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Sick Of Tanneries' Stench Centuries Ago, A French Town Began Making Perfume. It Stuck

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All summer, NPR's International Desk has sent in audio postcards from places we may long to visit but can't because of the pandemic. The series is called Wish You Were Here. For the season's final postcard, we hear from a place known for the beauty of its scent, the southern French city of Grasse. It's known as the perfume capital of the world. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley found this perfumer's paradise didn't always smell so sweet.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Grasse sits in the hills up above the French Riviera city of Cannes, so it doesn't have the Mediterranean Sea, but it does have fields of flowers. And this time of year, the jasmine is in full bloom.

(LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: Perfume plant farmer Pierre Chiarla is working with his small crew of pickers. They're plucking the tiny white blossoms sprinkled throughout bright green jasmine bushes, which are planted in rows almost like grape vines. Chiarla's small, terraced fields are rimmed by an old stone wall. He says perfume in Grasse is often a family story.

PIERRE CHIARLA: (Through interpreter) My grandmother picked jasmine right here with her two sisters when she was 12, more than 70 years ago. And see that little shack? That was where the hired pickers cooked and slept, so they'd be right on the spot at dawn to start working.

BEARDSLEY: Chiarla says jasmine is so delicate, it can only be picked by hand. It takes from 7 to 10,000 flowers to make one kilogram, which is quickly transported less than a mile away from here to a factory to extract the pure flower scent before the jasmine wilts.

There's a full basket of jasmine flowers here. (Sniffing) It's just the most sweet, pure scent.

Interestingly, the reason Grasse became such a sweet-smelling town is that it used to smell absolutely putrid.

LAURENT POUPPEVILLE: Grasse in the Middle Ages, and especially in the 16th century, is well-known all over Europe for leather, not for perfume.

BEARDSLEY: I meet Laurent Pouppeville, guide and director of Grasse's perfume museum, a few miles from the fields in town. The tanneries and leather reeked of dead animals and lye. He says it was the glove makers who first tried to make their product smell better.

POUPPEVILLE: So they are going to use a technique which is called maceration. So they use animal fat, and they are going to put flowers in this fat. And so the fat is going to take the perfume of the flowers, and they are going to obtain after two months a perfume pomade. And so they are going to perfume the leather gloves with this perfume pomade.

BEARDSLEY: Eventually, the tanners switched to perfume-making entirely when taxes on the leather rose too high. The hillside springs that were channeled through town to clean the hides were now used to distill perfume and water the fields of flowers.

POUPPEVILLE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Pouppeville shows me some of the perfume factories from the 1700s nestled in the old town. They're ornate, jewel-box-like buildings where perfume was made and sold. In the 1800s, Queen Victoria came to Grasse to buy her perfumes.

It's an absolutely beautiful little Provencal town with pastel-colored houses with the big shutters and the plain trees and the little squares with the cafes everywhere. And there's a little trolley that goes around and gives people a tour of the town.

The factories have moved out of the old town, but Grasse is still the place to be for fragrance makers, whether you're a multinational company creating signature smells for shampoos and detergents or a niche perfumer.

JESSICA BUCHANAN: My name is Jessica Buchanan, and I came to Grasse in 2007 for the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, the perfumery school.

BEARDSLEY: The Canadian perfumer has her own boutique in Grasse and does a brisk online business. Buchanan is what's known as a nose.

BEARDSLEY: Or a nez, as we say in French, which means that I actually mix the materials together. So as you can see behind me the perfumers organ, which is all of the different raw materials that I use to formulate fragrances.

BEARDSLEY: You heard it - a perfumers organ, hundreds of vials of raw scent arranged on different levels to look like a pipe organ. Perfumers learn all these ingredients by heart. Composing a perfume is often compared to composing music with bass notes, heart notes and head notes. At the Perfume Museum's Mediterranean garden, you can get a whiff of all the plants that have made up the economy and history of Grasse in the last 300 years.

CHRISTOPHE MEGE: These - the leaves of the flowers - you rub them and smell.

BEARDSLEY: Head gardener Christophe Mege crushes some orange tree leaves between his fingers. He says fragrance formulas are very precise. For example, Chanel No. 5 was created with jasmine from Grasse, so it must always be made that way.

MEGE: The same rose or the same jasmine grown in Egypt or Morocco - it will be different from the rose grown in Grasse. It's like wine. You can have the same type of grape. But you won't have the same wine because of the sun, because of the soil, because of...

BEARDSLEY: Terroir.

MEGE: Terroir. Yes, that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

BEARDSLEY: Terroir, the specific characteristics of a place that create a unique agricultural product - the soil, sun, geographic location or harvesting technique. In 2018, UNESCO awarded the perfume-making savoir faire of Grasse world heritage status. Being here makes you want to try your own hand at creating a fragrance, and you can.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: These tourists sit in front of their daunting perfumers organs at the Galimard perfume factory workshop. Paul and Mariska Lokker are visiting from Holland.

MARISKA LOKKER: We're testing perfumes and trying to mix our own perfume, so very exciting (laughter).

IVANA RISTEVSKA: So you like it a lot a lot?

PAUL LOKKER: A lot a lot.

RISTEVSKA: It's very strong.

BEARDSLEY: Galimar perfume coach Ivana Ristevska tries to help Paul balance his creation, which she says has too much musk.

RISTEVSKA: Even 10 is too much for me, but let's go for it.

(LAUGHTER)

RISTEVSKA: I will put a bit more of white musk.

M LOKKER: So smelly today.

RISTEVSKA: Yeah, so good luck to you.

(LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: Ristevska says to make a good perfume, don't try to recreate a fragrance you've worn in the past. Be open-minded, go with your instinct, and especially follow your nose.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Grasse.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN SONG, "PEOPLE EVERYWHERE (STILL ALIVE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.