The Scents of a City
(Published in the Fargo-Moorhead Forum, January 1995)

By Ross Collins

Bump into the French Riviera at Cannes or Nice, then climb back into the sunny hills about 30 miles from the coast and you'll reach a medieval hamlet that survives by sense of smell. You've found Grasse, world capital of perfume. "World capital" may be a suspicious-sounding exaggeration to travellers used to hype, but for Grasse, it's not over-stating: some two dozen scent companies here manufacture the fragrances in most of the soaps, potpourri, talc, after shave, cologne and perfume sold in France, and elsewhere. Prefer Chanel? Obsession? Giorgio? Those famous fragrances and many other costly perfumes are actually made here. In fact, chances are good the label you're wearing right now was once a spice, herb, or Mediterranean flower distilled and blended in this rather obscure French city.

Fragrance industry in Grasse dates from at least the early Renaissance. As an important trading center, Grasse was known before Columbus as a producer of fine leather goods. In the 16th century Catherine of Medici established a fashion of perfumed gloves, and Grasse merchants cultivated the aromatic plants tanners needed to supply perfumed leather to aristocracy.

By the 1700s the leather industry grew apart from a separate perfume industry, and by the last century Grasse supplied all of Europe with fragrance often to cover up fowl smells of the day in the street and on seldom-washed skin.

Modern tourists can tour four perfumeries, the largest of which is Fragonard. Fragonard includes a museum of antique perfume bottles, art of the "toilette," and a perfume shop along with its English-speaking tour guides in a perfumery open since the 1700s. Like some grande dame, walls of the old building reek of perfume, and a walk through Grasse's twisted Old City is an opportunity to be surprised by a new scent at a new turn. Shops everywhere sell perfume and cologne, including numerous "house scents" created by the store owners.

Most of the scents that become famous are created in Grasse not by a seller himself, however, but by an artist of aroma. Called "the nose" in the industry, the creator sits at an "organ" of hundreds of bottles, testing, sniffing for just the right combination that will sell. At least 20 scents are mixed for a simple perfume--up to hundreds for the more complex. The nose is expected to recognize between 2,000 and 3,000 scents from memory.

The recipe goes to manufacturers who can produce an essence in a variety of ways. One of the oldest is "enfleurage." Like vegetable shortening left open takes on smells of the refrigerator, flower petals or herbs are flattened against beef and pork fat. The aromatic fat is then washed in ethyl alcohol to extract the fragrance.

Enfleurage is time-honored, but nearly obsolete, along with the even older method of distillation. Now in Grasse aromatic essence is usually extracted by steeping the raw material in a volatile solvent, or through "fractional distillation" allowing producers to actually isolate the chemical constituents of essential oils.

The amount of essential oil defines the fragrance: 20 percent essence for perfume, 5 percent for after shave, and somewhere in between for cologne or eau de toilette. The rest of the bottle is alcohol and water. How much raw material? Well, for instance, it takes about 650 pounds of rose petals to produce one pound of rose essence.

Along with tours of the factories, real fragrance fanatics can trace the world history of perfume in a three-story International Museum of Perfume, $3 but worth the fee. Most fascinating is a rooftop greenhouse displaying dozens of plants used in perfume, including unlikely possibilities such as basil, thyme, juniper berry and black pepper. Essences of these plants accompany the original--and you'd likely be surprised to find that essences of a plant we usually associate with food smell quite different from the seed or leaf. Black paper, for instance, is surprisingly mild in essence form.

Lastly, visitors can test their own nose knowledge by guessing scents, sniffed from narrow strips of paper. Think you have an informed nose? You'd be surprised at how hard it is to identify accurately even a dozen common scents, say nothing of hundreds.

Most guided tours are thankfully in English, but without a car or tour bus, Grasse itself is off the beaten tourist track. Best buy is local Bus 310 from Cannes or Nice, $5.50 one way. If you love getting a deal on famous perfume while enlarging your olfactory education, Grasse is scent-sation...okay, worth a visit.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>