Making Scents of It All in France’s Perfume Country

A traveler journeys to the heart of Grasse, where jasmine grows and memories linger.

Making Scents of It All in France’s Perfume Country

Grasse’s flowers have provided the base of the world’s most famous scents, from Chanel No. 5 to A La Nuit.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

I was hoping Grasse would smell like my first love. As the center of the world’s perfume industry for 300 years, this place has devoted itself to the alchemy of memory, so I was sure that some magic would carry the scent of rain and arctic blueberries and baby powder directly to my nose. But no, these sun-baked farms and thin trees in southern France, just inland and a few miles uphill from Cannes and Nice, smell nothing like that. To be fair, there is a trace of second love—orange blossoms in winter—in the air. Though in the cobblestone streets, in the window boxes of narrow buildings shaded in colors that must have come from the last gasp of a watercolor tin, the scent is more a suggestion than something sure, like the smudge I see on the horizon, where land ends and the Mediterranean begins.

I’ve come to Grasse—which is both a town and a region, the Pays de Grasse—not because I have any great interest in perfume (I’ve never bought a bottle of the stuff in my life) but because I know the power of scent. Of the five senses, smell is the strongest memory trigger, the one that takes you back to love, to walking into a desert temple, to a fine dinner, or even to the burning ozone of a Japanese train on a winter night. Scent is the filing system of our lives. It allows us to place who and what and where we are in the world.

Jasmine fields have always been the heart of Grasse. The flowers have provided the base of the rarest and most famous scents in the world, from Chanel No. 5 to A La Nuit. They are the base of a million dreams and romantic nights. And they are almost gone. Where once there were farms, now there are new houses and apartments; and Grasse, once the principal supplier of jasmine, now competes with Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, where it’s grown at a fraction of the price.

But it doesn’t smell the same. Through perfume, Grasse jasmine has wrapped itself around centuries’ worth of memories. And I’m here with a question: If Grasse’s jasmine goes, what else do we lose?

Jasmine, a key ingredient of many perfumes, was brought to southern France by the Moors in the 16th century.

Jasmine, a key ingredient of many perfumes, was brought to southern France by the Moors in the 16th century.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

Jasmine blooms here in August, as if it has no idea that spring matters, opening long after all the other flowers have gone to seed. Not so many years ago, jasmine would have carpeted the hillsides—in 1975, about 500 farms grew the white blossoms. Now, 12 do. And I can only find one farmer, Constant Vial, who will allow me on his land; many of the others have exclusive contracts with perfume companies and won’t even let me in the driveway. His farm, only a few minutes outside town, smells like dirt and a hint of tuberose from a nearby patch, faded past blooming yet still with a grandmothery air. “It takes 800 kilograms of jasmine flowers to make one kilogram of absolu,” Vial says. Ten thousand or so jasmine flowers weigh a kilogram. That means 8 million flowers are needed for a single kilo of perfume base. No way are there 8 million flowers in this field, which is maybe 30 rows wide, 40 yards long. This isn’t a farm, I think, it’s a really expensive hobby devoted to keeping the past alive. Like running a steam train.

But after I spend some time walking the land with Vial, I realize it’s actually a love affair. Vial is an evangelist for Grasse jasmine, which, he says, “has a quality all its own. It produces a scent that matches the scent in the field.” I stand in the middle of the jasmine rows and close my eyes. After two or three deep breaths, I get the most delicate hit of jasmine flower, like a room your lover walked through a half-hour ago. Faint, but unmistakable, the scent—shaken loose from the flowers, sweet, like sunset light—becomes part of me.

“This is a piece of innocence,” Vial says. “This is beauty in its purest state.”

Around us, in the early morning cool, women pick the flowers one by one, using a specific motion of wrist and fingers so as not to damage the bloom. Thousands of times, all before the sun burns the scent out of the blossoms.

On his flower farm near town, Constant Vial is one of the last remaining growers of jasmine.

