A perfumer visits the homes of famous perfumes – Grasse and Cologne

In August, Max Millies, the nose of Earthgro Fragrances and the name behind Maxiamo Perfumes, went to Europe and visited places famous for their connection to perfumes – Grasse in France, and Cologne in Germany. One can say of the perfume industry that its roots lie in these two places. I have pointed out that some regions are known as the main source for the essential oils used in perfume –  the Middle East and Eastern Europe for rose oil, China for eucalyptus oil, Brazil for orange oil, and the Provence region in France for lavender oil. The same goes for Grasse and Cologne.

Panoramic image of Grasse
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Panoramic image of Grasse

The perfume capital of the world – Grasse, France

Grasse, in Provence, is a commune in the Alpes-Maritimes department (of which it is a sub-prefecture), on the French Riviera. The town is considered the world’s capital of perfume. Grasse has had a prospering perfume industry since the end of the 18th century. In Nov. 2018, UNESCO awarded Grasse’s perfumery art, traditions and methods a place on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Grasse is the centre of the French perfume industry and many “noses” are trained or have spent time in Grasse. Grasse produces over two-thirds of France’s natural aromas and its particular warm Mediterranean microclimate is good for the flower farming industry. In particular, jasmine, a key ingredient of many perfumes, is harvested there, some 27 tonnes annually. Jasmine grandiflorum is a key ingredient in top French perfumes like J’adore L’Or and Chanel No. 5 – and every tiny flower has to be harvested by hand over a three-month period.

The main activity of perfumery in Grasse is in the production of natural raw materials (essential oils, concretes, absolutes, resinoids and molecular distillation) and the production of concentrate, also called “the juice”. A concentrate is the main product that, when diluted in at least 80% alcohol, provides a perfume. The classic perfume houses, Fragonard (established in 1926), Molinard (1849) and Galimard (1747) are based there. Today about 40 hectares of fields of roses, jasmine and tuberose surround Grasse, which makes it a favourite tourist destination. One of a number of local flower and fragrance festivals, the Grasse Jasmine Festival takes place annually on the first weekend of August.

Famous perfumier Jean-Claude Ellena writes about jasmine:

“As a child I liked to go out at dawn and – using my thumbs, index finger and middle finger – pick porcelain-white jasmine flowers, intoxicated by their light, tender green fragrance. Towards noon, the last chalky-white petals exhaled a warm scent of orange blossom. By evening, the forgotten, yellowing flowers gave off a penetrating, animal smell of big cats.” (The Diary of a Nose – A summary of smells, by Jean-Claude Ellena)

Ellena is of course speaking from experience since he was born in Grasse. After his 2016 retirement from Hermès, he had a comeback that started with his 2018 perfume Houbigant Essence Rare. Perfume house Perris Monte Carlo launched Perris Monte Carlo Rose de Mai by Jean Claude Ellena in August 2019. The perfume is the result of a Grasse-based perfume-creation project by Gian Luca Perris, and it “is more than an excellent rose soliflore: it’s a bottled experience for those who have never lived the rose harvest in Grasse, and an olfactory souvenir for those who have” according to perfume magazine ÇaFleureBon.com.

Perris Monte Carlo Rose de Mai by Jean Claude Ellena
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Perris Monte Carlo Rose de Mai by Jean Claude Ellena

Can you image how wonderful it must look, not to mention smell, in Grasse when the flowers are in full bloom in Summer?

The home of cologne – Cologne, Germany

Max also visited Cologne in Germany. The word “cologne” comes from the original name for the fragrance, called “Eau de Cologne” – Water of Cologne. The fragrance is named after the place, not vice versa, and the town name has its origin when Cologne was founded in the 1st century AD as the Roman Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, the first word of which is the origin of its name. Cologne, which is the French version of the name, is Köln in German. It is the largest city of Germany’s most populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the fourth most populous city in Germany after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, with slightly over a million inhabitants (1.08 million).

Panoramic image of Cologne
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Panoramic image of Cologne

Cologne is famous for Eau de Cologne (in German, “Kölnisch Wasser”, meaning Water of Cologne), a fragrance (or cologne as the class of perfume is now called) created by Italian expatriate Johann Maria Farina at the beginning of the 18th century. During the 18th century, it became increasingly popular, was exported all over Europe by the Farina family, and made Farina a household name for Eau de Cologne.

A 1907 advertisement for Farina Eau de Cologne.
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A 1907 advertisement for Farina Eau de Cologne.

In 1803 Wilhelm Mülhens entered into a contract with an unrelated person from Italy named Carlo Francesco Farina who granted him the right to use his family name and Mühlens opened a small factory at Cologne’s Glockengasse. In later years, and after various court battles, his grandson Ferdinand Mülhens was forced to abandon the name Farina for the company and their product. He decided to use the house number given to the factory at Glockengasse during the French occupation in the early 19th century, 4711. Today, original Eau de Cologne is still produced in Cologne by both the Farina family, currently in the eighth generation, and by Mäurer & Wirtz who bought the 4711 brand in 2006.

Eau de Cologne smells fresh and clean and Farina’s version has top notes of bergamot and lemon, middle notes of galbanum, jasmine and violet, and base notes of sandalwood, cedarwood and musk. Cologne is just the place where the fragrance is made – it is an industrial centre which was badly damaged in WWII. There are not vast fields of flowers to go sniff at. But to go back to the origin of things, to that old building opposite Jülichs Square in Köln, must have been for Max like reaching out his hand and touching history.

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