Sweet smell of success
A novel’s plot gives clues to the secrets of perfume
In the closing stages of Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, the French town of Grasse is the setting for a macabre conclusion to the lead character’s quest for the ultimate scent: that of a human. Just the place for a holiday, then.
In truth, a touch of notoriety, real or imaginary, seldom does any harm to tourism, and Grasse is prospering while preserving its raison d’etre: the production and promotion of perfume. Sitting high in the forbidding hills stretching north from the French Riviera, Grasse, 15km from Cannes, is sugar and spice and all things nice: pretty soap shops, well-manicured gardens and well-heeled visitors clutching colourful Fragonard bags.
Could the Grasse of literary legend be lurking here? Not so much the diabolic quest of the book’s central character, but the dark arts of perfume making, harnessing the purity of delicate raw materials. (If you haven’t read Perfume, the lead character, Grenouille, is a sociopath with an uncannily good sense of smell who rises to master perfumer; his appetite for creating scent, however, is matched by his lust for killing virgins to add to his eau de horreur.)
To delve deeper, my wife enrols in a perfume course with the Grasse Institute of Perfumery while I explore the town’s labyrinthine alleyways, keeping an eye out for any weird-looking French blokes with a twitching nose and murderous intent. Spoiler alert: reading on could seriously damage your fondness for fragrance. Stop for a moment and consider what goes in your favourite scent. Yes, summer meadows, fresh linen and angel’s tears are what it says on the advert, but the actual ingredients? Jasmine flowers, geranium leaves, a bit of sandalwood, perhaps. How about a dusting of tonka beans, a sprinkle of black pepper and, for good measure, a squirt of cat’s anal glands? That is more like it. This is the thread running from Suskind’s 18th-century literary setting to latter-day Grasse — the warts-and-all ingredients.
Grasse is the acknowledged centre of the world perfume trade, even if that title is now more down to reputation than production. Synthetic fragrances mean modern perfumes can be developed in a laboratory, rather than a Provencal hillside, although Grasse possesses a microclimate that offers perfect growing conditions for several of the world’s most sought-after raw ingredients. (Chanel is a major customer, sourcing roses, geraniums, mimosa, tuberose and eucalyptus trees to ensure its blends are consistent.)
But as a perfume centre of learning, Grasse’s appellation is an industry standard, a finishing school for anyone with designs on becoming master perfumer. It takes years to become a nose and most train here. They don’t just create perfumes; their knowledge is used for the likes of washing-up liquids, shampoos and fabric softeners.
A week-long perfume course in Grasse is eye-opening and eye-watering, as participants work with up to 20 raw materials a day, learning the characteristics, “notes” (perfumers talk about top, middle and base notes) and classification (floral, citrus and so on) before being tested. Lemon, for instance, is a top note (fleeting), used in “fresh” products such as shampoo; longer lasting sandalwood is a base note.
From its lofty position in the Alpes-Maritimes, Grasse can take the moral high ground over cheaper perfume creation; to capture a fragrance properly takes love — and an army of pickers. To get just 500g of jasmine “absolute” (the purest form, more so than essential oil) re- quires 350kg of jasmine petals. One jasmine petal weighs about the same as air. You do the maths.
That lovely minty, rosy geranium smell of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris range comes from the leaves, not the scent-less flowers; again, it’s incredibly labour intensive, requiring 800kg to produce a meagre 800g of essential oil. These raw materials take some persuading to offer up their scent on the altar of beauty, using steam distillation, expression and enfleurage, whereby flowers are pressed into oil or fat to capture the essence.
Now, about those cats. This scent is taken by scraping the anal glands of the civet, a wild cat found in Asia and Africa. According to my wife and most of the class, it was “the single most disgusting thing I’ve smelled”. Not one to dab behind your ears, then, but in a blend it brings out floral notes of other ingredients. (Many modern perfumes also contain musk — deer anal glands — but fortunately for civets and Bambi, these “animalics” are now made synthetically.) So this was the earthy alchemy of Grenouille’s non-homicidal experiments, the genius that turns earthily intense scents into something wonderful.
Away from the big perfume houses, shops and tours, I follow that thread of old Grasse, finding perfumer Didier Gaglewski down an alley I couldn’t find the way to twice. His sparse showroom is a shrine to the nose rather than the eye, and his signature creation Cambouis (grease) attempts to capture the spirit of a mechanic covered in grime after a hard day’s work on the tools. Gaglewski says he wanted to make something unapologetically masculine, a tongue-in-cheek challenge to a perceived lack of manliness in French males.
We compare (base) notes: he reveals the special blend (cedar, juniper, basil, birch); I claim I can detect civet, and warmly pronounce this les knackers de chien.
Here’s a tip: birch is trending in aftershave. And here’s another: this pretty, prim perfume town will keep pulling the hordes long after its whiff of notoriety has worn off. • grasse.fr • prodarom.fr • au.rendezvousenfrance.com
Grasse, top; geranium leaves are piled for distillation, left; dried flowers on display in the town, above