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History of Grasse Newsletter: Part 1

Grasse: The Story of France's Historic Perfume Capitol

Oh fields! Oh fields of Grasse, oh fertile hills,Grasse
Oh cultivated crags, oh silvery sources.
Oh myrtles, oh jasmines, oh forests of orange flowers...

Abbe Cognet: A. Godeau, Bishop of Grasse and Vence (1605-1672)

"Walking aimlessly through the town of Grasse... For a long time we follow low, crumbling walls, walls behind which we sense the presence of some garden from a Thousand and One Nights, with its agaves, jasmines, fountains and zulejos (blue wall tiles). The multitude of worlds ruling over the multitude of flowers. The greenery studded with white jasmines. The earth balmy with their delicious nocturnal sigh. The dominant scent was a profound and fine as the light. Two kinds of sweetness emerged; the light and the perfume. The rose would give up its soul to the sun, the jasmine to the stars...." (Francis de Miomandre: Grasse, 1928)

The world is a vast place with many types of people, plants, animals, insects, birds and other creatures seen and unseen inhabiting it. Often when we are flying to India via either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, I look down and see the countries over which we are passing and am filled with a sense of great wonder at what is spread on the earth beneath us in the mighty seas, islands, mountains, rivers, lakes, cities, towns, and villages, which are filled with a great diversity of life. Each place has its own story to tell which is unique and special but according to ones own innate propensities one can only investigate a few places, people, cultures, religions or whatever one draws ones interest in this life.

It is an equally great mystery how certain places on the Earth becomes a center for great discoveries and innovations that impact the entire world. The very mention of the name of that place immediately brings to mind a whole history associated with some special historical event, religious movement, industrial innovation, etc. For lovers of fragrance the word Grasse located in the South of France immediately brings to mind vast fields of fragrant flowers; revered perfume establishments where famous perfumes were created; people working to harvest and distill/extract the essence of rose, violets, tuberose, orange blossoms that are the building blocks of great perfumes, etc. When I first began my aromatic explorations over 30 years ago the name of Grasse came to the forefront and stories of that great center of aromatic culture have been with me every since. In honor of Grasse, her people and plants I thought I might try to recreate a bit of her history that might be of interest to others. The next two newsletters will concern themselves with this fascinating subject.

This history will occupy two if not three newsletters. The first newsletter is devoted to explaining how the foundations of the perfume industry were laid. This will take us up to the 19th century when the industrial revolution began to take effect in Europe and transformed the entire perfume industry from a guild based occupation to one dominated by grand perfumery houses with vast areas devoted to the cultivation of flowers and their subsequent distillation and extraction for essential oils, pomades, absolutes etc. In this newsletter we will see how Grasse, a typical walled Medieval city, began her ascent as one of the main perfume centers of the world from very humble beginnings. It was due to her prominent position as a supplier of leather goods and innovative techniques of perfuming them that laid the foundation for later developments. Even though we are mainly concerned here with presenting the broad outlines of the cities aromatic evolution, it is well to remember that such progress rests in the hands of many unknown workers who working with the gifts of nature in form of her botanical treasures created an atmosphere of discovery and innovation that has brought enduring fame to the region.

History of Grasse: 12th - 19th Centuries
Grasse is a true medieval town that withstood Saracen raids in the 9th century. Grasse was an independent republic in the 12th century, with diplomatic relations with the neighboring city-state republics of Genoa and Pisa. In 1227, the Count of Provence, Raymond Bérenger brought Grasse into his control. It was the Bishopric of Antibes from 1244 to 1790. In 1536, Charles-Quint invaded the city-state of Nice and sacked Grasse, on the order of the governor of Provence. In 1589, the "Ligueurs" layed siege to Grasse and took the town during the Wars of Religion. During the French Revolution Grasse was the capital of the Var. In 1860, after the County of Nice became a part of France, Grasse was attached to the Alpes-Maritimes.

Grasse began to develop as early as the 11th century, though it was in the 12th century that the town knew real economic prosperity thanks to a treaty drawn up with Genoa in Italy. Later attached to the County of Provence, then the Kingdom of Savoy, Grasse benefited from the development of its leather-tanning industry in the 15th century, then from another activity that grew out of the first : perfume manufacturing. In the 18th century, Grasse became the Capital of the Perfume Industry.

