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NYT Syndicate
Before I became a perfume devotee a dozen years ago, my lexicon for describing scent was limited to words like"woodsy" or"flowery." Later I found myself craving the dexterity of language that could match the increasingly complex perfumes arriving at my house in tiny decanted samples.
At the time, perfume blogs and a few books were lifting the veil off a closely guarded industry. I had fallen in love not only with perfume but also with the deft and curious descriptions of fragrance at the hands of gifted perfume critics, namely Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez who together wrote the vastly entertaining Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. I felt as if I had discovered two new strains of art ” not to mention the most underrated of the five senses.
More recently, I decided to take a deeper look into the fragrance industry and knew there was no better place to do this than Grasse, France, a medieval town in southern Provence known as the perfume capital of the world. In this medieval town and its environs, which are sufficiently inland to be sheltered from the sea air, a confluence of soil, sun and temperature nurtured the rose, jasmine, lavender, myrtle, wild mimosa and other flowers that were the genesis of the French perfume industry in the 17th century. Grasse is especially known for its fragrant May rose, the pale pink flower that blooms in May, and jasmine. Both flowers are at the heart of more than a few famous fragrances, including Chanel's breathtaking star, No 5.
The short version of Grasse's place in the history of perfume is one that begins with a foul odour. In medieval times, the town had a thriving leather business, but the tanning process made for pungent merchandise that didn't sit well with the gloved nobility. A Grasse tanner presented a pair of scented leather gloves to Catherine de Medici, the queen of France from 1547 until 1559, and an industry was born.
To this day, in and around Grasse, Dior, Herm'e8s and Chanel all grow May roses and jasmine in protected flower fields. Every year the town exuberantly celebrates both of these fragrant blossoms with two festivals.
Travelling alone and possessing only a rudimentary understanding of French, I set off for Grasse a few months ago, flying from Nashville, Tennessee, to New York and on to Paris.
I crashed at a functional Paris hotel, submitted myself to a pastry crawl through the hotel's neighbourhood and then grabbed a cab to Gare de Lyon, one of the busiest train stations in Europe. Five hours later got a glimpse of yachts preening in Cannes harbour for the town's annual film festival. I boarded a local bus and headed up the hills to Grasse.
On the way, I noticed the ubiquitous signs pointing the way to the three big historic perfumeries in Grasse that offer tours, perfume workshops and fragrance products: Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard.
Grasse is also home to the prestigious Grasse Institute of Perfumery, which offers a number of levels of perfume-making instruction, including a nine-month immersion experience that accepts only 12 students a year.
The following morning I roamed through the city's winding cobblestone streets to get a taste of Old Grasse. In the temperate spring air, small colourful cafes, brasseries and shops blended with russet-hued villas that were embellished with every colour in the Proven?§al palette. Gift shops selling pastel soaps, sachets and, of course, perfume lured window shoppers eager to pay for what Grasse does best: make things that smell good.
I made my way to Notre-Dame du Puy Grasse Cathedral. Once a simple church, it became Grasse's cathedral in 1244. The church's Romanesque design is modest in contrast to the highly decorative styles that came later. Inside, the cathedral is brooding and sombre, more Dark Ages than medieval. It is home to three paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and one by Jean-Honor` Fragonard, Grasse's most famous artist and the namesake of one of the big fragrance houses, which was a relatively short hike from the church.
I reached Fragonard's multilevel ocher building ” a parfait of shop, museum and working perfumery ” and stood outside to catch my breath after the circuitous trek from the church. The building dates to 1782, although the perfumery was opened and named after the Grasse painter in 1926. While waiting for the next English-speaking tour, I wandered around Fragonard's unpretentious perfume museum and was reminded that although the origins of perfume stretch back to ancient civilisation, France transformed its humble use into a luxury industry in the 18th century. When Louis XV was monarch from 1715 to 1774, he became known for his love of fragrance, and his court was celebrated as la cour parfum`e ('the perfumed court').
Finally, a small group of us gathered to start the tour, led by our young raconteur, Jessica.
