comes to the art of perfumes, no country ranks more highly than France.
Many of the greatest names in the perfume industry, Chanel, Christian
Dior or Estée Lauder are French, and in terms of
international perfume sales, France is leader, with 30% of the world
market. LVMH, one of France's flagship companies, is the greatest
luxury-goods company in the world, and French perfumes and cosmetics
are among its most important brands.
It was not always so.
The history of perfume
France was certainly not the first
country in the world to invent perfumes. In antiquity, the ancient
Greeks and Romans were keen users of scents and perfumes; indeed, the
art of perfumery can be traced right back to the origins of western
civilisation in Mesopotamia. Perfumes were used to hide bad body
smells, and make people smell attractive instead. In times before
bathing was a common activity, that was very important.
It was at the time of the Renaissance
that perfumes became particularly popular in Europe, and it is
Catherine de Medicis, wife of King Henri II, who is credited with
having introduced a fashion for perfumes into France. Originally,
before the age of running water, perfume and the sweet scent of flowers
were principally used to hide the odours of unwashed bodies.
Today, while the
big names of the perfume industry are based in Paris, and "perfumes
from Paris" are particularly appreciated, the real heart of the French
perfume industry is actually the small town of Grasse, in the Alpes
Maritimes department, northwest of Nice (Photo) . Some 20 km from the
coast and at an altitude of 350 metres, Grasse enjoys a mild
Mediterranean climate that is particularly suited to horticulture,
notably the production of jasmine, one of the most important natural
aromas used by the perfume industry. But Grasse is also famous for its
production of many other natural fragrances, including lavender,
myrtle, roses and mimosa.
Visitors to Grasse have
plenty of opportunity to discover the history and scope of the French
perfume industry , as the town is home to the International Perfume
Museum, and to the Fragonard perfume museum. Several perfume houses
offer free guided tours.
The perfume industry in Grasse involves
some sixty different companies, and employs almost 3,500 people; and
even though Grasse has had to move with the times and now produces
synthetic as well as natural fragrances, it is the natural fragrances
for which it remains justly famous. The great art of perfumery is
extracting the fragrances of flowers and concentrating them in forms
from which they can be transformed into the perfumes that are
eventually sold in little bottles at very high prices. The historic
methods of extracting fragrances from flowers are either by maceration
(soaking the flowers in a liquid that will absorb their fragrances) or
by distillation. The resulting concentrates are known as "essential
oils", and it is from these that perfumes are blended and made.
In recent years, particularly at the
cheaper end of the scale, the natural fragrances extracted from flowers
and other plants have been largely replaced by chemically produced
scents, which can be mass-produced anywhere in the world. But in the
production of top-of-the-range high quality perfumes, made from natural
extracts of plants, nothing can replace the acquired skills of France's
master perfume producers. There is something in the secrets and
techniques that are passed down from generation to generation under the
Mediterranean sun in the area of Grasse, that just cannot be replicated
of copied. In spite of the lucrative nature of the French perfume
industry, other countries have so far found it impossible to challenge
France's reputation as purveyor of fine perfumes to the world.
Going further: Websites for some of the
major names in French perfumery.
The top French perfume
houses and their main brands: many of the main
multinational brands are now linked to fashion houses
100-year-old high quality Paris perfume house
Makers of fine French
perfume, most famously Chanel
Originally French, now American company; brands include Beyoncé
Parfums, Pierre Cardin
Paris perfume house founded in 1981, now owned by Taittinger champagnes