Smells Like Fragonard
When I heard that Fragonard has a perfume museum in the heart of Paris, I knew that we had to make a visit. Not because I was all that familiar with the brand or anything like that (perhaps I’d seen their ads in a few fashion magazines; I really don’t recall), but because I’m a perfume aficionado and I’d been hoping that we’d get the chance to explore a bit of France’s perfume culture while there.
So after an afternoon spent marveling inside the Opéra Garnier followed by a coffee break at pretentious Printemps, we walked a few blocks to rue Scribe where Fragonard’s perfume museum sits in a town house that was built in 1860 by Lesoufaché who was a student of the famous French architect responsible for Opéra Garnier’s design, Charles Garnier.
During our brief tour of the museum, our guide explained that the perfume brand, which is only available in France, is named after Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a French painter and printmaker from the Provençal town of Grasse which is known as the perfume capital of the world. Fortunately for us, following our week in Paris, we’d made plans to stop in Grasse as it was on our route from Saint-Tropez to Nice. Our plans to visit Grasse were also fortunate since the tour of the Paris museum, while informative, didn’t allow photographs or provide any real insight into how Fragonard’s perfumes are made.
Historic Factory in Grasse
As we approached the beautifully preserved hilly town of Grasse, I was excited for the chance to gain a deeper understanding of Fragonard’s perfume making process.
During the 12th century, the leather and tanning industries boomed in Grasse. While the nobles loved their fashionable leather gloves, they smelled horribly. Furthermore, there was a foul stench around town due to all of the tanning activities. Realizing that the flowers blooming in fields in the countryside surrounding Grasse could be used to produce perfumes, Galimard, a tanner, decided to make scented leather gloves for the nobles. Thereafter, “Glovers Perfumers” and the perfume industry continued to grow in Grasse until high taxes and stiff competition from Nice drove the leather business out of town. However, the perfume industry continued to flourish there.
Today, Grasse remains the home of Galimard and other old perfumeries including Molinard and Fragonard. The town’s hillside location gives it a unique climate that’s perfect for harvesting flowers considering that there’s plenty of water, it’s fairly warm, and it’s far enough inland to be protected from the sea air. With such ideal conditions, Grasse harvests 27 tons of jasmine, a key ingredient of many perfumes, each year.
Perfume Making Techniques
Our tour of the Fragonard factory in Grasse pretty much covered the same details that we were given in Paris except it provided much more detail about the perfume production process.
For starters we got to see an interesting map illustrating the countries where various flowers used to create Fragonard perfumes are harvested.
Although many natural smelling scents are created in chemistry labs today, some perfume making techniques from the past live on. Using the distillation technique, flowers and plants are placed on perforated trays in the upper part of distillation vats like these while water is boiled below. When the steam rises through the flowers, the scents are carried into a spiraled glass contraption to cool and condense by refrigeration. The water and essential oils are collected in Florentine flasks where the oils rise to the surface and are skimmed off to create perfumes while the water is used for other products.
Another interesting perfume making method involves spreading out animal fat onto glass sheets and topping them with flowers that are frequently replaced with fresh ones until the fat absorbs the fragrance. The perfumed fats can then be used to make cosmetic products. Alternatively, the fats are washed in alcohol to get rid of the fat, and once the alcohol evaporates, an absolute remains.
Our guide showed us a crate of some fragrant soaps that were made using this cold extraction process. The soaps were shaped and colored like Easter eggs in preparation for the holiday festivities.
The final perfume making method our guide explained involves extraction using changeable solvents. Using this method, the fragrant parts of plants and flowers are dissolved in huge metal vats and washed in solvents that absorb the fragrance. Once filtered, the solvent evaporates and leaves behind a fragrant paste which is then washed in alcohol and chilled many times over, creating a pure absolute essence.
Throughout the entire perfume production process, highly trained and highly paid chemists known around France as the “noses,” constantly test and distinguish thousands of scents. Our guide was careful not to disclose how much these skilled artisan-scientists get paid, but she assured us that they go to school for many years before earning their high salaries.
Our guide even tested our scent-smelling capabilities by asking us to match jars of fragrant pomades with the corresponding plant, fruit, or flower pictured on a table. As it turns out, if all else fails in my life, I can go to France and work as a “nose” since I got all of the scents right!
Once produced, the perfumes are bottled in Fragonard’s signature gold-colored bottles which are specially designed to protect the perfumes from light and heat.
Adding to My Collection
Following the tour, we were led to Fragonard’s onsite store where visitors can choose from several perfumes (for ladies), eau de toilettes (for men), body lotions, and the like. Jave surprised me with purchases of Étoile and Belle Chérie at $75 per ounce for each.
While Fragonard perfumes are anything but cheap, after seeing all that goes into the perfume making process, I definitely have a better appreciation for why they’re so expensive. And as someone who wasn’t at all familiar with the Fragonard brand prior to visiting the Paris museum and the historic Grasse factory, I have to say that my two new perfumes are my absolute favorites in my ever changing collection. I LOVE smelling like Fragonard!