The Cultural Art of French Perfumes

Travel guide author Kim Defforge shares an insightful journey into the making of French perfumes

Nice is about 27 km (17 miles) from the “perfume capital of the world”, Grasse, with its large parfumeries, “Fragonard” and “Molinard”, major industries and tourist attractions. There are several options for visits, as Nice has “Molinard,” Eze village has “Fragonard,” and Cagnes-sur-Mer has its “Atelier des Parfums,” all where you can do a guided visit and purchase products.
In the 16th century, roses were added into the leather making process, as a way to hide the animal odor in gloves: at that time, animal fat was used to absorb the flowers’ fragrance, then washed with alcohol and filtered. Today, petals are distilled in a variety of methods, depending on the concentration of oil desired:

~ 1,000 kg of flowers distilled with water vapor = 1 kg of essential oil

~ 600 kg of flowers distilled with solvents = 1 kg of “absolu” (a higher concentrate)

Surprisingly, most flowers are imported; however, there are three grown around Grasse: rose, jasmin, and violet. The most common regional flowers used in making perfume are mimosa, lavender, rose (petals), jasmine, orange blossom, violets, and broom. No wonder pure perfume is so expensive, as 10 ml of natural rose liquid costs 200 Euros!

Le “nez” (nose) is, logically, the title given to the creator of original perfume scents, and who, to begin with, must be able to recognize the smell of 400 primary scents, with an increase in repertoire possible to around 1,500-2,000 different odors. Reportedly, about 50% of “les nez” are women, with the main training center being situated in the town of Versailles.

What I found fascinating during my visit was the perfume laboratory (more like an office library), where there were rows and rows of shelves (called an “organ”), full of bottles of scents (each one called a “note”); the combination of scents is called a “chord”, with many chords being a “composition.” So, the “Nez” is, in fact, a ‘musical’ composer with around 80-150 different scents in one perfume!

Perfume fragrance changes over time: the first impression – that first burst of smell – of a perfume is called, “la note de tete”; after a couple of hours, you smell “la note de coeur”; and the final phase, or lingering scent, is called “la note de fond.”

Following are the concentrations of the various grades of perfume, so the next time you are shopping, you’ll know the differences:

  • Perfume = > 20%
  • Eaux de parfum = 12-15%
  • Eaux de toilette = 8-12%
  • Eaux de cologne = 7%

According to an English physician of the 19th century, “a perfume should correspond to the personality, physical, emotional, and mental characteristics of its wearer, and should be as specific to each woman as the sound of her voice.” (source: Complete Illustrated Guide to Aromatherapy)

Enjoy discovering and wearing YOUR unique ‘song’ on the French Riviera !

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Kim Defforge is the author of “Sun, Sea & Savoir-Faire – Travel Focus on the French Riviera” as well as “Solitary Desire – One Woman’s Journey to France”.

She is also blogger of the blog 24/7 in France.