We left Italy yesterday and headed for Cannes. Rather than sticking around in what is basically just another beach town, we took a tour to Grasse, the heart of France’s perfume industry, and St. Paul de Vence, a nicely polished, walled medieval town.
At the Grasse factory tour, there was little to see, but much to learn. Grasse has a lousy climate for growing food. It has, however, a gazillion micro climates that make it perfect for growing flowers. In the old days, Grasse grew lavender, roses, jasmine, gardenia, honeysuckle, orange blossoms, tuberoses, and on and on. In spring, it must have been gorgeous and overwhelming.
For hundreds of years, this floral bounty went into making perfumes. The heartier flowers, such as lavender, were distiller (much like distilling a good whiskey). Indeed, the process remains unchanged today, although the vats are huge and made of stainless steel, rather than small and made of copper.
The more delicate flowers, such as roses or jasmine, had their petals placed on rendered animal fat, which absorbed their oils. For months, the flowers were changed every two or three days, until the fat was completely saturated with the flower’s oil. The fat then underwent an alcohol bath, which separated much of the fragrance from the fat. The distilled fragrance went to perfumes and eau de toilettes, while the still scented fat went to soaps and creams. Again, the process is much the same today, except that, in lieu of animal fat, the flowers soak in glycerin.
What has changed significantly is the flowers themselves. The French can no longer afford to grow them, so they come from Turkey, Bulgaria, Egypt, India, and other flower friendly climates with cheap labor. Even the distillation process takes place in those countries, both because the flowers cannot survive shipping intact and, again, because labor is cheaper in the Second and Third world.
I also learned that, if you’re buying a nice perfume, only 30% of the cost covers the perfume itself. The rest of your money goes to design (done by one of the world’s 200 “noses,” or master designers), packaging, advertising, shipping, taxes, middlemen, etc. You can’t buy perfume without those costs, though, so it’s not worth getting upset.
St. Paul de Vence was beautiful. It’s been polished to a bright shine, and clearly caters to the high-end tourist trade. It wasn’t so twee as to be Disney, though. It was just visually charming.
I’d love to write more, but I’m just too tired.