The Story of Grasse

Grasse is the best smelling town in the world. But it wasn’t always that way.

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In the Middle Ages, the only smells wafting through the cobblestone streets of the picturesque hilltop town of Grasse, located high in the sweet hills of Southern Provence, was the smell of burning hair, dried blood, and bleached fat from the hides of cows, sheep, and goats.

Sadly, even the finished products smelled bad. Noblemen and women had to hold their noses. Their gloves stank! Ooh-la-la! What to do?

Perfume, it turns out, was invented out of need.

One day a local tanner by the name of Jean de Galimard, was given the task of making a pair of gloves for Catherine de Medici, the queen of France from 1547-1559. He came up with the idea of masking the odor with the scent of rose, jasmine and mimosa local flowers, of which grew in abundance.

Catherine De Medici

She loved them so much that soon scented gloves were the rage among the aristocracy. France’s bishops began referring to Grasse as “Gueuse Parfumee or, “the scented slut.” Galimard was making a killing until the government put an end to it.

The government put a tax hike on leather, and the tanning industry dried up, leaving behind the perfumeries. Galimard, being the entrepreneur that he was, saw an opportunity. In 1747 he founded Galimard in 1747, at that time the third oldest perfumery in the world. He provided King Louis XV’s Royal Court with ointments, pomades and perfumes.

In the 1700’s new production methods turned Grasse’s perfume making into a thriving industry.

Violets carpet the terraces under the olive trees, while on other terraces grows the orange-tree…Out in the open country there are fields of jonquil, and of jasmine and of the muscadine rose, that Rose of Provence, which excels all other roses in fragrance…all through the flowering season the stills of the perfumers are busy extracting and bottling up this sweetness for the London and Paris markets.

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To create the scents, fragrant flowers were handpicked. Flower pickers began at dawn “with huge discs of straw the size of cartwheels on their heads, and skirts whose roseate hue makes the roses themselves look dingy. During the harvesting season pickers put in 10, 12 and even 16 hours a day. Scents from the flowers particularly the orange blossoms, sometimes overpowered the pickers. So heady was their perfume, some pickers allegedly suffered “prolonged fainting fits.”

A visitor to Grasse in the late 1800s, writing about the plenitude of Grasse flowers.

“I was only there in the spring time, but during my stay I collected some 250 flowers, and had not nearly exhausted the floral treasures of plain and hill.”

That is likely why one person claimed the quantity of flowers exported by Grasse annually was sufficient to cover the needs of the whole world.