Two towns were important then:
• Montpellier – famous for its medical and pharmaceutical schools. The town’s overly harsh
climate prevented the inhabitants from growing the plant-based substances needed for perfume locally.
• Grasse – a free and rich consular town and the economic capital of eastern Provence that profited
from an exceptional microclimate and a considerable amount of livestock – which were very useful for tanning. Indeed, from the 16th century onwards, the city effectively specialized in tanning. The evolution of the leather industry was used as a basis for that of perfume – and Grasse was to quickly gain a dominant place in the latter.

As early as the Middle-Ages, Grasse was a wealthy commercial city. It owed its prosperity to several factors, but first and foremost was its geographic location, neither too close nor too far from the sea. Not that it was always completely spared by the wars, but it did often find itself sufficiently removed from the coast to escape the direct fallout of the devastating barbarian invasions.
On the other hand,Street Scene, Grasse it was close enough to develop very early on a thriving maritime trade, particularly with the city of Genoa, in Italy. Its political situation also contributed greatly to its development. Inspired by the little Italian republics, Grasse set up a consulate in the 12th century. This enabled the city to reject the feudal administrative power of the neighboring city of Antibes and acquire some autonomy, although this was not an easy proposition due to the interference of the lords and bishop (whose authority was often questioned). Finally, a political and trade agreement with Genoa promoted exchanges between the two cities, and would remain in force for the next 300 years, up until the end of the 15th century. Wheat and animal skins arrived from Italy, while the ships returned full of wine, livestock and skins freshly dyed in Grasse by the local experts.

Very quickly, the prosperity of the city came to rest for the most part on its animal skin trade. This was, among other factors, thanks to the waters of a torrent, the Foux, which crossed the town once it had been canalized. The tanners were therefore able to meet on its banks to scrape, wash, and soak their leather for many months at a time. The people of Grasse were no doubt experts in tanning. But if Grasse was famous for the quality of its leather, it was equally infamous for the pestilential odor that stemmed from the operation. Eventually, some more innovative tanners settled in right next to the old ones who polluted the atmosphere. First, they treated their skins with the local olive oil which gave their leathers perfect suppleness, then they rubbed them with perfumed fatty ointments. From the immediate environments surrounding Grasse they were able to obtain myrtle and mastic which imparted to leather a fine fragrance and a green color which at the time was in great demands. These new scented skins were set aside, reserved for the making of gloves for pretty Parisian ladies. Up until then, ladies would run perfumed lace handkerchiefs under their delicate noses to avoid breathing the nauseating smells emanating from the capital’s dirty streets. From then on, they were able to use this new accessory instead, and it became all the rage. A new profession emerged, that of "Perfumer Glovers". In 1190, Philippe Auguste gave permission to build statues to the corporate "maitres gantiers" of the capital. These glove masters bought their profession for 39 deniers of gold. They had the exclusive privilege of making and selling fragrance-related products and sold their merchandise from their own shops.

As this new industry of perfumed leathers began to gain popularity amongst the wealthy and rich of France, the guild of the Perfumer Glovers began to draw on a wider range of aromatic substances to perfume their products. The Crusades, which extended from 1095 all the way into the 16th century resulted in an influx of aromatic materials from the East and Mid-East as the countries of those regions had a centuries old trade in these products amongst themselves and the Crusaders began to bring these fragrant wares back into Europe when they returned. With this increased palette of unguents, fatty oils, spices, herbs, etc the Perfumer Glovers Guild began to evolve ever more sophisticated recipes for their perfumed leathers which became treasured secrets of their trade.

The Guild of Glovers was among the most important guilds, and in 1268 it was granted a status of corporation in Paris. Due to the fact that tanning process made use of malodorous nitrogenous wastes, gloves and leather goods had to be reodorized. Therefore, it would be fair to say that glove-making was an important starting point for the inception of perfumery in France, and particularly in Grasse.

'Put into angelica water and rose water the powder of cloves, ambergris, musk and lignum aloes; bejamin and carduus aromaticus. Boil these till half be consumed, then strain it and put your gloves therein. Hang them in the sun to dry and turn them often. Do this three times: wetting and drying them again. Or, wet your gloves in rose water and hang them up till almost dry, then grind half an ounce of benjamin with oil of almonds and rub it on the gloves till it be almost dried in. Then grind twenty grains each of ambergris and musk with the oil of almonds and rub it on the gloves. Then hang them up to dry or let them dry in your bosom, and so, again, use them at your pleasure."

