Friday, 27 November 2015

A Clear View Of The Future - Bringing Perfume Back To Life In Grasse

Normally, the appearance of a stain on my jacket is a cause for mild panic. It leads to a frantic search for paper napkins. A hunt for water. Gravity-defying contortions in front of the dryer in a public toilet. But this is one stain I don't want to remove. In fact, I hope it never disappears, because - and I write this without exaggeration - it's projecting one of the most heartbreaking scents I have encountered for a long time.

This drop of liquid alchemy - spreading its amber hue through the linen threads - found its way onto my person by way of a slim blotter which I had tucked into my breast pocket. It met the blotter inside a large, unprepossessing aluminium canister. And it reached the canister after being extracted from thousands of rose petals which had, for a time, coloured a field somewhere on the hilly landscape of Grasse. It smells of unadulterated beauty; that almost goes without saying. Creamy. Honeyed. Buttery. Jammy. Slightly peppery. What's more important though, is that it marks the progress of a quiet renaissance in the corner of southern France which brought it to life.

Mention 'Grasse' to people and chances are, most of them will say 'perfume'. However, this link between the two owes more to our inability to shift long-held beliefs than it does to reality. The truth is that, until recently, the town hadn't received much love from the fragrance industry. Speak to those in the know, and you'll hear stories of jasmine fields being replaced with supermarkets in the 70s. Go through a few old guide books and you'll learn that, in the late 80s and early 90s, the place turned into a parody of itself, peddling knock-offs of successful fragrances in its dust-accumulating museum shops. It never cut all its ties with the industry - indeed, the major players always maintained a presence there - but its future seemed grim. Or, at best, inconsequential.

Thankfully, there were a few people who - without fanfare - refused to give up on it, and now they're beginning to see the results of their discreet faith. Of these, the folks at Art & Parfum are perhaps the most inspirational. Nestled in nearby Spéracèdes, inside a factory-cum-lab within an expansive garden affording a view right down to the bay of Cannes - I'm told that, on a clear day, you can see Corsica - they have helped produce some of the most ravishing olfactory creations of recent times. And, by extension, they've assisted in the revival of the fortunes of their surroundings. Cue: my heavenly blot of rose.

In a bid to stoke the fires of this rebirth, the torch-bearers at Art & Parfum recently persuaded a local landowner - they wish to keep him anonymous - to devote a certain proportion of his property to the cultivation of the famed Grassois rose. In return, they said, they'd buy his entire yield and ensure future orders. The landowner agreed... and now, the results of his horticultural efforts are staining my attire. Needless to say, they'll also be scenting the skin of thousands of people across the globe.

The founder of Art & Parfum would have been proud. Edmond Roudnitska - creator of Eau Sauvage and widely considered to be one of the greatest perfumers of all time - set up the establishment in 1946 precisely to uphold and develop the highest standards of fragrance creation, a pursuit he considered to be an art form. Using the royalties he earned for composing Femme for Rochas, he purchased an unremarkable-looking patch of ground at a spot that was then considered to be some distance away from the activities of Grasse. He created the lab as well as the aforementioned garden, a paradise of scented flora. And - whilst making one masterpiece after another for the likes of Dior - he proceeded to transform the place into a guardian of the ideals he held so dear.

Chief amongst these was the notion of a perfumer as a vital component of the scent-making process. Thanks to the efforts of figures such as Frederic Malle, many of us are now familiar with the names of the people who put together the liquid that goes into our perfume bottles. But not too long ago, they were in the shadows, mere names on the payroll of massive fragrance-making corporations. Roudnitska battled for perfumers' skills to be recognised and, crucially, rewarded. Whilst his campaigns may not have produced tangible results during his lifetime - he died in 1996 - his legacy is that Art & Parfum now acts as a haven for any perfumers who wish to remain independent and operate on a freelance basis.

