A Perfume Devotee in the Land of French Fragrance

Ms. Buchanan volunteers with the Association du Patrimoine Vivant du Pays de Grasse (Living Heritage of the Region of Grasse), the nonprofit organization that is presenting the application for Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. While I was there, she, among a number of other industry players, met with Unesco ambassadors from various countries to help them determine the scale and scope of Grasse’s perfume industry. The association expects a response from Unesco next year.

“There will be groups of them coming all through the year,” she said. “They visited the Chanel rose fields. They went to see Château de la Colle Noire. They went to the perfumery school. It’s a hugely complex undertaking. They look at everything from the plant growers and their knowledge base to the harvesters, all the way to the extraction in the factories to the perfumers.”

Grasse’s flower-growing industry could be vulnerable not only to stiff competition, Ms. Buchanan said, but also to development.

“There is a lot at risk of being lost,” she said.

At the same time, Grasse is benefiting from the worldwide organic movement that is helping revive the demand for product from the region’s small-scale flower producers. Les Fleurs d’Exception du Pays de Grasse, a consortium of organic flower growers formed in 2008, produces around 40 acres of perfume plants for large companies — rose, jasmine, iris, tuberose, orange blossom, violet, Madonna lily and Iris pallida, along with mimosa, narcissus, broom and lavender.

After Ms. Buchanan and I said goodbye, I set out for Molinard, one of the most beautiful old perfumeries in Grasse. It was established in 1849, when the company produced and sold floral waters in a small shop in Grasse’s center. The interior blends natural light from skylights with illumination from chandeliers to a royal effect — fitting since Molinard’s color theme is threaded with purple. Like Fragonard and Galimard, Molinard offers free tours in a number of languages, as well as individual and group workshops.


A collection of old Galimard bottles on display at the perfumery’s museum.

Andy Haslam for The New York Times

I was greeted by a raven-haired receptionist who told me a little more about the history of Molinard, which reminded me of my small bottle of Nirmala, an unusual fragrance the company introduced in 1955.

I peeked around a corner at a perfume workshop and realized I was a day away from my own. I knew I wanted to have my own fragrance blended while in Grasse. I had chosen Galimard, the oldest perfumery in Grasse and certainly one of the oldest perfumeries in the world. It dates to 1747 when Jean de Galimard supplied the French court with olive oils, pomades and perfumes. Bespoke fragrances involve a considerable amount of time and deliberation, so realistically, I understood I wasn’t going to get something spectacular with zero skills; I just wanted to have some fun.

While in Galimard’s store the following day, waiting for the workshop to begin, I inhaled what the perfume house had to sell — single fragrances, home scents and other fragrance-related items — until the friendly woman attending the counter tapped her nose: a gentle suggestion that I stop. She was aware that I was in the next group of budding perfumers and she wanted my olfactory facility unconfused.

Later, our small group was seated at individual “perfume organs” — half circles of small bottles of essential oils and an empty 100-milliliter glass beaker. I felt a twinge of acute uncertainty. I knew what I liked but had no idea what fusion of chemicals would deliver it. One day I adore a coy floral, the next day something that is hedonic and overt.

Our chic facilitator, Manon, explained the functions of the top note, the heart note (the dominant character) and the base note, the three stages of a perfume’s scent across time. With a little guidance, she helped us establish a rough estimate of what we desired. Beside me, twin girls were fulfilling a birthday wish.


An exhibit at the International Perfume Museum.

Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Direction was offered during the measuring, testing and smelling. Manon kept an eye out for potential epic fails that occur when using too much of this or that. Two hours later, after I made what seemed like life-threatening decisions, “Lark” was born, and it was far better than I had any right to imagine, at once light and dark (a few of the notes included lotus, bergamot, bois de santal, gardenia, bamboo and sandalwood).

“Very feminine!” Manon said to me after she dipped a white fragrance strip in my new perfume. I immediately wanted to know more about this stylish, kind woman who had just unwittingly made me aware that I was wearing pedal pushers and Crocs.

On the train ride back to Paris, I hung out with two young Australians, friends who were on holiday through Europe and who smelled lemony clean and crisp — like youth and freedom.

The sense of smell has a deep drawer and a quick retrieval system. Now, when I wear my almost-homemade fragrance, I am transported back to the time when I was in a lovely French town with equally lovely inhabitants who, even though I mangled their language and complained about their traffic laws, let me sit at their table while they discussed this magical thing called alchemy.


Fragonard Historic Factory (20 Boulevard Fragonard; fragonard.com/en/factories/historic-factory), which is in one of Grasse’s oldest factories, offers free tours, a product line and group and individual perfume workshops by reservation.

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