A short introduction to French perfumes and the history of the French perfume industry – from its roots in the Provencal city of Grasse, to today’s great internationally famous perfume houses in Paris.
When it comes to the art of perfumery, no country ranks higher than France. Many big names in the perfume industry such as Chanel, Christian Dior or Estée Lauder are French, and in terms of international perfume sales, France is the leader with 30% of the global market. LVMH, one of France’s leading companies, is the world’s largest luxury goods company, and French perfumes and cosmetics are among its biggest brands.
It wasn’t always like that.
history of perfume
The capital of the French perfume industry, France was certainly not the first country in the world to invent perfume. In ancient times, the ancient Greeks and Romans were great lovers of essences and perfumes; in fact, the art of perfumery goes back to the origins of Western civilization in Mesopotamia. Perfumes were used to cover up bad body odor and make people smell attractive. Bathing used to be commonplace, it was very important.
Around the time of the Renaissance, perfume became especially popular in Europe, and it was Catherine de Medici, the wife of King Henry II, who is credited with starting the perfume craze in France. Originally, before the era of running water, perfumes and the sweet scent of flowers were mainly used to hide the smell of unwashed bodies.
Today, while the celebrities in the perfume industry are based in Paris and “Perfume of Paris” is especially popular, the true heart of the French perfume industry is actually the small town of Grasse in the Alpes-Maritimes department, northwest of Nice. (A photo) . About 20 km from the coast and at an altitude of 350 meters above sea level, Grasse enjoys a temperate Mediterranean climate, especially suitable for horticulture, in particular for the production of jasmine, one of the most important natural flavors used in the perfume industry. But Grasse is also known for producing many other natural fragrances, including lavender, myrtle, roses and mimosa.
Visitors to Grasse have many opportunities to learn about the history and scope of the French perfume industry, as the city is home to the International Perfume Museum and the Fragonard Perfume Museum. Several perfume houses offer free tours.
Grasse’s perfume industry involves about sixty different companies employing about 3,500 people; and although Grass had to adapt to the times and now produces both synthetic and natural fragrances, it is natural fragrances that he is still rightfully famous for. The great art of perfumery lies in extracting the scents of flowers and concentrating them into forms from which they can be transformed into perfumes, which are ultimately sold in small bottles at very high prices. Historical methods for extracting fragrance from flowers are maceration (soaking the flowers in a liquid that absorbs their fragrances) or distillation. The resulting concentrates are known as “essential oils” and it is from these that perfumes are blended and made.
In recent years, especially at the cheaper end of the scale, natural flavors extracted from flowers and other plants have been largely replaced by chemically-derived flavors that can be mass-produced anywhere in the world. But in the production of elite, high-quality perfumes from natural plant extracts, nothing can replace the skills acquired by master perfumers in France. There is something about the secrets and methods that are passed down from generation to generation under the Mediterranean sun in the Grasse area that simply cannot be reproduced or copied. Despite the lucrative nature of the French perfume industry, other countries have hitherto found it impossible to challenge France’s reputation as a purveyor of fine perfumes throughout the world.