On his flower farm near town, Constant Vial is one of the last remaining growers of jasmine.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

Until about 300 years ago, Grasse was famous not for perfume but for its tanneries. Perfume came along as a way of hiding the scent of all those skins. A local saying goes, “Plant a stick in the evening, you’ll find a rose in the morning,” and it didn’t take long for the whole area to be turned over to flowers. Today, the town’s courtyards origami into squares that serve as battlegrounds for competing scents. Perfume boutiques and soap stores pump out odors like dueling snake charmers trying to unknot their cobras. It’s too much. I decide to get farther out of town.

It takes an hour to drive 10 miles, the map showing no sign of how the landscape twists on itself like a Möbius strip through gorges where topless women sunbathe by rushing streams. At last the road begins to rise, so by the time I hit Gourdon—ridiculously scenic, like the set for a cliché medieval film, the village center all 13th-century gray stone and battlements stacked on top of one another in a space not much bigger than a convenience store parking lot—the air is fresh, pure, and 15 degrees cooler than it was on the valley floor.

And on Gourdon’s Rue Principale stands Madame Roux’s shop, La Source Parfumée. I fall in love with Madame Chantal Roux at first sight. A third-generation parfumeuse who married into a family that’s been making perfume since the moment of realization that working in a tannery sucked, Madame Roux lives for scent. And for her, the scent of Grasse jasmine is the center of the world.

Faint, but unmistakable, the scent—shaken loose from the flowers, sweet, like sunset light—becomes part of me.

“The first time you meet someone,” she says, “you think, ‘You smell nice,’ and the perfume is that memory.”

She wants to make new memories for me. “What kind of perfume does your woman like?” she asks, standing amid thousands of glittering bottles in her shop.

Dark. Deep. Woody.

I could burn out my nose smelling bottle after bottle, trying to find just the right thing, and the odds are, I would fail. Madame Roux, though, hesitates only a moment, reaches to the shelf, and sprays a sample on a paper strip.

Gorgeous. But something is missing. “Woodier,” I say.

She looks at me. “Is your woman…”—at which point her English fails—“blonde et blanche?” Blonde and pale.

Um, yes. To say the least.

A hilltop view of Grasse, France, which was once known for its leather products.

A hilltop view of Grasse, France, which was once known for its leather products.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

She takes a second bottle. Utter perfection: deep, woody, and like a flash of lightning on a pitch-black night, a touch of lingering jasmine.

“Perfume,” Madame Roux says, “is made with the heart, not with the head.”

And now that she has settled things for my blonde, pale woman, pulling exactly the right rabbit out of a magic hat stuffed full of them, it’s time to find something for me.

“This one,” she says, selecting a bottle, “will smell perfect on him.”

She sprays it on a short, dark man standing nearby, and his girlfriend’s eyes light up to the point that we have to worry about them hitting the floor and ripping off each other’s clothes. “But it will smell terrible on you.” She sprays some on my arm. I take one whiff and run to the sink to get the horrible stench off me.

Madame Roux reaches to the shelves once more. “This is for you,” she says, not the slightest question in her voice. The smell is citrus and cinnamon, and somehow, here, the jasmine carries the essence of fresh sheets tousled in an expensive hotel. And it seems as natural a part of my skin as my freckles.

Much later, at home, my blonde, pale woman inhales deeply and says, “You can wear that any time we’re together.”

The parfumeurs I talk to are split pretty evenly about how to apply a fragrance. Half say spray some in the air and walk through it. Half say put it only on your clothes. Here, the French custom of wearing scarves is perfect; a good scent can linger on a scarf so long that you can forget the world holds other scents, since you’re wrapped in everything you ever need.

It seems to me that the clothes partisans see scent as a science. They’ve spent months perfecting a perfume, and they don’t want your body chemistry to mess with it. The other side stands for pure art: The way your body chemistry changes the scent and makes it yours alone, they believe, is the very reason for the perfume.

Antique bottles at the Musée International de la Parfumerie in Grasse represent the city's long tradition of perfume making.

