Sniffing around Grasse, France, the world's perfume capital

This French town is the hub of perfume manufacturing. We retrace each step of the process

By Smita Roy Chowdhury
  • Published 9.09.18
  • a few seconds read
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Situated along the French Riviera, Grasse lives in the shadow of Cannes, the star stop along the Mediterranean coast in southern France, which is about a half-an-hour’s drive. But this nondescript small town is famous in its own right, as the hub of perfume manufacturing. It is also where Santieb’s Vie de Luxe, a brand of perfumes set up by Calcutta-based Vishal Bamalwa, gets it perfumes made. From small labs to huge factories, there are perfumeries at every bend of the pathway in Grasse, where t2oS landed up on an August morning and witnessed the laborious process of creating a beautiful fragrance, from making the perfume oil to bottling. 

INSIDE THE LAB

Our first stop was the perfume lab Romessence, where aromas are born. It’s one of the smaller perfumeries that creates the aroma oil for a perfume, and the air outside the building is fragrant. 

“To create a new fragrance, we try to understand what the customer needs. We start with the brief. Then we discuss with our marketing department and try to make something new for the client, keeping their profile and taste in mind,” said Benoit Gerace, one of the main perfumers at Romessence, and our guide for the lab tour. 

Step 1: The Gas Chromatography (GC) machine analyses each ingredient of a fragrance. For instance, if you want to create a perfume, you provide samples of what aromas you like, which are analysed by the GC machine. 

A gram of the perfume oil is injected into the machine, which gradually burns the oil, starting at 70°F and going up to 250°F, with the aromas revealing themselves during the process. At 70°F, you get all the volatile aromas and alcohol, then come the flowers and fruits, and all the background notes at the end, like patchouli and musk.
 
Step 2: The machine feeds the chromatograph to a computer, which prepares the formula for the perfume after analysing the notes. Sometimes a sample has to be inserted inside the GC machine a second time to double-check.

AT THE FACTORY

The perfume oil made in the lab is sent to the factory for the fragrance to be manufactured. We dropped by the factory of Corialys, located in the middle of a quiet industrial neighbourhood. Corialys is a factory owned by a Lebanese family, run by brothers Richard and Souheil Asfour with around 30 years’ experience in the perfume industry. “When someone comes to us with an idea, we give them the finished product. We guide them on how to develop it. From receiving the oil to the packaging, we do everything,” said Richard, whose company makes 800,000 to 1 million bottles per year for various brands. In 2017, the company worked for 62 brands. 

At Corialys, we walked into a room that houses bottles of every shape and size. While most of the bottles are standard shapes — round, oval, cube, rectangle — there are some which are specially moulded for specific brands. There was one that was shaped like a maple leaf.

NOTE BY NOTE: Perfumers Benoit Gerace & Cecilia d’Angelo of Romessence   

How does one become a perfumer?

Benoit Gerace: To become a perfumer you need to have a background in chemical science. Then you have to apply to a perfumer school; there are perfumer schools in Paris and Grasse. There are less than 10 perfumer schools in all of France. I, however, didn’t do any perfumer school, I went to business school. I have been in this profession since the age of 15. I did my summer job and internship in the perfume industry. I was born in Grasse and I have lived in Grasse all my life. My parents are also working in the perfume industry, so I have the technical background.

Cecilia d’Angelo: I studied in a perfumer school in Grasse, and passed out a few months ago.
 
Other than the formal education, what are the qualities one needs in a perfumer?

Benoit:
You need to be creative… and understand aromas. You must understand how aromas interact together and how to apply them in combinations. For example, a formula for EDT cannot be used in a cologne. So you need to have the technical background of course. Even if you have all the background of being a perfumer, when you start you are not a real perfumer because being a perfumer comes with experience.

Cecilia: The number of years you need to become a perfumer depends. Say, if in the beginning of your career you create an amazing perfume, you are a perfumer. But usually it takes about 10 years to be a senior perfumer, if you take it slowly, learning everything. It’s a very interesting job, you learn every day.

Benoit: It is teamwork. The sales person comes with the idea and the brief; at the R&D we try to find some way to develop that, and then the perfumers create the formula, and then the marketing.
 
What are the factors necessary to make a good perfume?

Benoit: It depends on what the customer wants. Because if you have a project for Europe, it will be different from if you are creating a perfume for the Gulf market or the SAARC countries. The tastes are different, the requirements are different. Say, in India the taste of customers is totally different from that of Europe. I know a little bit about India because I used to travel there.

In India and the Gulf countries, from the experience that I have, the weather is very hot and the humidity is very high, so the perfume needs to be very, very strong. In India when you wear a perfume, it’s not for you, it’s for people around you. So the perfume needs to be strong and long-lasting. These are the two important points for the Indian market. And the last point is price, because India is a very price-sensitive market.

In Europe it’s totally different. Here the weather is much better, not just in terms of temperature, but also because we don’t have monsoon. So the perfumes are a bit different. It can be strong but not too much, the lasting is important but not that important, and the price is not a problem.
 
How are the tastes in perfumes different in India than in Europe?

Benoit:
In India, women love perfumes with patchouli and flowers like jasmine and rose, with background notes of vanilla. The men love something very woody, powdery and floral. Good Morning by Park Avenue is a very sweet perfume with chocolate and patchouli and in India they love it. The men like Hugo Boss, they like Dior… they like the classics. In India people love classic perfumes.

In France they like the new trends. In India when they like a perfume, they won’t change very often. For example, if someone wears a powdery perfume, they won’t switch to a citrusy one very easily. In France they will change very often, they will go with the trends. I’m not saying in India they won’t change their perfumes, but they will stay in the same olfactory family.

Cecilia: We also have very big marketing in France and that’s also a reason why they change perfumes so frequently. So the latest market trends are important.
 
What are the latest market trends in perfumes in France?

Cecilia:
At this moment it is flowery; we also have watery perfumes, for summer. I think winter will be more vanilla and Oriental. I think Dior as a brand is really famous in France. Because they have some amazing perfumes as well as amazing advertising.

French perfumes are considered to be the best in the world. What makes them so?

Benoit:
The quality of the aromas we have here. For example, the rose from Grasse… we make some amazing perfume with rose from here. In Grasse you have four flowers — violet, jasmine, tuberose and rose, and this is where it started at the beginning. Today the lands are rented out for many years for cultivation of these flowers. That’s what makes for the good quality ingredients.

The quality of the aroma depends on the ingredients, the weather and the quality of the land. It’s exactly like wine. 
 
What’s your personal favourite fragrance?

Benoit: Watery perfumes, slightly floral, and citrusy. A sparkling effect on top, then watery, and then the background is musk.

Cecilia: For summer I choose a fragrance with rose; for winter I like a perfume with vanilla and leather.

Top note: When you smell a perfume, the first impression is the top note. When you apply the perfume on the skin, you smell a very fresh and volatile aroma… that’s the top note. These are mostly citrusy and fruity, like orange.

Middle note: After a few minutes — depending on the perfume, it ranges from five to 20 minutes — you will get the heart notes or the middle notes. You have all the fruity notes here, like raspberry and watermelon, and floral notes like rose and jasmine.

Background note: After four-five hours, the middle notes are over and what you now get are the base notes or background notes. The base notes can last for an entire day. In base notes, you have all the woody smells like cedar wood, patchouli, vanilla, musk. These are all very heavy notes.