A tour of French perfumes from Paris to Provence
French perfume is renowned worldwide for its elegance and style, and French perfumers are at the heart of the industry. It’s no surprise that France is home to the Osmothèque, an international library of perfumes. Hexagon also has fascinating perfume museums, and visiting them can lead to sniffing a course in how to make perfume yourself.
Paris is home to some of the most glamorous perfumeries on the planet, so it stands to reason that it has a perfume museum. The Musée du Parfum, near the Opéra metro station, offers free 30-minute tours around a small private museum belonging to Parfums Fragonard. An explanation of the different types of scents in a perfume is followed by an interactive display where visitors try to identify eight scents.
The visit ends with the shop but there is no obligation to purchase. See their website for opening hours: perfume-museum-paris.fragonard.com.
The real center of the French perfumery industry, however, is Grasse.
People have been wearing attractive scents since the dawn of time
The world’s first perfumer is believed to be Tapputi, a woman mentioned on a cuneiform tablet from 2000 BC. J.-C., who distilled flowers, oil and other aromatics to create perfumes. Perfumers proliferated during the Italian Renaissance and by the 16th century Catherine de’ Medici (married to King Henry II of France) had her own personal perfumer, René le Florentin.
This led to the cultivation of flowers in the south of France specifically to produce perfume, particularly in and around Grasse (Paca). Until then, the city was known for leather tanning and the resulting foul smell that wafted through the city.
But as the perfume industry grew, artisans in the city began to scent the gloves they made to mask the smell of the tanning process and became known as porters-perfumers.
The rich used the new cologne to conceal body odor resulting from infrequent washing. The Sun King (Louis XIV) considered perfumery to be an art and even had the fountains of the sumptuous Versailles perfumed.
The fashion for perfume at the French court was followed by the wealthy all over Europe, resulting in a huge demand for French perfume, and as the climate around Grasse was ideal for the cultivation of fragrant flowers, it is became the center of perfume production. Over time, the heavy, cloying perfumes used to conceal body odor have evolved into lighter, more subtle scents. Napoleon and Joséphine made perfumes with citrus notes fashionable.
like more cologne were produced, prices fell and the use of perfume became widespread. In the 18th century, France was the center of the production of luxury perfumes. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century saw the development of new techniques for extracting fragrances, not only from plants, but also from minerals and animals. The first mass-produced fragrances included “Fougère Royale” by Paul Parquet, “Jicky” by Aimé Guerlain, and “L’Heure Bleue” by Jacques Guerlain.
As it became possible to synthesize fragrances, they began to be added to all sorts of other products; washing powder, cabinets and interiors. In the 20th century, perfumes began to be associated with fashion houses, with the introduction of iconic perfumes like Chanel No 5, Miss Dior and Nina Ricci’s Air du Temps. Today, French perfume is used and enjoyed by people from all walks of life, all over the world.
Fragonard was one of the first perfumeries established in Grasse
As well as the Fragonard Museum in Paris, you will also find a selection of factories and museums to visit in Grasse and the surrounding area, all free and all very interesting. In Grasse, there is the Usine Historique (with the Perfume Museum in Grasse on the third floor), the Fabrique des Fleurs, and nearby, the Usine Laboratoire d’Eze. Moreover, if you go to Eze, do not miss the Exotic Garden which, in addition to having a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean, also has an extraordinary variety of plants testifying to the mild climate.
The Galimard Perfumery also has a museum and a workshop in Eze, explaining how perfumes are made. If you take the bus to Eze-le-Village, you can take the very picturesque Chemin de Nietzsche to go down to Eze-sur-Mer.
If you can’t get around Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur, Fragonard’s site is very complete, rich in photos and available in English for at least wheelchair tourism. The company has two other free museums, illustrating related subjects. The Provençal Costume and Jewelery Museum (clothing and jewellery) and another, the Jean-Honoré Fragonard Museum, which presents the career and work of this painter. (The perfume company was named in his honor.) All of these factories and museums offer free admission and free guided tours in a variety of languages, including English.
Grasse also has the much larger Musée International de la Parfumerie (MIP) and its herb gardens, and is very informative about the history and development of the perfume industry.
However, find out before you leave in case the interactive screens are closed. (Sometimes during the pandemic they have been cordoned off and without being able to smell things, the visit loses a lot of its charm.)
