Let me make one thing clear from the start. If you're anywhere near Grasse and you have a few hours to spare, you must visit the International Perfumery Museum. You may not end up liking everything about it, but you can’t afford not to see it.
Why the cautionary tone? Well, to start with, a sense of almost embarrassing desperation hangs over the way in which the small town just a few miles north of Cannes insists on its reputation as the world's capital of all things fragrance-related, a reputation which some would argue is no longer justified. So before one even enters the terracotta-walled building (which goes by the endearing acronym MIP in French), it’s hard to dispel the feeling that the collection of exhibits will have a self-congratulatory agenda. But it’s worth keeping an open mind as you pay for your ticket, because the place does have much to offer, even if a stroll around its many rooms isn’t ultimately as satisfying as it could have been.
The tour gets off to a promising start with a stop at a garden-like enclosure in which one can see living, growing specimens of the plants whose names are churned out on press releases and official lists of notes. In addition to the relatively predictable (but entirely welcome) inclusion of jasmine, rose de mai and various citrus trees, there are also specimens of vetivert, vanilla, cistus and ylang ylang. Seeing the tangible, organic presence of this vegetation is a reminder of the genius which, centuries ago, prompted humanity to extract and bottle the odorous constituents of nature.
As you’d expect, the displays of flacons (both ancient and modern) are impressive, not least in a section which attempts to weave together various stylistic trends in bottle design, throwing up amusing and surprising juxtapositions in the process. The Grecian segment is particularly memorable for placing Disney’s Hercules fragrance next to weightier players such as Dior
’s world-famous amphorae. However, a disappointingly large number of rooms is devoted to artefacts which are only tangentially related to perfume. One can accept the presence of beauty products, as many of these possess an important olfactory component. But the sight of oversized luggage doesn’t rest easily with the more overtly fragrance-oriented exhibits, even if some of it did belong to Marie Antoinette.
The place also possesses a curious lack of brand awareness. On the one hand, this is admirable, as it banishes any worries about corporate affiliation. But it often comes across as a form of wilful blindness. No matter what else it may be, perfumery is a commercial enterprise and it’s odd that the museum plays down the importance of names such Guerlain
. They’re represented, of course, but in a muted way, which makes one wonder about the behind-the-scenes politicking that probably took place when all the various fragrance houses were approached for donations. This uncomfortable ‘brand neutrality’ is most evident in the absence of any fragrances to smell. Individual notes are dotted about all over the place - most notably a few headspace reconstructions from Mane - but you won’t find a single well-known scent to sniff, not even in the lacklustre shop at the exit. (Compare this with last year’s Perfume Diaries at Harrods which managed to bring several key fragrances into a much smaller setting.)
However, it’s easy to forgive MIP many of these shortcomings once you reach its piece de resistance: a long, narrow room containing more than a hundred years’ worth of perfume. Carefully arranged behind glass cabinets is a veritable history lesson, starting in the 19th century and extending to the first decade of the 21st. All the classic names are present and accounted for, most of them in their original bottles. It’s a staggering sight which provides a potent visual representation of the beguiling power of perfume to punctuate our daily lives, create memories and preserve the past.
Those of you with green thumbs - or an interest in the more fauna-focussed side of perfumery - might also be interested in visiting the MIP Gardens which are about a 20 minute drive away at 979 Chemin Des Gourettes, 06370 Mouans-Sartoux.
The Molinard Factory
The Lonely Planet tourist guide claims that Grasse is “not the most picturesque spot on the Riviera.” In fact, it goes so far as to state that its old town is “shabby” and “has seen better days.” The brash leaflets vying for attention in Offices De Tourisme all along France’s south coast would have you believe that the town is as important to perfumery today as it was 50 or 60 years ago, but as Luca Turin points out in Chandler Burr’s The Emperor Of Scent, the development and globalisation of the aromachemicals industry in the 60s stole the limelight from this particular pocket of Provence.
That’s not to say that Grasse is totally irrelevant. Its climate remains ideal for growing several varieties of scent-yielding crops and it is still the home of many key manufacturers of natural materials, such as the much-respected Robertet. But these organisations deal with professional clients, not ‘average’ consumers, no matter how perfume-obsessed they may be. So an aficionado hoping to pop into the local branch of Mane to pick up 15 ml of their CO2 rum extract will be sorely disappointed (more’s the pity). If Grasse still has a role to play in the perfume world, it almost certainly isn’t at the level of an ordinary shopper.
Of course, this raises the question of what the place has to offer to a mere mortal visiting the area. Sadly, the answer is: not very much, apart from the International Perfumery Museum, mentioned above, and tours of a few local fragrance houses. Of these, Molinard is well worth seeing. For a start, the brand possesses genuine legitimacy outside the confines of the bay of Cannes: its products are sold in many mainstream French perfumeries, and its perennial bestseller, Habanita, is still considered an absolute must-try by perfume lovers.
Secondly, its old factory at Boulevard Victor Hugo possesses a palpable sense of history. The current director, Jean-Pierre Lerouge-Benard, freely admits that a question mark could be placed over the date of 1849 which is displayed on all the company’s products as the point at which the Molinard story started. But historical accuracy notwithstanding, every corner of the establishment seems to conceal evocative tales about this most secretive and most enthralling of artisanal enterprises. Why are tiny buckets hung beneath the taps of all the oversized barrels? Because Grasseois are extremely thrifty and don’t wish to waste a single drop of their precious scented juices. Why does Habanita possess a pronounced smoky note? Because it was never conceived as a perfume at all and was originally designed to scent women’s cigarettes. And why does the ceiling of the distillery vaguely resemble a famous Parisian tower? Because it was designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself.
If you’ve made the journey to Grasse and paid for the Molinard tour, I’d suggest going the whole hog and booking a perfume making session as well. Dubbed ‘tarinologie’ (from ‘tarin’, a slang French word for ‘nose’) these hour-long classes are an enjoyable way to create a near-unique souvenir of one’s trip. Nobody pretends that the ‘lessons’ resemble the rigorous processes professional perfumers have to undergo during their labours of love. But the clever, simple set-up – the ‘instructor’ provides a generous selection of accords arranged into top, middle and base notes – does offer a glimpse of the endless olfactory combinations and possibilities with which a trained nose is confronted when he or she is asked to produce the next commercial hit.
There may not be much glitz or glamour in Grasse these days, but there are still a few opportunities to gain insights into the craft of perfumery. And although Lonely Planet suggests the town isn’t worth more than a day trip, it would be a shame if a visit to this corner of France didn’t include a stroll across the leafy grounds of the Villa Habanita.
The Molinard factory is at 60 Boulevard Victor Hugo, 06131 Grasse.
The International Perfumery Museum is at 2 Boulevard Du Jeu De Ballon, 06130 Grasse
About the author
Persolaise is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer and amateur perfumer who has had a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over 25 years. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com
or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com.