This autumn I travel to the South of France. Some come here to party on a boat in St Tropez, some come to play poker in Monte Carlo, some travel to Cannes for the film festival or to Nice to walk along the Promenade des Anglais. The key destinations for me though are the laboratories of the famous French Perfumeries – Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard. So I rent a car and drove along the sea on the narrow streets, up the mountains to the small village of Eze and then deeper into the continent to the beautiful town of Grasse to meet the best perfumers in the world.
In May this year we published an article about Dior returning to the capital of perfume – Grasse. Now I’m driving there myself to discover the endless lavender fields and perfume laboratories.
It all started here. Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard have been producing perfumes, eaux de toilette and perfumed products using the traditional methods of French Perfumeries since the 17th century. I walk into the factory where perfumers helped me discover the history of perfume. They talk so passionately about their profession that I want to become one of them.
The history of perfume
“The word ‘perfume’ is derived from the Latin ‘per’ (through) and ‘fumare’ (to smoke) as long before the use of modern techniques, the perfumes were obtained by burning woods, resins and other complex mixtures. Humans have always been exposed to smells. We can suppose that it was around a fire that our earliest ancestors discovered what smells they could produce by throwing herbs, leaves or twigs of different plant species into the flames. The use of perfume is contemporary, therefore, with the development of the first towns and its purpose was mainly religious, to communicate with the gods and enable the dead to join the hereafter, particularly for the Egyptians”.
In the 19th century, the perfume making and the perfume industry have been massively revolutionised. What helped in the process was the emergence of modern chemistry, gradual democratisation, the rise of an industrial middle class, and a flood of scientific and technical discoveries.
The most rare essences have been reproduced with the advanced techniques of organic chemistry producing various synthetic compounds. In the early days perfume was consumed only by the high-class society in the form of perfumed bath salts, fragranced sachets for linen cupboards and incense pastilles.
Since the creation of an atomizer (that button that we push to spray perfume) perfume (or what was created to sell it at cheaper prices – eau de toilette) became more popular and it started to be produced in mass amounts, thus making it more available to the wider customer base. Perfume was used and desired not only for its fragrance but also to highlight the attractiveness of the wearer.
Perfume and Fashion
Crystal-makers, like Lalique and Baccarat, devoted their talents to designing elegant perfume bottles and the advertising industry promoted new perfumes. Leading fashion designers – following Paul Poiret, the first to associate a perfume (Les Parfums de Rosine) with a line of women’s clothes – gradually moved into the secret specialised world of perfumery. In 1925, Ernest Beaux created the most mythical designer perfume ever, Chanel N°5. Lanvin, Rochas, Patou, Ricci, Balmain and Dior, soon joined this expanding business that linked designer clothes with designer fragrances. In the 1950s, men’s fragrances began to gain popularity.
The Fragonard Museum as well as the International Perfume Museums here in Grasse both have a very rich collection of perfumery-related objects, representing exceptional skills from antiquity through to the 20th century. Both museums present the collections of pomanders, richly decorated bottles, perfume burners and travel kits that are art pieces on their own.
Would you like to know more about the history of perfume? Let us know in the comment section below!
Text: Irina Gorskaia
Images: Irina Gorskaia, Fragonard