For foodies in Grasse
If all that sniffling makes you hungry, Grasse also has some great activities for foodies. In the historic center, Huilerie Sainte-Anne is one of the last working traditional mills in France producing a range of different olive oils that you can taste on site. They also have a shop selling local produce including honey and balsamic vinegar.
If you have a sweet tooth, head to Maison Duplanteur in Grasse, where they handcraft organic chocolate from scratch, roasting the cocoa beans themselves. The whole process is explained during a free guided tour, although you can just visit the shop. Kids love the tour, though, especially the free samples at the end.
France is home to a large number of private museums
Some of them are very quirky and some are very well researched and organized.
In Graveson, near Baux-de-Provence and St-Rémy, there is a small museum called the Musée des Arômes et du Parfum, which divides public opinion and in Prissé, near Mâcon, there is another small museum called the Perfume Museum, displaying an extensive collection of perfume bottles. La Rochelle also has a perfume museum, the Musée du Flacon à Parfum, this time above a perfumery called La Saponaire rue du Temple, so easy to find.
Much further north, very close to the border, the prestigious Lalique Museum, about an hour north of Strasbourg by car, has a fine collection of glass perfume bottles, if you like crystal and glass. René Lalique (1860-1945) draws all sorts of objects; vases, jewellery, chandeliers, clocks and car hood ornaments.
However, he was best known for his glass designs and the flowing lines of his work in the Art Deco style.
Although he was born and died in Paris, he created the Verrerie d’Alsace in Wingen-sur-Moder in 1922 because the region already had a skilled workforce. The factory is today the only one in the world to still produce Lalique glassware. The museum was opened in 2011 and contains around 650 pieces of jewelry, glass and modern crystal. Revamped, the Villa René Lalique in Wingen-sur-Moder is now a 5-star hotel-restaurant.
While in the region, don’t miss the Museum of Glass and Crystal in Meisenthal where you can watch glassblowers in action and learn how the region has become such a center of glassmaking excellence.
The Artemisia museum in Forcalquier, between Gap and Marseille, broadens the subject by exploring the history of the cultivation of perfume plants, but also herbs and medicinal plants. Depending on the time of year, it is possible to book workshop places for adults and children to create their own perfume.
Passing through Forcalquier, the biscuit factory worth the detour. It is a factory outlet where, on sunny days, you can taste the different local specialties, although during the pandemic this was not possible. It’s a very charming shop though, and they also have an online store.
In good weather, a great way to explore the surrounding countryside is on horseback.
The Center de Randonnee Equestre Janssaud offers rides with an English-speaking guide. It’s a great way to hike the hills enjoying the views. The horses are well trained and as friendly as the guide. If horses aren’t exactly your cup of tea, you can rent mountain bikes to get around from Bike Access Haute-Provence.
Create your own perfume
Creating your own perfume is an increasingly popular activity throughout France and various workshops and courses are offered, ranging from a few hours to several months.
Plant ingredients include flowers, herbs, fruits, trees (like sandalwood, cedar, cinnamon), roots (like ginger), and seeds (like cilantro). Animal-derived ingredients include musk and honeycomb, and there are many modern synthesized essences. Various techniques are used including extraction, maceration and distillation to make concentrated essences.
At the most basic level, a selection of these are then added to an excipient (usually a mixture of alcohol and water) to make a perfume. The different essences can be grouped into these two olfactory families; traditional include florals, amber/oriental, woodsy, leather and modern include green, citrus, fruit and fresh florals.
The relationships between them can be expressed on a so-called scent wheel, and combining them can be as simple as choosing a primary essence and adding a tiny amount of a secondary essence.
Création de Parfum offers workshops in Paris, Eze, Grasse or Lyon. Prices range from €99-200 and include an introduction to defining a personal style, learning to recognize scents and creating your own perfume under the sensitive nose of an expert.
Participants leave the workshop with a bottle of their own perfume, and the recipe is saved so you can order it again, if you wish.
If you prefer to experiment on your own, there are plenty of books on the market. You can also buy books (in French) at aroma-zone.com as well as all the necessary ingredients and containers. Simply click on the Home Cosmetics tab. Their products are organic and their recipes also include environmentally friendly household cleaning products.
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