Saturday the 18thof October arrived with an overcast sky but a heady buzz in the air. This was the day for the much anticipated re-opening of the newly renovated and expanded International Perfumery Museum in the old centre of Grasse. Members of the museum society had received invitations for an 11 o’clock viewing with the museum opening to the public in the afternoon at 4.
Armed with my invite card and together with my friend and fellow graduate from GIP, we headed up to the entry gate on the Blvd du Jeu de Ballon. As we rounded the corner we were quite astounded to see the whole street filled with a massive crowd, all holding invites and all looking a bit confused. We asked a few people and determined that this was indeed the line up for entry. There were 2 lines actually, or should I say two large throngs of people with a dividing rope in between- one for VIP, we were told (people who work in the local perfume houses, I think, since I saw some Robertet staff in that line) and one for the regulars like us. (which included, for example, students from the Mane in-house perfumery school) As we stood expectantly in the mass of people, I had a look around and saw that everyone was dressed up for the occasion and that the language being spoken was primarily French. All of this was quite interesting and exciting for the first half and hour, but by the time an hour plus had passed, and we had just snailpaced it in off the street to the inner courtyard, my stomach was beginning to make some ‘it’s after 12:00- time to stop everything and eat’ sounds. (I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this since all of France goes for lunch at exactly noon) Soon after however, the crowds began to condense to teenage-rock-concert levels of pushing and shoving madness and we were finally propelled through the doors into the museum itself. Whew! What chaos!
The museum itself is inside a grand old Provencal bastide combined with modern additions that has, in its day, housed aristocracy, namely the daughter of Louis the XV (pre Revolution of course); so it is a great mix of new and old. The tour begins with the ancient perfumery relics- Egyptian glass, pottery etc within the glass displays in the rooms of the old house. All the ceilings are very high, with ornate and exquisite moulding, gold guilded mirrors and a marble fireplace in each room. One can imagine life here back in the day with the big old windows thrown open to orange trees and the Mediterranean sunshine. After this section, one descends the grand old staircase of the house and enters a newer, more modern area that showcases raw material production. This part of the Museum is massive with open air interior staircases that can challenge those with vertigo, enormous copper alembics for distillation, a great collection of enfleurage trays and related equipment, plus endless perfume flacons lining the walls…one could take days to examine every display and listen to the various little films and little interpretive stations installed with head phones and a monitor. However, on the first day, there was no sound for the little films and in the booths with head phones, the button for Italian or English, did not work; only the French. …in true French style. Or perhaps I should say Grassois style. One gets used to this and simply roll ones eyes affectionately and say “what do you expect- it’s Grasse!’.
Anyway, we had just finished walking through the rooftop greenhouse showcasing various fragrant plants such as tuberose and jasmine (where I had the honour of meeting Michael Edwards), when we came to a little terrace that looks out to the sea and went out to see the view. It was then that we realized that all the inauguration officials, including the Minister of Culture and mayor of Grasse, were giving their speeches in a square on the far side of the Museum gardens. After a few moments of debating if we should jump ship and go listen, we decided that it wasn’t worth risking our life in an another line up and so sacrificed that part of the ceremonies. We found out later that there were actually 4 levels of hierarchy to the groups to take the tour. The Very Very Important People who had attended a cocktail party and viewing of the museum the night before, on Friday. ( This group included perfumers and their families and perhaps the heads of the perfume houses.) Group two was the Very Important People who were allowed in just before us on Saturday morning composed of employees of the perfume houses (not including perfumers, apparently). Group three- the Important People, or those who were members of the Museum. Finally, group four- the general public. Perhaps this was the only way the organizing officials could manage the crowds. However, it would have been nice to allow everyone to hear the speeches. Personally, I had been super excited about being in Grasse for such a momentous occasion thinking that I would have a chance to meet and chat, one last time, with all the perfumers who I knew would be taking part in the festivities. However, everyone was far too segregated for that possibility. The speeches must have been planned for only the top two groups.
That all said, the Museum is heaven for anyone who is fascinated by perfume, its history and its production. There is a also a lovely giftshop with a great collection of books on the subject. Admission is free until the end of December.
I can’t wait to go back and take more time to absorb all the amazing history that is within its walls!
I will have a few more photos to follow, since many are on a memory card that is still in Grasse.