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It’s a glassy modern makeover of an eighteenth-century hotel and crammed with perfume-making paraphernalia, “olfactive stations”, “essence fountains” and “vapour trails”, telling the same story of distillation, absorption, supercritical carbon dioxide volatile solvents and how it’s become possible to smell like Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Feeling sufficiently up on molecular science, I read the walls for some more background. Using donkey-drawn carts, the earliest French “parfumiers” carried their primitive and very crude distilling vats into the mountains around Grasse, gathered wild flowers and extracted scents on the spot in the open air by steaming the plants in large copper cauldrons. The still had been introduced from Arabia and an Italian monk, Mauritius Frangipani, had discovered that perfumes can be preserved in alcohol. In 1759, using skills learnt from the pomade (hair ointment) makers of Montpellier, the people of Grasse began supplying Parisian scent-makers with their raw materials. Business grew and soon Grasse was producing iris, hyacinth and rose scented soaps in special containers. Antoine Chiris founded one of the first perfumeries in the town at the end of the century. There are now three times more artificial, man-made fragrances on the market than natural ones. Approximately six thousand essential oils are used by the cosmetic industry. Today, the Grasse perfume industry employs a workforce of several thousand. The global cosmetic industry is thought to be worth .7 billion. Four factories in Grasse are open to the public and guided tours explain the series of washing, filtration, purification, evaporation and impregnation which constitutes the highly involved and painstaking production process. All this is overseen by one expert who is affectionately known as “The Chief Nose” or “Le Composeur”. “La Musee International de la Perfumerie”, which opened in 1989, has a collection of antique amphorae and stoppered bottles from famous manufactures like Lalique and Baccarat. Also exhibited is Marie Antoinette’s travel case and “chatelaines” – private perfume bottles on chains. In 1990, one bottle of “Bouchon Mures”, an electric blue flagon by Lalique, fetched a staggering £38,000 at auction.
Fine scents are like fine wines. But the bottle is almost as important as what is inside. Many, like Ernst Beaux’s Chanel No.5 bottle, have become design classics. The story of perfume contains a few surprises. Russian astronauts went into space with phials full of perfume and essential oils to remind them of home. From its earliest documented use perfume has put man in touch with the heavens. The word “perfume” derives from the Latin “per fumum” meaning “through smoke”, The ancient Greeks and Egyptians burnt aromatic substances in their temples to placate the gods and mask the smell of burning flesh during human sacrifices. As Christianity spread perfume was frowned upon as a vanity until it was revived by the Crusaders returning from the Middle-East. In Tudor times, Europeans sprinkled pleasant-smelling love-in-the-mist seeds into their hair to prevent lice. Perfumes fall into three basic categories – floral, orientals and oceanics. The top sellers include Chanel’s “Chanel No. 5” which Marilyn Monroe wore (“and nothing else”), “Gucci’s “Envy”, Givenchy’s “Organza”, and Calvin Klein’s “Obsession”. Paris perfume makers Lubin make Black Jade, said to be based on a perfume recipe loved by Marie-Antoinette, entrusted to a friend, passed down through the centuries...
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