Grasse’s history of cultivating fragrant plants for use in perfume dates back to the 18th century. It continues to define the town’s reputation as a leader in aroma production. The exceptional quality of the perfumed plants grown here is due to the advantageous geographic situation of Grasse, which enjoys a specific microclimate, quality of soil, and altitude, all perfect for the perfume crop.
But the ‘Exceptional Flowers’ of the Pays-de-Grasse are not exceptional simply due to the ideal geography, but also due to the accumulated knowledge of crop producers, making Grasse's industry unique in the world. Visitors to the region may search in vain for great fields of flowers, because the cultivation of plants for perfume is concentrated in small family plots of land where the crop is seasonal and often of very short duration.
Over centuries, the connection between the cultivator and fragrant plants has become a cultural tradition, even an artform. To grow exceptional plants requires observation, sustainable development and deep knowledge of botany and horticulture. It is important to understand the soil and water quality requirements, time needed for planting, grafting acceptability, weather protection, and skill of cutting and pruning.
In 2018, UNESCO recognised Grasse’s history of achievements by adding it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in the fields of cultivation of perfume plants, knowledge of raw materials and their transformation, art of perfume composition and art of transmission.
There are many trades related to the cultivation of perfume plants. Farmers, pickers, gatherers and grafters are all masters of their trades, and it’s their technical knowledge that ultimately defines the finished product.
‘Les Fleurs Exceptionnelles'
La Rose de Mai
Centifolia Rose or the ‘rose of one hundred petals’, is exclusively cultivated in May at the peak of its blooming season. The precious blooming rose is fragile and must be picked in the early morning of the day when the flower just begins to open. If picked later in the day, the scent is more intense, but not as sweet.
Every morning of harvesting day, pickers can collect up to 10 kilograms of fresh roses. The flower heads are carefully plucked, then kept in burlap sacks until they are laid out on the floor in a pink carpet to allow the roses to breathe. They are then transported the same day to local extraction facilities, where, to maximise yield of the essence and to preserve the characteristic fresh nuances, the absolute is extracted through a chemical enfleurage. With its honey and pepper notes, the centifolia rose offers a fantastic olfactory show every spring.
Le Jasmin Grandiflorum
This variety of Jasmine is the ‘large-flowered’ type and is one of the most precious raw materials of perfumery. The hot and humid summers in the Pays-de-Grasse facilitate Jasmine to flourish every night from August to October. Each morning, thousands of white stars are harvested from dawn to just before midday, and then immediately delivered to a processing facility. As with many flowers, jasmine blossoms continue to emit scent after they have been detached from the plant, and its character continues to develop until the blossoms fade and deteriorate.
In April, Jasmine cuttings are grafted onto a hardier species of Jasmine to prevent disease, and the harvest will be for the following year. This method helps produce the maximum quantity of flowers.
To produce 1 kilogram of jasmine absolute, it takes about 500 to 700 kilograms or 7-8 million jasmine flowers. Jasmine produces one of the most expensive absolutes. The multi-faceted Grandiflorum exalts the fields with its sensual, floral and fruity fragrance. The Jasmine grown at le Domaine de Manon, which produces jasmine exclusively for Dior, even has hints of banana.
Commercial cultivation of the tuberose began at the end of the 17th century in Basse-Provence where it was mostly used for perfume. To keep the plants producing more flowers that give lush quality fragrance, the plants are pulled out of the ground every year rand replanted in a new plot. Around April, the tuberose bulbs are placed into a fresh plot of soil, and wait until summer to have their sweet scented blooms collected. They give their best fragrance at dusk to attract nocturnal pollinators, making it the ideal time to harvest the tuberose flowers.
Unlike other flowers the Iris’ rhizome is where the odoriferous molecules concentrate. It is harvested between August and September after a rainfall, which loosens the surrounding earth. This fragrant root requires much patience and commitment. It takes 3 to 6 years growing in the ground, followed by another 3 years of treatment for it to be ready to be used in perfume. There are two methods to conserve rhizomes that produce two different products. If the rhizome is cut and dried, it produces what is called ‘black iris’. If it is peeled to remove the outer skin before being dried, the result is 'white iris’. The drying process is done in the sun, then the rhizomes are kept from moisture in silos for two to three years before distillation. It requires 4000 kilograms of fresh rhizome to produce 1 kilogram of iris absolute. Irise has a delicate violet-like character, powdery and slightly musky.
La Fleur D'Oranger
Also known as Neroli, orange blossom is one of the most utilised ingredients in perfumery, cosmetics and aromatherapy. The orange blossoms are harvested by hand during spring time. The peels and grains of the orange fruits, the leaves, and the branches of the bitter orange tree are also used in perfumery. Neroli has soft citrus and jasminesque notes, deliciously spicy, bitter but also floral and sweet. It manifests a refreshing, soothing and uplifting feeling, making it my personal favourite natural scent.
Grassoise horticulturists, affectionately called ‘mimosistes’ by the locals, grow mimosa in unheated greenhouses. In these chambers, the warm atmosphere and 90% humidity, the mimosa blossoms are drenched with nutrients. As a result, the mimosa plants flower in as little as 48 hours. These greenhouses are concentrated in the Tanneron-Massif region. Once harvested, the flowers, have to be processed as quickly as possible before they fade. From around 40 000 kilograms of flowers, some 400 kilograms of a fragrant rock-like substance called ‘concrete’ is produced. The concrete is chemically purified into about 100 kilograms of usable absolute. Mimosa has a fresh, floral, slightly powdery, almost honeyed aspect, which blends beautifully with the green scent of the stems.
For use in perfume, only the leaves of the violet plant are harvested. Parma violets are a distinctive subgroup of the Viola family, which is tender and better suited to cultivation in the Southern regions of France. In ideal conditions, which contemporaneously are created with greenhouses, violets can flower for seven months, but it is between May and June when the leaves of the violet are harvested. Of all the perfumed plants of Grasse, violets require the coolest conditions and are therefore grown at the highest altitudes in the Bar-Sur-Loup region. Its green-floral scent adds a singularity to a perfumer's creation.
Lavandin is a natural hybrid plant that came into existence in the early 20th century due to foraging insects, mainly bees, going from flower to flower transporting pollen from one lavender species to another. This natural phenomenon was verified in 1927 in the Chiris Laboratories of Grasse. Artificial pollination of Spike Lavender by English Lavender pollen enabled production of six single seeds, which once planted, produced two individuals formally identified as ‘lavandin’. Lavandin is preferred by many Grassoise perfumers for its higher content of the terpenoid camphor. This gives it the strength and tenacity to make the perfect lavender for use in perfumes, soaps and cosmetics.
'Les Fleurs Exceptionnelles' are a mesmerising collection of natural aromas borne from the authentic stories of the cultivators of Grasse. Whether it’s January to March when the mimosa brooms flower, orange blossoms in April, May for sweet scented Roses, or the height of summer for Jasmine, the changing olfactory colours are always captivating, and a testament to the bond the Grassoise have with the seasons, the challenges and the gifts of the natural world.