Over the next several centuries the Perfumer Glover Guild continued to grow in wealth and power in the city of Grasse and the royalty of that period continued to renew the privileges of the glove masters assigned to them.

At a time when general insecurity reigned, all the people of Grasse, whether rich or poor, were crammed inside the city walls. Houses were built several stories high, sometimes even connected by archways on top of which other buildings were stacked. The resulting narrow and often dark little streets are typical of the old town and lead to a picturesque square, the "Place aux Aires". It is impossible not to think of the tanners who came there to clean their animal skins at a distant time when the Foux still flowed through; or the townspeople who gathered there to carefully spread out their grains, having to pay "la rêve" (French homonym for "dream"), a tax collected in the Middle-Ages by the municipality. Far from making the inhabitants dream, the purpose of this local tax was to meet the needs of the city. Meat, fish, wine, wheat, in fact all the goods for sale at the markets in Grasse were subject to it, and very heavy fines were handed out to those who tried to cheat. It was on this beautiful public square that the people of Grasse came to carefully count their grains before bringing them to the mill. Today, the Place aux Aires is the setting for outdoor tables at cafes and restaurants, as well as the flower and regional products market, all arrayed around its magnificent three-basin stone fountain sheltered by thick hack berries.

Legend has it that Catherine de Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, was behind this newfound enthusiasm. While staying in Grasse, she was greatly impressed by the profusion of fragrant multicolored flora that filled this area of Provence, around the Mediterranean sea. Bored with the exotic perfumes that she was importing from the East at great cost, she chose Signor Tombarelli, a native of Florence who was a member of her entourage and perfumer by trade, to create a workshop in Grasse where he could make delicate essential oils from the local flowers.

For the most part, essential oils and sweet-scented ointments had always come from Italy up until then. However, relations between the two countries were often strained, and with every new armed conflict came a shortage of these products. It was decided that it was high time to take advantage of Mother Nature’s generous gift of such marvelous flowers to this region. It was during this period that planting of various non-native species of aromatic plants began evolve. The main plants required were: jasmine, which came from India from 1650 onwards; roses, cultivated in Grasse from 1650; and the tuberose, which arrived from Italy in around 1670.

The main process for extraction of the essence of fragrant flowers was the maceration process which had existed since the days of Pliny but had not been practiced in France until that time. By the end of the 17th century TuberoseGrasse was producing oils of cassie, hyacinth, jasmine, jonquil, narcissus, orange blossom, and violet. Experimental extractions using the enfleurage process were also taking place by this time.

“In March of 1673, Colbert’s Ordinance of Commerce put the industry of gantiers-poudriers-parfumeurs on a more stable footing as part of the Six Corps, the six most powerful business societies of the day, with privileged access to products from overseas”.

The Association of Perfumed Glovemakers, whose first statutes date from 1724 and were approved by the parliament of Provence on 11 February 1729, brought together 21 manufacturers in 1724 and as many as 70 in 1745. Gloves were scented not only for refinement, but also to remove stubborn odors from the skin.

Leather goods would remain an important part of the luxury industry, however in the 1760s the government introduced high imposts on hides, which crushed the revenues of the gantier-parfumeurs, the glove-making associations. Thus, Grasse retained its prominence in perfumery to this day, since its rival Montpellier had invested much more in glove-making aspect of perfume industry and could not survive the industry collapse.

The people living with the walled confines of this medieval city which had seen increased upward growth of buildings(because the city was defined by its ramparts) began to long for a healthier lifestyle. A large hospital and sunny esplanade were constructed and with the passage of the years some estates began to spring up outside the city walls. This set the stage for an intensified cultivation of aromatic plants where the constant attention of the owners of the fields of flowers was required. Land devoted to roses, violets, bitter orange, tuberose, and jasmine increased rapidly from the mid-18th century onwards.

In 1760 the first great perfume establishment came into being, which was founded by Antoine Chiris. This grand perfumery was to be the model for many others which were to arise in the 19th century.

On the eve of the Revolution, Grasse had definitively overtaken Montpellier in the industry and had assembled all the elements of its future prosperity: trade in the raw materials, imported mainly from Italy and the Mediterranean; the cultivation of flowers on a vast scale; and the first factories and sales networks, which had already been established throughout Europe. The French Revolution, commencing in 1789 slowed the growth of the perfume industry and it wasn't until the 19th century that the new age of perfumery in Grasse began.