On the French Riviera, in France’s Alpes-Maritimes département, the region known as the Pays de Grasse is recognized as one of the leaders in French perfumery. When arriving by car, one is greeted by a sign in French – “Grasse, Perfume Capital of the World” – announcing the global reputation enjoyed by the area’s emblematic savoir-faire in the art of perfumery, now listed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. These skills involve tradition, craftsmanship, and industrial expertise dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, originally developed to scent tanned animal hides. In 1616, the King of France officially recognized the guild of “glover-perfumers.” By then, Grasse leather, made through maceration in myrtle, had earned a degree of renown abroad, but the perfume industry gradually gained ground as a cultural phenomenon and a trade and the cottage industry became a booming business.
Starting in 1850, by virtue of growing demand, factories with tall brick chimneys sprang up in the city of Grasse, and the surrounding countryside was carpeted with flower fields. At that time, Grasse had 45 companies divided into three categories: plant growers, flower brokers, and manufacturers. By about 1875, there were 65 companies.
Over time, men and women developed a wide variety of skills and expertise related to the botanical world, horticultural practices, and techniques in raw material processing, formulation, and production. The Pays de Grasse and flower farming saw tremendous growth throughout the Industrial Revolution.
Exceptional terroir and defined boundaries
Today, the Pays de Grasse encompasses 23 municipalities. Grasse is now within the Alpes-Maritimes département, but did you know that was not always the case? Back in 1790, Grasse was part of the neighboring département of the Var, and even served as its capital from 1793 to 1795. But the treaty established between Napoleon III and Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, in 1860 made the County of Nice part of France, creating the new département of the Alpes-Maritimes, along with the Grasse district.
Innovation and economic growth
The cultivated plants were distilled and, starting in 1750, new processes were developed, such as cold enfleurage, to absorb the scent molecules of delicate flowers like jasmine, rose, tuberose, and violet.
For more than a century, manufacturing processes were increasingly industrialized, making it possible to hone the various forms of savoir-faire and traditional extraction and distillation techniques. This resulted in reduced production costs and simplified processes, leading to the export of crops abroad and, therefore, a marked increase in demand and production quantities. In Grasse, the mastery of technical and economic skill would become a springboard for the expansion of the city’s aromatic industry as it conducted an import/export trade the world over and established a monopoly on aromatic materials.
A center of excellence and a key player among global competitors
Perfumery was now essential to the cultural, social, and economic landscape of the Pays de Grasse, and the region was a global perfumery hub until the early 1930s: Annual flower-crop volume increased from 600 tons in 1905 to around 5,000 tons during the 1940s.
Starting in the 1950s, however, global competition for synthetic products or more competitively priced crops from places such as Bulgaria, India, Egypt, and Ukraine, considerably slowed local production of emblematic crops like rose, lavender, and jasmine.
The industry began reorganizing and diversifying, relying on its deeply rooted savoir-faire, finding new applications for this expertise in other related realms, rendering the area a major aromatic hub. Today, despite substantial competition worldwide, innovation and continuous improvement of traditional savoir-faire have made the industry’s transition possible. It is now a highly specialized industrial cluster that serves multiple markets, including fragrances, food processing, and health and beauty.
Despite economic turpitudes and various mergers and takeovers, the industrial foundations of the Pays de Grasse have remained relatively constant since the 19th century by virtue of successful adaptation to the various world markets. Out of the 10 largest global companies, six are or were established in the Grasse area.
The transition was made at the expense of the locally grown perfume plants: Annual crop production was only around thirty tons in the early 2000s, and is currently around 40 tons per year. This increase is thanks to partnerships pairing major brands with growers, as well as the fierce determination of regional entities who took action to free up land devoted to agriculture and promote the preservation and transfer of specific skills.
Preserving and promoting savoir-faire for a sustainable territory
The Grasse Expertise territorial trademark and many industry figures have joined forces in a comprehensive approach to promote this multigenerational savoir-faire worldwide and encourage the cultivation of perfume, aromatic, and medicinal plants, while meeting the challenges of sustainable development.
Building on this precious heritage, many areas of expertise are still proudly rooted in savoir-faire from days of old. By continuously improving and interconnecting them (raw material growing, sourcing, processing, formulation, production, quality, R&D, distribution, biotechnology), the Pays de Grasse industry can meet the diverse needs of rapidly evolving markets, including the perfumery, food processing, cosmetics, hygiene, and health and well-being sectors.
The Pays de Grasse has thereby come to host a complete ecosystem fostering the establishment of businesses locally, as well as entrepreneurial and corporate innovation, all while supporting and developing innovative and responsible projects related to these exceptional industry sectors.