July 14, 2020 | News | No Comments
Maurin Pisani picked the last of this year’s jasmine flowers and held it to his nose, breathing in the delicate perfume. Behind him the Maritime Alps, beneath, the hills of Grasse rolling to the sea.
“Their smell changes all the time because they are alive. Sometimes of mango, apricot and banana, sometimes almonds and coconut, and when they start to wilt, the animal odour of indole,” said the 34-year-old.
“You mean cat pee,” responded his partner Anne Caluzio, 32, with a laugh.
Joking apart, the couple are living proof that flower power is finally returning to the French Riviera town famed for its scent.
The pair started planting jasmine grandiflorum – a key ingredient in top French perfumes like J’adore L’Or or Chanel number 5 – in their farm in June. It is back-breaking work as every tiny flower has to be harvested by hand over a three-month period.
But if all goes to plan, within four to five years, they will be the second biggest producers of the prized white flower in France.
After decades in the doldrums, Grasse is in the midst of a perfume renaissance, which culminated last month with it being crowned by UNESCO as a world “intangible cultural heritage” treasure.
Central to that rebirth has been a revival in the local production of its famed roses, jasmine and tuberose, among others.
Grasse has been renowned as the world’s perfume capital since the 16th century, when scent was used to hide the awful odours from its burgeoning tannery industry and to produce fragrant gloves for the King.
While it continued to live off its name, globalisation and the rise of cheaper alternatives in countries like India and Tunisia killed off Grasse’s flower production in recent decades.
Meanwhile, sky-high land prices on the Côte d’Azur spurred many farmers to sell their land. The fields around here were covered with 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of flowers at the start of the 20th century. Today only around 40 hectares remain.
But a small band of tenacious growers refused to give up.
Among them was Armelle Janody, 49, a former French teacher, who with her partner and sound engineer Rémy Foltête, 58, and their children ditched everything to become rose farmers seven years ago.
Locals, many of whom used to be in the flower trade before it dried up in the 1980s, looked askance when she started planting the region’s famous rose centifolia.
“The old-timers really suffered from the decline. One day, my neighbour found no more flower pickers for his jasmine fields and ripped them all up in anger,” she said while pruning roses.
“So when I arrived, he said who does she think she is? Everyone bet on us dying within two years,” she recalled.
Members of her Fleurs d’Exception du Pays de Grasse association, which represents local growers, managed to reverse the decline by changing business model.
In the past, they were at the mercy of local industrial firms that processed the flowers to extract their scent. When these increasingly turned to synthetic aromas, demand plummeted, so the growers decided to approach France’s top perfumers directly.
“It worked because a return to natural raw materials was in fashion,” she said.
Today, Ms Janody and most flower producers have signed exclusive contracts with giant luxury groups like Chanel and more recently LVMH, which owns Dior and Louis Vuitton and bought a chateau in the area in 2016.
Given the small quantities produced, local independent perfumers complain they have been all but shut out of the market.
“Grasse has to be careful to not let the bigger forces continue to control flower production even if it is thanks to them that that new producers are starting up,” said Jessica Buchanan, a Canadian perfumer based in central Grasse.
But this may change. With demand rising, local authorities last month ring-fenced a further 70 hectares of local land for flower producers. Mr Pisani’s estate, for example, was saved from the clutches of a real estate agency.
That initiative was backed by senator and ex-mayor Jean-Pierre Leleux, who also spearheaded Grasse’s UNESCO bid.
He said the new UN status would help preserve Grasse’s savoir-faire that “could be lost if we don’t organise ways of passing it on to future generations”. For example, the area only has a handful of individuals who know how to graft Grasse roses and one remaining glass blower for old-style bottles.
UNESCO recognises what Mr Leleux calls the “holy trinity” of Grasse, which comprises not just the cultivation of perfume plants but also the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials, and the art of creating a perfume.
Some of the town’s companies are world leaders in extracting fragrance from raw materials using a range of methods and age-old know-how. One, Robertet, has just reintroduced an ancient technique of "enfleurage" whereby individual flowers are placed on fat, which absorbs their smell.
Grasse is also famed for its “nez”, among them Fabrice Pellegrin, 50, a “scent composer” whose father was a perfumer and mother a jasmine picker. Whereas the untrained nose can discern only around 15 smells, he can single out up to 4,000.
Grasse, he said, had long thrived by jealously guarding its perfume secrets, only passing them down inside family-run businesses. “For example, for months I tried to reproduce the scent of a fresh Grasse jasmine flower,” he said.
“My father told me: ’It’s good but if you want it to smell natural, add basil.’ I took his advice. He was right.”
Worried such elders would take their secrets to the grave, he helped open this year the first comprehensive perfume school in Grasse, the Ecole Supérieur du Parfum, covering everything from olfaction to sourcing and marketing. His son is a student.
There was nowhere better to learn than Grasse, he said. “We’re lucky to be squeezed between the mountains and the sea with a unique microclimate perfect for perfume flowers,” he said. They may be dozens of times more expensive than their foreign rivals, but they were unique, he said.
“You can plant the same botanic species here, in India, Morocco and Egypt. They will all have different smells but the most beautiful, rich and noble will be those from Grasse,” he said.
Back in their field, Maurin Pisani and Anne Caluzio started placing white veils over their prized jasmine shrubs to stop them freezing in winter.
“We have arrived at a time of a renaissance and feel very lucky,” said Mr Pisani.
“There is more land up for grabs and more and more candidates to be flower growers,” said Ms Caluzio. “This is just the beginning.”
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