French Perfume Museum Offers Whiff Of History
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The town of Grasse in the south of France has been the center of the French perfume industry, and some say the world's, since the 16th century. After four years of renovations, a museum dedicated to explaining and celebrating perfumery has reopened in this city of scent. Susan Stone sniffed out the story.
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SUSAN STONE: Singers and dancers dressed in traditional Provencal costume of straw hats, pantaloons and flowered dresses, carry arches of braided flowers through the winding streets of Grasse. They're celebrating the museum's reopening, which is a big deal here. Grasse is a company town, nearly everybody works with the building blocs of the perfume industry. Growing the flowers or making the extracts that go into fragrances by Chanel, Dior, Guarlain and many others.
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STONE: Curator Marie-Christine Grasse stands inside the museum's glass-walled terrace garden and points to some of the industry's living source materials from South-East Asia, the Indian Ocean and Central America.
Ms. MARIE-CHRISTINE GRASSE (Curator, Perfume Museum, Grasse, France): Plants like vanilla, pepper, canella.
STONE: But some of the most important plants of perfumery flourish here, in the region's Mediterranean's climate.
Ms. GRASSE: Like the rose, like the jasmine and the oranges, citrus. We can see them outside in another garden, the next garden.
STONE: These plants are still grown and processed nearby, though globalization has taken some of the business away from the south of France. The city's contributions and history are lovingly illustrated in the museum. There are also more than 5,000 treasures on display from around the world. Egyptian ointment pots, modern crystal perfume bottles. And, this being France, there's a whole room devoted to Marie Antoinette, including her 176-pound traveling vanity case.
STONE: Did we smell something in here?
Ms. GRASSE: Yes, you smell violet fragrance.
STONE: Violet was one of Marie Antoinette's favorite scents. In the Middle Ages room, it's rosemary. In the antiquity's room, incense. You might expect to be overwhelmed by odors in here, but actually, its fragrance on demand. Visitors must push a button to experience the scents.
Ms. GRASSE: Well, you can smell it if you want, but may be the public doesn't like all the perfume.
STONE: An interesting admission from the curator of a perfume museum. But as Grasse resident and Hermes in-house perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena points out, our noses are always at work, whether we want them to be or not.
Mr. JEAN-CLAUDE ELLENA (Hermes In-House Perfumer): I think odors are something important for your life, human life. The relationship with the other, social interaction, because before you see somebody, before you talk to somebody, you smell somebody.
STONE: And enhancing or covering that human scent was part of what drove the creation of perfumery, and still does today. It's a billion-dollar industry that uses cutting edge technology. Ellena says it's also a creative field that should be considered on par with painting or sculpture.
Mr. ELLENA: It's an art. It really is an art. It's an art of illusion, so it's an art.
STONE: Jean-Claude Ellena is delighted by this idea, for good reason. Many of his own masterpieces of illusion are now on display at the International Perfume Museum in Grasse. For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone.