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In France's Perfume Capital Of The World, There's A World Of Beautiful Fragrance

Its jasmine and roses are prized by perfumers and those eager to learn the trade. But the French Riviera town of Grasse didn't always smell sweet. Centuries ago, it was known for leather tanneries.

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Perfume flower grower Pierre Chiarla picks jasmine flowers in his field in Grasse, France. // Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

GRASSE, France — The town of Grasse sits in the hills above the more famous French Riviera city of Cannes, and it doesn't have the Mediterranean Sea at its doorstep. What it does have is fields of flowers — jasmine, May rose, tuberose, lavender. It is known as the perfume capital of the world.

It wasn't always this way. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the industry took off in Grasse in part because this was an absolutely putrid-smelling town.

"Grasse, in the Middle Ages and especially in the 16th century, is well known all over Europe for leather, not for perfume," says Laurent Pouppeville, the director of Grasse's perfume museum.

Thanks to its tanneries, the town reeked of dead animals and lye. It was the glove makers who first tried to make their product smell better, using a technique called maceration.

"They used animal fat and they're going to put flowers in this fat and so the fat is going to take the perfume of the flowers," Pouppeville explains. "And they're going to obtain after two months a perfume pomade. And they're going to perfume the leather gloves with these perfume pomades."

The tanners switched to full-time perfume making after taxes on leather rose too high. The hillside springs they once channeled to clean the hides were instead used to distill perfume and water the fields of flowers.

Pierre Chiarla, a grower standing in a field of jasmine in full bloom, is with a small group plucking the tiny white blossoms from bright green bushes planted in long rows. He says his grandmother and her sisters picked jasmine in this same terraced field rimmed by an old stone wall.

"In Grasse, perfume is often a family story," he says. "She was just 12 years old. That was about 70 years ago. And do you see that little shack?" he says, pointing to a terracotta roofed structure covered with vines. "That's where the pickers cooked and slept, so they'd be right on the spot at dawn to begin working."

Chiarla says jasmine is so delicate that it still must picked by hand. Before the tiny flowers can wilt, they are quickly transported to a factory less than a mile away, where the pure flower scent, known as "concrete" and "absolute," is extracted.

It takes between 7,000 and 10,000 jasmine flowers to make up 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). And it takes about a ton of flowers to extract a kilo of jasmine absolute. Each kilo is worth over 50,000 euros, about $59,000.

Grasse has been a perfume making hub since the 1700s

Grasse is a typical Provençal town, with ochre-colored houses and giant shutters to close against the noonday sun. Laundry hangs from balconies or above tiny, labyrinthine streets, and leafy plane trees shade town squares and café tables.

Perfume factories from the 1700s — ornate, jewel-box-like buildings – dotted the old town. In the 1800s, says Pouppeville, Queen Victoria vacationed in nearby Nice and came to Grasse to buy her perfumes.

The factories have now moved out of the old town. But Grasse is still the place to be for fragrance-makers, whether multinationals creating signature smells for shampoos and detergents or smaller artisan perfumers.

Canadian Jessica Buchanan came to Provence in 2007 to attend the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Today she has her own boutique, 1000 Flowers, in town and does a brisk online business.

Buchanan is what's known in the business as a nose, or a nez in French.

"Which means that I actually mix the materials together and formulate the perfumes," she says. "So as you can see behind me, the perfumer's organ, which is all the different raw materials that I use to compose my scents."

A perfumer's organ includes hundreds of vials of raw scent materials arranged on different levels, resembling a pipe organ. Composing a perfume is often compared to composing music, with base notes, heart notes and head notes. Perfumers learn the notes by heart.

"We do learn how to smell," Buchanan says. "That part of the brain really develops. It's like a muscle. It becomes more developed in a perfumer than in a regular person who's not paying attention to scents every day."

She says she's been extra-cautious about protecting her sense of smell since the pandemic began, with anosmia being one possible effect of COVID-19. "Absolutely, it's been my fear from the beginning, when I found out it was a side effect," she says. "I'm hyper-paranoid about that because my nose is my main tool."

Climate change is a concern

In the perfume museum's Mediterranean garden, you can get a whiff of all the plants that have made up the economy and history of Grasse in the last 300 years.

Christophe Mège is the head gardener. He says with industrialization in the 19th century, perfumers in Grasse brought back scent specimens from all over the world: patchouli from Singapore, pink pepper wood from California and jasmine from Egypt.

Mège says fragrance formulas are very precise. For example, Chanel No. 5 was originally created with jasmine grown in Grasse, so it must always be made that way.

"The same rose or the same jasmine grown in Egypt or Morocco, it will be different from the rose grown in Grasse," he says. "It's like wine, you can have the same type of grape, but you won't have the same wine because of the sun, because of the soil, because of the terroir."

That French word sums up the specific characteristics of a place that create a unique agricultural product — the soil, sun, geographic location or harvesting technique. In 2018, UNESCO recognized the perfume-making savoir faire of Grasse as intangible world cultural heritage.

Michael Nordstrand, from the U.S., is among a dozen students enrolled in the year-and-a-half program at the Grasse perfumery school. "Plants you might see in an exotic garden grow here as though it's nothing," he says. "Like everyone has jasmine in their yard or orange blossoms. Everything is just sort of second nature in this region because of the micro-climate."

But climate change is a concern. "We are worried because we are seeing, for example, freezing temperatures and hail in the spring much more frequently," says Chiarla. "For the first time, some perfume plant growers lit candles between the vines — much like wine growers did this year — because of the cold weather that came so late. This was something that would happen every 50 to 100 years before. Now we've seen it two years in a row. We are also seeing more violent storms and flooding of the flower fields."

Visitors can make their own perfumes

For those who want to try their hand at creating their own perfumes, nearly all the factories have workshops.

At the Galimard perfume factory, tourists sit in front of their daunting perfumer's organs.

"We're testing scents and trying to mix our own perfume, so it's very exciting!" says Mariska Lokker, visiting with her husband Paul from the Netherlands.

Galimard perfume coach Ivana Ristevska stops by to help Paul balance his creation, which she says has too much musk.

"So you like it a lot?" she asks Lokker.

"Yes," he says. "Is it too strong?"

"Even 10 milliliters is too much for me," she replies with a laugh, "but let's go for it."

Mariska chimes in that he'll be very smelly today.

"Yeah, so good luck to you!" replies Ristevska, as they burst into laughter.

A good perfume should not recreate a fragrance you've worn in the past, she says.

"Be open-minded and go with your instinct," she advises. "And especially, follow your nose."

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