Roudnitska's Diorissimo in an unopened Baccarat flacon
on display at Art & PArfum

On a practical level this means that perfumers intent on staying away from the assembly line of multi-national scent creation are welcome to use the facilities and resources offered by Art & Parfum. They can accept commissions from individual clients - a boon to the niche industry - and submit their formulae to the A&P lab for weighing and compounding. They can use the very finest ingredients known within the perfume industry. They can enjoy the security - and, should they so wish, the anonymity - that comes from being part of a self-protecting group. But most poignantly, they can work in the knowledge that they are furthering a tradition reaching back not only to 1946, but to the 16th century, when Catherine De Medici helped France become the world's perfume capital.

It is both interesting and encouraging that perfumers are flocking to Art & Parfum in increasing numbers. Geo-political analysts would probably have a great time working out the exact causes of this phenomenon. The prevailing argument is that as China and various other non-European countries continue to dominate fields such as mass production, a few figures in the Old World have cottoned on to the fact that their unique selling points are heritage, legitimacy and artisanship. It's a compelling theory and it may well be playing into Art & Parfum's hands. But putting it aside, there's no denying that some of the most highly-regarded perfume compositions of the 21st century have come to us from independent scent-makers using the services and materials provided by A&P.

For instance, Trayee, Pichola and all the other much-loved scents from Neela Vermeire Creations were made by the most famous of the current crop of independent perfumers, Bertrand Duchaufour, a figure who never shies away from declaring his strong ties to Art & Parfum. Inspired by the history of India, NVC's compositions embody the most noble qualities of classical perfumery, using a palette of skin-caressing sandalwood, velvety jasmine and heart-expanding rose to make rich, memorable olfactory statements. Indeed, one of them, the majestic Ashoka, was recently awarded the prestigious Art & Olfaction award.

The entire range of Grandiflora perfumes - released to considerable acclaim by the Sydney-based florist, Saskia Havekes - was also the work of perfumers from the Art & Parfum collective. Indeed, two of Havekes' scents - Magnolia Michel and Madagascan Jasmine - were made by none other than Edmond Roudnitska's son, Michel, who lives on the site in a house bought by his father. A&P's exacting attention to the quality of their materials is evident in every breath of these perfumes, with their pulse-racing, symphonic presentations of their floral subjects.

Roudnitska's Femme for Rochas

Frederic Malle's Noir Epices. Jean Patou's Chaldée. Parfums D'Empire's Musc Tonkin. Aedes De Venustas' Copal Azur. L'Artisan Parfumeur's Traversée Du Bosphore. They may not be familiar to all high street shoppers, but these are the scents which have caused connoisseurs and critics to employ the most effusive superlatives over the last few years and they all emerged from the compounding room at Art & Parfum. In other words, they have all helped to contribute towards the steadily growing importance of Roudnitska's company and, by extension, the prominence of Grasse as an international hub of olfactory art.

Art & Parfum's successes have been matched by a subtle shift in how the rest of the industry now treats Grasse. A decade ago, when Hermès decided to hire Jean-Claude Ellena as their first in-house perfumer, he opted to work at a lab in Cabris, a short distance away from Spéracèdes. Olivier Cresp - creator of Mugler's Angel as well as countless other commercial hits - has recently returned to his Grassois roots. And Jacques Cavallier - whose credits include L'Eau D'Issey - is currently ensconced somewhere in the Maritime Alps, working on the long-awaited first scent for Louis Vuitton. Unconsciously or otherwise, all these figures appear to have decided that this sun-baked section of France - with its plant-friendly microclimate and unparalleled scent heritage - deserves to be moved back into the spotlight. Their career choices are helping to achieve just that.

When he constructed Art & Parfum, Edmond Roudnitska had a few words engraved into the ground by the main gate, so that they would be seen by all who entered or left the building: "Je ferai fleurir les pierres et chanter les oiseaux" - "I shall make the rocks bloom and the birds sing." For a time, it looked as though those hopes would end up being little more than that. But now, through a balance of standing firmly on its foundations and lifting its gaze towards an azure sky, Grasse is starting to blossom again... a thought that causes me to smile as I bring my nose once again towards that stain on my jacket and breathe in what I can confidently call the scent of wonderful things to come.


With thanks to Olivier Maure of Art & Parfum and Francois Duquesne of Beauty Enterprise

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