A Scent History: The 18th Century and the Grasse Tradition

If there ever was Golden Age of perfume creation, especially for the European world, then the 18th century can be considered it.

In 18th century France, perfume art was one of the most important and many of the world respected recipes were born here. Generally, during that time, perfumes fell into two categories: floral and musky. Floral scents of the time were created using blooms from roses, jasmines and orange flower, distilled into water.  The obtained scents were quite close to the note range perfume designers use today. As for musks, they were usually animal- based and they were considered more masculine.  As a social aspect, perfume served as a popular odor equalizer in the merchant and noble classes, this, in an age where bathing practices were dubious, to say the least.  Another note about 18th century perfumery is that masculine and feminine fragrances were hardly distinguishable during those times.  A man might wear a wash of rose water to fresh his skin while a lady might don a heady amber toilet for a candle-lit dance.

As for recipes, they were considered state secrets and well guarded treasures. Some perfumes were as simple as distilling the scent of a single popular bloom, one of the most popular was rose water. Other perfumes would use a sometimes very rare and exhaustive list, including a process that was considered very troublesome. These more complex perfumes would be more popular among the noble class.

Grasse- the World Capital of Perfume

Throughout the Middle Ages, Grasse became famous for its tanners, the softness of its leather and the quality of the savoir-faire of its artisans had just one flaw, an odor from the hides that could make one ill. It was the perfume artist Gallimard who had the idea of scenting the leather products. The result: a famous pair of perfumed gloves he sent as a gift to Catherine de Medici. The fashion was launched and this innovation would contribute years later to the recognition by the court in 1614 of the new guild of “glover-perfumers”. Perfumery did not cease to develop but it was during the modern period that it took on great importance.

Perfume design grew and developed around the work of three famous competitors’ houses: Gallimard, Mollinard and Fragonard. It was in Grasse that the cold enfleurage process developed- permitting the  extraction of the most delicate flowers like citrus blossom, jasmine or tuberose.

The city blossomed from a commercial point of view, around the beautiful art of perfumery, as the relentless work of these three designers’ businesses created more business and artisanal activity for corkmakers, glassmakers, boilermakers, transporters.

The 19th and the 20th century signaled the progressive industrialization of the trades, in particular for extraction, now via volatile solvents patented in 1894 by the industrialist Léon Chrisis or later, organic synthesis made possible synthetic products of which the mythical Chanel No 5 is the finest example.

Towards the end of the 19th century, perfume creation in Grasse was at its peak.  The big French houses like Rochas, Dior and Chanel would even own their own fields of flowers in the area.