We strolled through rooms with massive stainless steel vats, and others with staff members who were used to the intrusion. Jessica explained that after the jasmine, orange blossom, lavender and other flowers are scheduled to be picked, the blossoms are placed on trays in the upper part of a still over water that is brought to a boil. As the steam rises, it captures the scent-bearing components and carries them into a glass cooler where the mixture of water and essential oils is then collected.
"We need 3 tonnes of flowers to get one litre of oil," Jessica told us.
The following morning, I drove to the Mus`e International de la Parfumerie (International Perfume Museum), in the heart of the old city. It traces 3,000 years of perfume history, from ancient Greece through modernity, with artifacts, videos, olfactory installations and explanatory panels.
The museum's plant conservatory is roughly 5 miles southwest of Grasse on the edge of the village of Mouans-Sartoux. At nearly 5 acres, the gardens complement the museum's mission by giving visitors a chance to smell and touch many of the botanical ingredients involved in perfumery.
The next morning at Caf` des Mus`es, a contemporary cafe near Fragonard, I met with Jessica Buchanan. I had found Buchanan's boutique perfume line, 1000 Flowers, online last year. When I discovered that she lived in Grasse, I reached out.
Buchanan offers personalised perfume creation and consulting services as well as her own fragrances. In 2007, she sold her house in western Canada to study at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery.
At one time, she said, there were many small perfumers in Grasse, but their number had dwindled over the years, although they were slowly coming back. Buchanan, who is preparing to open a boutique this fall in the old section of the town, said that growers and perfumers here consider themselves a family.
"There are quite a lot of perfumers here, and then there are the big rock-star perfumers associated with the big brands, but we are all part of this community," Buchanan said."There are perfumers you would never know who work in the big companies and who work on functional products. Their work is just as important as that of big-name perfumers; it's just different."
Buchanan volunteers with the Association du Patrimoine Vivant du Pays de Grasse (Living Heritage of the Region of Grasse), the nonprofit organisation that is presenting the application for Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. While I was there, she, among a number of other industry players, met with Unesco ambassadors from various countries to help them determine the scale and scope of Grasse's perfume industry. The association expects a response from Unesco next year.
After Buchanan and I said goodbye, I set out for Molinard, one of the most beautiful old perfumeries in Grasse. It was established in 1849, when the company produced and sold floral waters in a small shop in Grasse's centre. Like Fragonard and Galimard, Molinard offers free tours in a number of languages, as well as individual and group workshops.
I peeked around a corner at a perfume workshop and realised I was a day away from my own. I knew I wanted to have my own fragrance blended while in Grasse. I had chosen Galimard, the oldest perfumery in Grasse and certainly one of the oldest perfumeries in the world. It dates to 1747 when Jean de Galimard supplied the French court with olive oils, pomades and perfumes. Bespoke fragrances involve a considerable amount of time and deliberation, so realistically, I understood I wasn't going to get something spectacular with zero skills; I just wanted to have some fun.
Our small group was seated at individual"perfume organs" ” half circles of small bottles of essential oils and an empty 100-millilitre glass beaker. I felt a twinge of acute uncertainty. I knew what I liked but had no idea what fusion of chemicals would deliver it. One day I adore a coy floral, the next day something that is hedonic and overt.
Our chic facilitator, Manon, explained the functions of the top note, the heart note (the dominant character) and the base note, the three stages of a perfume's scent across time. With a little guidance, she helped us establish a rough estimate of what we desired. Beside me, twin girls were fulfilling a birthday wish.
Direction was offered during the measuring, testing and smelling. Manon kept an eye out for potential epic fails that occur when using too much of this or that. Two hours later, after I made what seemed like life-threatening decisions, 'Lark' was born, and it was far better than I had any right to imagine, at once light and dark (a few of the notes included lotus, bergamot, bois de santal, gardenia, bamboo and sandalwood).
"Very feminine!" Manon said to me after she dipped a white fragrance strip in my new perfume.

(Cover photo: May rose, an ingredient in the iconic Chanel No 5, grow in Grasse, France and a Vintage bottle of perfume.)
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