Sparkling wine from Champagne, cheese from the Cheddar Gorge and pasties from Cornwall all have protected geographic status – and now the people who grow natural aroma ingredients in Grasse are bidding for similar recognition from UNESCO.
Laurent Stefanini, the UNESCO Ambassador for France, explains that perfume-making is a human artform, a way to add refinement and elegance to the world, and to make it more habitable.
“It is the soul of a terroir and its inhabitants, the heart of an intangible heritage that is at stake,” he adds in his explanation of why Grasse is so deserving of cultural and geographic protection.
The pursuit of fine fragrance ingredients has been widespread in Grasse for generations, and modern-day growers like Joseph Mul continue a tradition begun by his great grandfather as far back as 1840; Mul is also passing on his expertise, to his daughter’s husband Fabrice Bianchi.
Perfumery dates back even further than that in Grasse, with its origins in the 17th century when leather tanning was done using urine.
At that time, under Louis XIV, local leather manufacturers started to disguise the less appealing scent of tanned leather using other sweet-smelling ingredients, particularly when producing gloves.
The local economy for aroma ingredients has waxed and waned over the centuries since as surrounding land has faced demand for other uses like construction, but Grasse is still at the heart of the global fragrance industry, with modern production and testing facilities keeping the area’s infrastructure well up to date.
Patrick de Carolis, honorary president of the Living Heritage Association of the Pays de Grasse, adds that there are three stages to the region’s knowhow where the production of aromas is concerned.
The first is the cultivation of the plants that yield the delicate natural aroma ingredients, and Grasse is particularly famed for the quality and purity of its rose and jasmine crops.
Second, these must be processed in order to extract the aromatic essential oils and absolutes from them that form the basis of pure fragrance ingredients.
Finally, these individual aroma ingredients are blended with others to produce fragrances that stimulate the olfactory sense, “generating inimitable emotions”.
But he stresses that this knowhow depends on the transmission of expertise and firsthand experience from one generation to the next, not only to create common shared values among those working in the local industry, but also to provide them with a platform upon which to innovate.
“Culture therefore has this double virtue of aggregating and emancipating,” he explains. “Initially it brings together; in a second, it releases. This process is the result of an action essential to humanity: the transmission of heritage.”