France’s Perfume Center: The History of Grasse or the Scented Slut

Catherine de' Medici, Painting Attributed to François Clouet, c. 1555, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Catherine de’ Medici, Painting Attributed to François Clouet, c. 1555, Courtesy of Wikipedia

France is famous for its perfume. One area in France that became a prospering perfume area was picturesque Grasse. This commune was located in the Alpes-Maritimes department on the French Riviera. However, before Grasse perfume became famous, Grasse was famous for its leather and tanneries. Leather gloves produced there had bad odors, so a tanner named Galimard came up with the idea to scent them. To create scented gloves, people in the countryside began to grow flowers, which was aided by the area’s microclimate and the fact the Moors brought jasmine into the area.

The woman who made scented gloves popular was Catherine de’ Medici. She loved them so much, she helped spread the idea of fragrant gloves worldwide. It also resulted in some of France’s most eminent bishops referring to the area as “Gueuse Parfumée” or the “scented slut.” Eventually, high taxes on leather and competition from Nice resulted in a reduced demand for gloves, and the fragrance for the gloves ceased.

This was a problem, because flowers remained available in vast quantities. To use the flowers, a perfumery called Perfumerie Galimard was established by Jean de Galimard, Lord of Seranon in 1747. It is the world’s third oldest perfumery and, at the time, provided Louis XV’s Royal Court with ointments, pomades, and perfumes.

In the 1700s, an introduction of new production methods turned Grasse’s perfume-making into a thriving industry. Vast carpets of flowers were grown to meet the demand. This is demonstrated by one description written about the area:

“Violets carpet the terraces under the olive-trees, while on other terraces grows the orange-tree. … Out in the open country there are fields of jonquil, and of jessamine, and of the muscadine rose, that Rose of Provence, which excels all other roses in fragrance. … There is no scope left the flowers for wasting ‘their sweetness on the desert air’ in this region …  and all through the flowering season the stills of the … perfumers … are busy extracting and bottling up this sweetness for the London and Paris markets.”

Sorting of Flowers at Grasse Perfumery, Public Domain
Sorting of Flowers at Grasse Perfumery, Public Domain

To create the marvelous scents, fragrant flowers were handpicked. Flower pickers began at dawn “with huge discs of straw the size of cartwheels on their heads, and skirts whose roseate hue makes the roses themselves look dingy.” During the harvesting season, pickers put in 10, 12, and even 16 hours a day. Scents from the flowers, particularly the orange blossoms, sometimes overpowered the pickers. Thus, some pickers allegedly suffered “prolonged fainting fits.” Fresh flowers were picked and carried in baskets to town. There they were sorted and favorite bouquets “produced by a cunning mixture of the essences of many flowers.”

These essences then formed scents or perfumes. One nineteenth century visitor to Grasse wrote about the perfume making process and stated:

“Extracts for scenting pocket-handkerchiefs are made from freshly gathered flowers laid between two sheets of glass. On each side of the glass is a layer of lard, which, in twelve to twenty-four hours, completely absorbs the odoriferous oil. When the flowers are abundant, they are renewed every twelve hours, sometimes every six hours. The operation is repeated a different number of times on the same lard with different flowers … The lard is melted in a large iron vessel and mixed with spirits made from grain, which combining with the volatile oil rises to the top; the fluid is then filtered; this is called the cold method. Orange and rose petals require the hot methods, either by the still or by the ‘bain-marie.’ The distilling of the fragrant oil from the petals requires most vigilant attention. Rose and orange pomade are made by the bain-marie method by submerging a large iron pot full of lard in boiling water. When the lard is melted the petals are added, and after having remained twelve or twenty-four hours the mass is filtered to remove the now inodorous petals. The operation is repeated from thirty to sixty times, according to the required strength of the perfume.”

Habit de Parfumer, Public Domain
Habit de Parfumer, Public Domain

One writer noted, “Every whiff of scent has its money value.” The most valued scents in the 1800s were the “otto of rose” and “neroli.” In 1882, besides the otto of roses and neroli, the pelargonium roseum was produced. Its oil adulterated the otto of rose. Jasmine was another key ingredient. It was added to almost every scent produced at Grasse. Daffodils and tuberose also created fragrant pomades. So did the lily of the valley, with its pure white, bell-shaped, delicately-scented flowers.

A visitor to Grasse in the late 1800s, wrote about the plenitude of Grasse flowers. He stated, “I was only there in the spring time, but during my stay I collected some 250 flowers, and had not nearly exhausted the floral treasures of plain and hill.” In fact, Grasse flowers became a profitable export due to their popularity and availability. That is likely why one person claimed the quantity of flowers exported by Grasse annually was sufficient to cover the needs of the whole world. It was also why Grasse flowers were “almost as numerous as the letters of the alphabet, and … distinguished by such terms as essence de lavande cultivée, lavande du Piedmont, lavande des fleurs mondées, lavande éperle, lavande fine, [and etc.]”.

 References:

  • American Druggist, Volume 13, 1884
  • Galimard, Inc., online at Galimard
  • New Remedies, Volume 12, 1833
  • Scientific American: Supplement, Volume 31, 1891
  • Thackeray, William Makepeace, The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 16, 1891
  • The Garden, Volume 39, 1891
  • The Living Age, Volume 189, 1891
  • The Pharmaceutical Era, Volumes 5-6, 1892

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