Antique bottles at the Musée International de la Parfumerie in Grasse represent the city’s long tradition of perfume making.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

To better understand that art/science divide, I take two perfume-making classes while I’m in Grasse. In the Fragonard factory, at the edge of downtown, I’m led into a laboratory to learn the art approach to creating perfume. Under the guidance of teacher Corinne Marie-Tosello, we start by selecting the top notes, what you smell right when the perfume goes on. These first impressions burn off after 10 or 15 minutes, and they’re as confused as the way I drove into Grasse, making countless wrong turns on the narrow roads. At this stage of the perfume, you’ve arrived in a new place and don’t know if you’re going to like it or not; the moment of decision comes as the heart notes start to emerge, and if you’re lucky, it’s like the moment a dinner turns romantic, that instant when you wish the night could go on forever. You think: Yes. I could stay here. Finally, the base notes start to appear, which can linger for several days until they’re not so much a presence as a shadow, a memory of themselves. What’s left on the pillow. Why you dream of going back.

In class, we try making perfumes with as many as 15 ingredients—a commercial scent might have more than 40—but to choose those means smelling a few dozen more. And really, after six or seven essences, my nose is gone. “Smell your own skin,” Marie-Tosello says. “That will help.” And then we’re back to it, opening more bottles, squeezing more eyedroppers of scent into a test tube. I’m trying to pick local ingredients: jasmine, of course, but also tuberose, orange blossom. But what am I hoping to make? Something that will add a layer of memory when the woman I’m making it for puts it on? Something that will bring me back here?

“The perfume is a memory,” she said, “but before it’s a perfume, it’s a fragrance, and the fragrance is also a memory.”

Marie-Tosello takes a paper scent strip, dips it in the evolving perfume. “Not quite,” she says, waving the strip under her nose. “The top is still coming on too strong.” She disappears into the back, brings out more bottles, adds a drop of this, two drops of that, like a fine cook completely ignoring the recipe.

At last, “What do you think?” she asks.

“I think I never argue with experts or beautiful women. You win on both points.”

Another drop, and...yes.

Art I understand. I’ve spent my life with art. Science, though, is a little outside my comfort zone, so before I try a science-based class, I talk to Vincent Ricord, a “nose”—an expert perfume maker—for Expressions Parfumées, to learn how he learned. “It takes eight to 10 years to become a real parfumeur,” he tells me when I meet him in his office in an industrial park hidden behind what looks like a tire factory. At the beginning of his career, he spent two years, a dozen hours a day, memorizing the scents of 2,000 basic raw materials. A test at the end of every day: identifying, classifying. Then three more years in a lab, learning how to blend, how to make a scent the same even when the essences change, as the natural materials can be different each year, depending on the growing season, the conditions, the rainfall. Then, he said, you’re ready to start making scents, most of which will likely not turn out quite as you hope.

Which I prove the next day when I try making a perfume scientifically in a perfume-making class at Galimard, the oldest parfumerie in town. This time we start with the base notes. Since I tried to go local yesterday with only Grasse ingredients, today I try to be more adventurous. I pull out the bottle of civet, a marvelously low, musky scent, and the teacher says I’ve limited the rest of the perfume to maybe only a half-dozen possibilities. In my first class, it took five hours to perfect the blend; here, we’re done in 90 minutes, because each choice leads inevitably to the next choice. But it feels like connect-the-dots to me, as though I’m doing exactly what Madame Roux told me not to do, working from the head, not the heart. Shouldn’t a scent to remember be all heart?

The future of jasmine in Grasse rests with farmers such as Rémy Foltête, who choose to cultivate the land rather than sell it off.

The future of jasmine in Grasse rests with farmers such as Rémy Foltête, who choose to cultivate the land rather than sell it off.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

Later, in the hotel, the conversation with my pale blonde on Skype goes something like this:

“Civet? Isn’t that cat pee?”

“Cat musk.”

“You made me a perfume out of cat pee?”

