Nestled in the hilly backdrop of the famed French Riviera is the old and discreet town of Grasse. With its origins in leather tanning, the medieval settlement began a new economic chapter in the 17th Century, when locals recognised the value of the town’s enviable climate; hidden away from the sea wind and basking under the Mediterranean’s warm temperature, Grasse was a perfect spot to grow an abundance of flowers for fragrances.
With its ability to cultivate a variety of fragrant flowers such as lavender, rose, iris and jasmine, Grasse’s perfume industry now generates a turnover of 600 million euros and employs approximately 5,000 people. Grasse’s historical perfume houses – Molinard, Galimard and Fragonard – remain based in the town and offer tours of their laboratories, but the region has additionally attracted more famous brands, from Chanel to Dior. It is not uncommon for big brands to sign exclusive deals with farmers to ensure a supply of raw materials.
Despite the worldwide appeal of Grasse’s perfume industry, from brands and visiting tourists, the art of crafting fragrances remains closely guarded and rare. The Grasse Institute of Perfumery, for example accepts only 12 students at a time during a 14-month course. The number of farmed lands is dwindling due to skyrocketing prices and some brands have since shifted business to flower fields in North Africa, where production costs are significantly lower.
Local perfumers now look towards the current trend of and organic ingredients in beauty. The Grasse fragrance industry currently prides itself on working with natural products. Despite the challenge of the European Union’s ban on allergy-producing ingredients such as oakmoss, Grasse’s use of organic flowers will ultimately depend on consumer demand.
In 2018, after having submitted themselves as candidates to the UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage List, Grasse’s perfumers were officially recognised as upholding a protected craft. The acknowledgement from the United Nations validates the transmittable knowledge that protects France as being the world top exporter of perfumes in the face of globalisation.