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Monday, November 13, 2000

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A heady package


Inder Raj Ahluwalia

It is to perfumes what Paris is to fashion. And it has no rival to talk of, no peers...

The little town of Grasse that lies tucked away in the heart of the French Riviera, has been the traditional centre for perfume manufacture and the home for several famous perfumeries, including the celebrated `Parfumery Fragonard'. The perfume business is the town's essence, economic mainstay and its claim to international fame.

The sun shone brightly as I drove into town, lighting up tiled roofs and giant trees. About 18 km from Cannes and about 36 km from Nice, Grasse lies on the famous `Route Napoleon'. The favourable influence of the nearby sea and mountains h as given the region a pleasant and healthy temperate climate. The town's little buildings and gabled pathways are symmetric and its people friendly. Add to all this, the fantastic local perfumes and one gets a heady package. And thousands of tourist s.

The town has had its moments of history and as far back as the Middle Ages, it was an important economic centre, its local tanneries producing the best skins in Europe. Then, in the 16th century came the perfume industry. Two factors contribut ed to its birth and development, the fashion of perfumed gloves introduced by Catherine of Medicis and the cultivation of aromatic plants supplying the tanneries with the raw materials required to perfume the leather. Perfumery, as an art for m and an industry, was born in Grasse.

In the early 17th century, the perfume-glove makers gradually separated from the tanners and in 1729, the `Parliament de Provence' granted them a new, well-defined status. The early 19th century saw Grasse assume great economic status and e xpansion, becoming an important centre under the Second Empire. Today, it is all about fragrances for perfumes, soaps and cosmetics, and for food flavouring.

I found myself at the celebrated Perfumery Fragonard, the oldest establishment of the Fragonard Group, which is renowned the world over for its perfume-manufacturing techniques. Open for daily visits, the perfumery is a treasure-house of informa tion. My guided tour of the establishment took me from room to room devoted to the business. One can see distillation being done in copper stills, with the use of local flowers such as lavender, rose, jasmine and orange blossom. There is a laboratory for essential oils purification, cellars for maceration and filteration, special rooms for making the pomades and a soap-manufacturing unit. One can also sample their special perfumes in the in-house boutique and buy them at ex-factory prices.

The perfumery's museum is a treat. Here, one finds a unique, priceless collection of boxes, bottles, beauty-cases and documents that record the perfume industry's history going back almost 3,000 years. Some exhibits have been collec ted from different parts of the world, others come from the neighbourhood itself.

I was introduced to the `Nose'. He is a very special kind of professional in the business, one who actually creates the perfumes. Known in the industry simply as a `perfumer', the `Nose' plays a crucial role that has a direct bearing on the perfumes created. He has his work cut out for him, working with thousands of different products and scents to create one single perfume after much experimentation and adaptation. In order to `smell' his creation, he has to have ideas, t aste, knowledge of the public's tastes and the ability to forecast fashion changes.

More of an artist rather than a technician, perfumers are few and far between, with Grasse being the main training school of the art of perfumery. Most `noses' have trained and worked here. Painstakingly, I was initiated into the nether world of perfumes and learnt something of the `scents within scents'.

The newest thing in the perfumery is `aroma therapy'. Fragonard offers this special service to visitors and clients at their factory. One can choose a selection of perfumes and devise special final products to best suit one's health ne eds. The perfumery provides the essential oils needed and also expert advice by specialists in the field. A special package for $ 40 includes eight essential oils and relevant advice, in a two-hour course.

According to Philippe Ruiz, Fragonard's Commercial Director, aroma therapy has a big future as health is important to every one and the products used are 100 per cent natural.

Perfumes apart, Grasse is a relaxed little town with pleasant walks along shady avenues, leisurely shopping and charming little cafes whose tables spill over on to the pavements.

As I was leaving, we passed a truck of the Perfumery Fragonard. It was business as usual in the perfume capital of the world...

Fast facts

Grasse is in the French Riviera and is an half-an-hour's drive from Cannes and Nice. The nearest international airport is Nice. The best time to visit is from March through October. Conducted tours to Grasse are available in Nice and Cannes.

Picture: Courtesy Grasse Tourist Office.

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