No, I didn’t make her a perfume out of cat pee. I didn’t even make her one out of real cat musk but, rather, out of a synthetic, a mixture of chemicals designed to imitate something real. Of the 3,000 or so ingredients parfumeurs regularly use, only about 400 are natural. The rest are straight out of the chemistry set.

The next day, at the Musée International de la Parfumerie, I’m shown a very simple demonstration. Three scents. One smells like dead roses. One has almost no scent at all. And the third smells exactly like rose, a fresh rose, just like the ones that grow in my garden at home. The first two were extracted from real roses; the last, the one that screams rose, is the fake. A bunch of chemicals that have never been anywhere near an actual rose.

If the jasmine disappears from Grasse, could the parfumeurs fake the scent and not lose a thing? Does the triumph of chemistry mean we’ve come to terms with living at a remove, one step away from the real thing?

Like people who are content to say “No, I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen it on TV”?

Twenty-five years after the last time we’d seen each other, my first love sent me something she’d knitted. And it smelled like her—the rain, the arctic blueberries—and all those years simply disappeared in a breath. The human nose is sensitive enough to react to triggers of less than 0.0003 parts per million; one skin cell of hers left on the yarn would probably have been enough to flood me with memories. Try doing that with a chemistry set.

And 25 years is nothing. Madame Roux told me she takes people suffering from Alzheimer’s into her scent garden, seven acres of roses and lavender and rosemary and sunlight and shade and water, and she watches their faces light up with memory, their lives returned to them in a leaf crushed in the palm of their hand. “The perfume is a memory,” she said, “but before it’s a perfume, it’s a fragrance, and the fragrance is also a memory.” When the jasmine is gone, Grasse will only be a memory of its own scent. We might have some version of the perfume to remember it by, but the fragrance will be a ghost.

The chemisty of perfume making in Grasse has grown more complex since perfumers first used the copper distilling equipment at Robertet in the late 19th century.

The chemisty of perfume making in Grasse has grown more complex since perfumers first used the copper distilling equipment at Robertet in the late 19th century.

Photo by Gabriela Herman

Maybe there’s reason to hope, though. Yes, if you own land in Grasse, it’s much more profitable to sell out to developers building vacation houses for people from Nice than it is to farm. A kilo of jasmine flowers—10,000 blossoms—gets you about 65 euros.

Yet Grasse is starting to attract younger farmers, people who made lives in the big world outside and came back, haunted by flowers and the way the evening rolls across the hills like mercury. Maybe they’re only a finger in a leaking dike, but they’ve banded together in a group called Les Fleurs d’Exception du Pays de Grasse, with a motto that can be translated as “The sense of the land, the land of the senses.”

Near the end of my stay, Fleurs d’Exception’s Sébastien Rodriguez and I walk through rows of irises. His farm is not much bigger than my backyard, yet it’s full of dreams of jasmine crops to come. “My father, like all farmers, told me to study, not be a farmer,” he says. “But every day out here is different. The sun is different, the sky is different. And I have the chance to make and do something I’m passionate about.”

Rodriguez is cultivating his passion. Madame Roux puts hers into every breath of her life. And Marie-Tosello and Vial—who thought they were teaching me about perfume—were showing me that, in the end, memory is a side effect of the reality of passion.

I leave tomorrow. In my room, I spend the afternoon packing perfume bottles into bags, putting those in another bag, then padding that in clothes that smell like sweat and farm dirt and the stray tendrils of all those scented soap stores I walked past.

Then, with only a couple hours left before I fly out, I hear rumors of another jasmine patch, just outside of town. I stop on my way to the airport. Only the second tiny patch of jasmine I’ve seen in this area, a landscape that was once carpeted with the flowers.

The wide, white blossoms darken as an evening storm moves in, the jasmine becoming a glow. A pale, blonde woman walks between the rows, her hands touching the tops of the plants, stirring their scent into the air, like spark and kindling, lost and lingering.

>>Next: 5 Essential French Wine and Cheese Pairings, Explained

From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR