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G - 112 : Grasse - where liquid Luxury was born

One of the Rose fields around Grasse

About ten kilometers north of Cannes lies the old town of Grasse surrounded by hills which lead to the Alpes. It is a typical Provence town. Dry, hot and sunny summers, rainy and cold weeks in the winter months. There is nothing special about the town except the fields around it. Where others grow olives or wine, the farmers here grow flowers. Grasse is the town where modern perfume was invented. It is surrounded by 40 hectares of flower fields.

View on Grasse in early Fall - in the far distance at the back is the Mediterranean

Always wondered - why Grasse? It was an unremarkable spot during most of its history. If it was known for one thing, it was for its stinky tannery business. Making and dyeing leather covered the town with an off-putting smell. Nobody wanted to stay in Grasse. Seems quite unlikely that such a place would become a fragrance paradise – almost like divine intervention. Except that it was not.

One of the oldest French Perfume Housers, Galimard, still keeps a laboratory in Grasse

Perfume was not invented in Grasse. Its roots go back to ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt or the Indus Valley civilization. We will never know. Perfume popped up in all three places at around the same time. No wonder since smell is our most emotional sense. Humans can distinguish the staggering amount of 1 trillion different smells. Our nose and olfactory system guided us through our evolutionary history over millions of years. Smell signals have direct access to our ancient, emotional part of the brain. Smells trigger long forgotten memories and always played a big role in religion. The Catholic Church still burns myrrh and frankincense during mass.

Lavender Oil is still extracted the old way today - Lavender Oil makes about 2% of Volume

The word for perfume is rooted in Latin. The Italian “profumo” (smell) still keeps the original meaning. Perfumes were widely used in the Persian Empire, ancient Greece and Rome but when the Roman Empire vanished in 476 AD, it got forgotten. Perfumes disappeared from people’s priority list when there was no food and cities had to be abandoned. But even before, the collapse of perfume’s long supply line had killed the production.

Distillation Instructions from an old Arab Text Book

In the world of the Caliphs of Bagdad though, perfume survived and developed further. The process of making perfume was richly documented in the 9th century by the Arab chemist and philosopher Al-Kindi who dedicated an entire book to it: his “Book of Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations”. Via Sicily and Andalusia, the book made its way to Europe and was translated by monks. By the 16th century, Catharina di Medici, Florentine princess and wife of one and mother of two French Kings, had her own perfumer: René de Florentine. Perfume was made on small scale though and extremely expensive. During Catherina's reign, Grasse was still a smelly tannery place.

The Arab Philosopher and Scientis Al-Kindi who lived

in the 9th Century is the Arabian Leonardo Da Vinci

But the 17th century changed everything. Louis XIV forced his nobles to live in Versailles to prevent a rebellion as in England where nobles under Oliver Cromwell ganged-up against King Charles I and decapitated him. Louis XIV was decisive – this would not happen to him. In Versailles, his dukes and lords were under close control. But thousands of nobles in one castle created a unique problem: unbearable stench of body odour. The rich and famous bathed once a week - maybe – and if they could afford it, they used goat milk with rose petals. Difficult to get rid of your body odour this way. Something needed to be done. The first idea was to make everybody wear perfumed gloves, then perfumed clothes, then perfumed wigs. But it was not enough. Liquids were required which could be applied on the naked skin, behind the ears, on the wrist and behind the knee.

Perfume Bottles allowed the Owners to carry their Freshness in their pockets (18th Cent.)

With demand in place, many regions in pre-modern Europe - Calabria and Sicily - launched a perfume business. But Grasse had a few advantages which it used fully:

  • You need fire wood to boil water. With many forests nearby, there was plenty. Tannery already required a lot of wood. It was a simple switch

  • Distillation also requires a lot of water. Thanks to ample winter rains, there was plenty in Grasse. It was also needed for tannery. Again, people just repurposed it.

  • You need distillation equipment – the Provence was rich in copper and could make its own equipment. Only centuries later did glass replace the old distillation tools.

  • Without alcohol it is impossible to preserve the large quantities of floral essences extracted. Luckily, with so many vineyards in the vicinity, this was no problem either. Distillation of alcohol was a century old tradition. With three or four distillation cycles one gets pretty pure alcohol

Old Distillation Equipment is now exhibited in the Museum Galimard in Grasse

  • The soil in Provence was perfect for planting lavender, roses and marguerites, to name just a few. What easier than remove the wines and olives and plant flowers?

  • A skilled labor force was needed to handle large cauldrons and produce the volume of essence needed to meet demand. Grasse had tanners who knew how to do this.

  • People in Grasse also had access to a trade network which could supply ingredients like musk and civet and distribute the final product. “Liquid luxury” was expensive. The merchants from Genoa and Marseille handled the payments.

  • Last but not least, Louis XIV was a mercantilist who prioritised French production. Perfumes from the Spanish territories Sicily and Calabria could not be imported.

Grasse was the right place at the right time. Within a few years, making perfumes completely replaced the smelly tannery business. Up to 600 tons of flowers were processed every year. The town exchanged stinky smells for floral whiffs.

Chanel's Flower Fields in Grasse

Of course, the story reads different in official history books. We hear about epiphanies of local farmers, the ingenuity of early distillers, Louis XIV’s love of perfume, ancient stories from the Middle East. Most is actually true, but only part of the story. Right time - right place is more accurate. We are going to visit Grasse, the fields and the wonderful museums when the boat docks in Cannes. We cannot miss the place where liquid luxury was reborn.

Thanks to its History, Grasse attracts today many Visitors who come for the Flower Fields

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