the art of creative perfume-making (see Case Study #1). The only course of its kind in the world, it takes just 10-12 students at a time and over 14 months tutors them in everything from scent recognition to perfume marketing. “It’s like a traditional apprenticeship, with masters handing down their knowledge,” says Bodifée, its founder and president.

Meanwhile, Grasse is also feeling the benefit of the global organic movement, in which all things natural – from foods through fabrics to fuels – are favoured over the synthetic. And even if it’s not producing ingredients like it once was, it’s still the case that nowhere says “natural perfumes” like Grasse. “In terms of the big perfume companies’ marketing approach, it’s all ‘natural, natural, natural,’” says Bodifée. “And if you want to go natural, you want to be associated with Grasse.”

American market leaders IFF (Daisy by Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue) and Swiss number one Firmenich (Lancôme Trésor, Ralph Lauren Polo Blue) have opened offices in Grasse since 2000 to work on the production and extraction of natural ingredients. “You’ve got big companies that were built on synthetics now trying to get into natural fragrances,” says Bodifée. “They’re coming to Grasse for both the know-how and what it represents, while companies which left when natural ingredients were less fashionable probably now regret it.” Robertet, which has been in Grasse since 1850 and is now France’s second biggest fragrance company, is emphasising its motto – “Natural, always natural”.

The trend has helped spark a renaissance for Grasse’s small-scale flower producers. One of the groups in the new movement is Fleurs d’Exception du Pays de Grasse, a collective of local organic flower producers that formed in 2008. They now produce around 16 hectares of perfume plants, from jasmine and iris to tuberose, which go directly to the big companies. Dior has committed to buying up all the rose and jasmine crops produced by Carole Biancalana, who co-founded Fleurs d’Exception, while another Fleurs member, Sébastien Rodriguez, is supplying IFF.

“It’s a logical step to go organic,” says Fleurs d’Exception spokesperson Sarah Bensadoun. “This is something you put on your skin; people want to know that it’s natural.”

Perversely, as Grasse reaffirms its role as the world centre of the perfume industry based it on its natural attributes, recent European Union legislation has sought to ban such ingredients because they can, in some cases, cause allergies. A proposal last year suggested outlawing the use of jasmine and oakmoss – the latter a crucial element of Chanel No 5. Han-Paul Bodifée shrugs off the challenge: “The industry has been fighting the corner of natural ingredients and I think we’ll win out. Ultimately, it’s what people want.”

Either way, expect Grasse to do what it’s been doing for the past 400 years – staying ahead of the game.
Click here to meet some of Grasse’s perfume players


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