The World of Perfume.

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If a tourist travels to Grasse unprepared and expecting «... let's see if it's nice there» doesn't do himself any favours and doesn't do justice to the city and its residents in no way. However, knowing that Grasse is an international economic hub since the middle ages the ongoing flow of time becomes part of the presence and can be felt, smelled, experienced.

The World of Perfume.

Bert Schwarz


Perfumes and their uses go far back in time and follow the rise of civilisations. The first objects considered to be perfume or cosmetics jars are from the Middle East and date to about 7000 BC. Elegant and finely decorated, they are undoubtedly luxury items reserved for an elite; they can be found throughout the Mediterranean area. These civilisations used various fragrant materials, especially resins. These were widely used beginning around 4000 BC for ritual fumigation, in censers or perfume-burners reserved for the gods and royal families.

The Egyptians knew how to trap fragrance in fats and oils and through cold maceration or hot decoction, but were still unaware of distillation. The products obtained were far from having the olfactory power of our perfumes, but they were immensely popular.

This art, which had not yet filtered down to the world of the profane, disappeared at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. Certain techniques influenced by the Oriental tradition persisted in areas around the Mediterranean and served as the basis for the birth of a new age of perfumes in the first millennium.

It was not until the Archaic Period (6th century BC) that fragrances became more democratic. At that time, they were kept in simple containers, like the alabaster aryballos. By then, scent was a dominant force in the market for sacred, therapeutic, cosmetic and cooking uses, a place it held throughout the Middle Ages, in every civilisation. Among the Aztecs, in the Orient or in Europe, people composed mixtures with a pleasant taste or medicinal virtues. In Grasse, raw materials were widely used in the newly emerging perfume industry.

Although natural fragrances were made from spices, flowers and mineral and vegetable resins, people also manufactured perfumed oils or waters obtained by decantation, maceration and filtration. The development of perfume was closely tied to the development of distillation techniques, which spread along with the use of the alembic. It was also tied to alchemy and the translation of Arab treatises by physicians at the Salerno school in the 12th century and their later spread to Andalusia in the 13th century. Alcohol was invented in Salerno in the 12th century and used solely for medical purposes until the 15th century. In the 16th century, its use in manufacturing perfumes spread quickly.

The Oriental civilisations developed public baths beginning in the 16th century. In Europe, odour marked the social divide until the arrival of the English hygiene revolution in the 18th century. The desire for bodily cleanliness promoted the development of lighter perfumes. At the same time, the perfume maker’s palette was enhanced by new raw materials imported by the British East India Company. Vital perfumes with curative powers provided protection against the mortal exhalations which spread epidemics. Progress in chemistry called into question the use of disinfection by strong scents. These scents were also utilised in other parts of the world. They were associated with the gods in China and India through the use of incense sticks, as an olfactory halo in Africa for festive rites or as a refinement in the Mogul court.

The French Revolution ruined perfume makers but did not eliminate the interest in perfume. After the Terror, people perfumed themselves more than ever. Industry underwent a fundamental change, and this was also the great intellectual and social era in Grasse. Burdensome taxation quickly led to a decline in the tanning industry and the rise of the perfume industry, which developed because of improvements in technical processes.

Perfumed pastes were joined by powders, soaps and tobacco... At the same time, pleasure – the era’s leitmotiv – gave rise to a proliferation of small boxes and trinkets associated with the appearance of new materials. Other civilisations continued to use perfume burners with solid perfume materials.

In Europe, the 18th century saw a change in the object of trade, which shifted from gloves to perfume. The 19th century witnessed a change in this originally artisanal activity, which became highly industrialized.

During the same period in Africa, perfume making centred on the large coastal cities of East Africa but was also found in the interior of a mysterious, primitive and “ambiguous” continent. Perfumes and preparations made from fragrant plants continued to find many magical and therapeutic uses in both rural and urban areas. In the 20th century, imported bottled perfumes became increasingly fashionable and were synonymous with social success in large cities and remote towns.

Finally, in the West, globalisation developed hand in hand with the perfume industry and created uniform customs and standardisation in all large metropolitan areas. France played a major role in this “Great Century” through the complementary efforts of Grasse, the world’s foremost centre for natural raw materials for perfume and perfume derivatives, and Paris, the world’s fashion capital. In Grasse at the start of the century, the perfume industry was characterised by the processing of natural products and was a virtual world monopoly.

At the end of the century, although natural products were still a major part of the business of Grasse, traditional local supplies had become scarce. Perfume compounds and food flavouring were increasingly being developed, but the city still claimed the name of “Perfume City”. The modern perfume industry, which had been created at the end of the 19th century with the first synthetic products, flourished in the 20th century. It was based on the discovery of fragrant products through research in organic chemistry; these were combined with irreplaceable natural products resulting from new technologies. Houbigant and Guerlain were the first to use synthetic products, with Fougère Royale in 1884 and Jicky in 1889. The latter is considered to be the first modern perfume and celebrates the discovery of vanillin. They paved the way for the great twentieth-century creations.

François Coty, the father of the modern perfume industry, was a pioneering genius and industrialist. He readily used the natural “absolutes” derived from perfecting the technique for extracting volatile solvents, which he paired with new synthetic products. This technique is still used to create perfumes and allows perfumers to create scents that are inextricably associated with their name. It also enables the bottle designer to create an appropriate container and magnify the impact of a brand. After a creative proliferation in which price was no limit and distribution was elite, the second half of the 20th century saw perfume become available to nearly everyone, with a corresponding drop in retail prices. More and more new perfumes were launched, with varying degrees of success. The average lifespan of a product became increasingly shorter.

With few exceptions, the perfume industry went from the extraordinary to the commonplace, and from being hyper-selective to the mass market. But some civilisations have managed to avoid globalisation. In Oceania, people rub their hair and body with plants selected for their fragrance. Asia is still synonymous with floral offerings; fresh flowers are omnipresent in everyday life and religion. Fragrance has the power to seduce and purify. Bodily practices associated with perfume are a map for reading social life in the Arab Emirates. Gradually, scents are starting to play a role in China as personality markers, as is already the case in the West.

Perfume possesses a therapeutic, aesthetic and ritual value. It is an accessory to seduction or eroticism, a way to celebrate the gods, a means of purification. It creates a pleasant atmosphere or an incentive to purchase through a carefully calculated dose of olfactory marketing. It awakens the senses and memory while opening up to the world. It is an elementary instrument of excellence that does nothing to change the ways of the world but radically changes its atmosphere.

Marie-Christine Grasse,
Chief Curator of the Museums of the City of Grasse (until 2011)

Important Addresses

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International Museum of Perfume

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Office de Tourisme

Fragonard Parfumeur

©: René Antonoff ©: René Antonoff ©: Musées de Grasse ©: Musées de Grasse ©: Musées de Grasse ©: René Antonoff ©: Musées de Grasse ©: Musées de Grasse

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