Roses and Life in Grasse (catching up in 2021)

7 JUNE 2021

Following  3 years of being completely immersed in developing the 1000 Flowers boutique atelier in the old city of Grasse, during which time I had put this blog on hold- I am now feeling inspired to return to continue reporting on this crazy adventure that began in 2007, and continues to this day,  so many years later. 

The boutique has been a successful venture overall, and a good step in brand development.  I officially opened the doors on November 4th, 2017, after some fairly monumental renovations to the floor, which turned out to have quite large holes that had been patched with regular plaster, and then covered with a floating subfloor, and the whole thing literally moved in waves once the previous tenant’s heavy display cases were removed.  And considering that the building is ancient, and there are subterranean vaulted cellars under the boutique, it seemed prudent to do these repairs properly.

Since then, we traversed 2 full summers filled with visitors from all corners of the globe, ( so amazing to meet you all!), and 2 rather dismal winters, where Grasse empties of visitors, and the shop really becomes the workshop atelier, and online sales become the main focus.    Then the Covid struck.  But more about that later…

Just prior to opening the boutique, there was quite an exciting experience of being featured in the New York Times.  The author had contacted me to take part, and as an English speaking local, I was able to guide her in navigating the rather inpenetrable world of Grasse perfumery culture, as well as bringing her photographer to visit the rose fields of my friends, François et Héléna OULMONT, to film the harvesting of the centifolia and damask roses on what turned out to be the last day of the season.   This farm was also my supplier for the beautiful damask rose water that I used to sell.   Since then, the farm has sold to Lancome, and so we can no longer offer this amazing product.   But then again, nothing is forever….  

September news: Jasmine & Tuberose

How time flies!  In our last post, we spoke about the roses of May, one of the important ‘Fleurs d’Exception‘ that make Grasse famous.  Now here we are already in September, the season of the Tuberose, and since last month until sometime in October, (depending on the weather), it is also the season of the Jasmine grandiflorum.

Polianthes tuberosa- Tuberose blossoms

These are all highly fragrant flowers, and are used extensively in the fine fragrance industry.  They are considered ‘noble’ raw materials.

These flowers, amongst others,  are still produced in the Grasse region (the Pays de Grasse), and are often picked by teams of Gypsy (Gitane, Roma) women, who arrive early every morning at the farms to pick only the flowers that are newly opened.  For the rose and jasmine, this means every single morning throughout the blooming period. I have picked with these women, and they joke that only they are willing to do this hard work.  They laugh and tell me that the French are not willing to work so hard.  The pickers are paid per kilo, and to give an example, it takes about 800kg of jasmine blossoms to make 1 kilo of absolute- each blossom delicately picked by hand in the early morning before the sun gets too high or too hot.

For the extraction, all is done by solvent (hexane) extraction, to produce a waxy concrete, followed by an alcohol wash, which is then vacuum distilled off, to yield the final purified absolute.   In Bulgaria and Turkey, roses are also steam distilled to yield the precious essential oil, but Grasse is producing for the perfume industry, so absolutes are the most economical and complete extracts.

Next post I will talk about the art of grafting… something that is a big part of the rose and jasmine plants of Grasse.

In other news:  as you know, I have been developing a new collection of fragrances for 1000 Flowers.  Of course, being an independent artisan company, that means wearing the hat for all stages of creation and production.   Even the graphic design is all my own work, since design is my secondary passion, behind perfume creation itself.   So in the lab, in the middle of the old city of Grasse, all stages of the Blue Collection are being developed and refined.

We first spoke about this almost 10 months ago.  At the time, I had become a client of the amazing Biolandes for some of our key natural raw materials for the collection, and had anticipated launching the collection in May.   However, I made the mistake of trying to work with local printing companies for the labels, and, very long story short, lost the whole summer and several hundred euros in being run-around by one local company in particular.  I have learned a very valuable lesson: in France, if you are a small company, working on a shoestring, you will not be taken seriously.    Sadly, the concept of ‘starting small’ is not yet respected or understood here, as it is in Canada or the UK.   In the end, I had to go to the UK for my labels, and these are expected to arrive next week.

The advantage to these delays, is that I have revisited the perfume formulae many times, and as the samples mature, I see what small changes can be made, and how to improve them.  So I suppose, it’s for the best that the project has taken longer than anticipated to realize.  Art can’t be rushed.  🙂 

In conclusion, to be a good perfumer, as much as it is very romantic,  is not at all an easy path. It is an exceptionally challenging career, and one that takes an amazing amount of work and sacrifice and perseverance, where one NEVER stops learning and improving.  Sometimes I question having given up everything to be where I am now.   But then I open my cupboard of pure materials, and bring out the precious naturals from the fridge, and dive back into a creation, and realize there is nothing else I would rather be doing…


Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Or I should say, late afternoon Knish at Tiffany’s.  This was me, today on my birthday, wondering around downtown New York, and finding quite by accident, Tiffany’s,  just after buying a Yiddish specialty from a street vendor (the knish-a fried potato-stuffed dumpling)- and subsequently following in Audrey’s footsteps, eating as I wondered around the outside of the building looking at the beautiful window displays.   I then spied Bergdorf Goodmans kitty corner and decided to go get a sneak preview before the weekend Sniffapalooza perfume event that I will be attending. (which begins with breakfast here)

As soon as I emerged from the escalator into the cosmetics department, a handsome man with an Italian accent invited me to sit at his booth and let him anoint my face with his cream line.  (the brand is Canadian as it turns out- called EUOKO).  We spent about 1/2 an hour together discussing New York mostly- and he told me, that in his opinion this city is a place where people can come as independents, as unique beings who don’t really fit in to wherever they come from- and find their place here.  He said it is a city that supports the individual that it’s common for people to do their own thing here- alone… and who are the type of people who enjoy that and are not afraid of aloneness.  I was happy to hear this, seems how I am here in this city alone- and loving it!  I feel very comfortable here, going exploring alone, on the subway, in the museums, walking the streets of the Lower East side, where I have rented a little apartment.  Everyone I speak to (to ask directions from), is friendly and funny and open.  There is also an air of intelligence that seems to course through the place. Like people are awake, tuned in to what’s going on.  I like it alot.

Also, I might add, that I am here to introduce 1000 Flowers, my company, as well as my fragrance Réglisse Noire to the group who will be attending the Sniffa event.  So I am here as an independent artist, in a city which supports those who dare to dream.

The other incredible highlight of the day, was at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art)- and seeing the 40 year retrospective of Martina Abramovic.  This was one of the most moving experiences of my life- and now makes paintings seems so flat and one-dimensional as mediums of artistic expression.  She is a performance artist from Yugoslavia, and pushes the absolute limits of human consciousness and control.  Read about her on wikipedia.  (Martina Abramovic) She now lives in New York and was there today, as part of her ‘The Artist is Present’  installation. (MOMA- Martina Abramovic).

Entering 2008 in Cannes

Another year gone by- it’s amazing how quickly!  In 18 days, it will be the one year anniversary since my arrival in Paris.  And so much has happened since then.  Now I am standing at another cross-roads; waiting to know how to commence from here.

In the meantime, it is winter here, finally, and today as I leaned into the cold and wet wind, I saw the first signs of the smoking ban in France- people huddled outside the doors of pubs and restaurants puffing away and looking miserable.  What an achievement!  France, with non-smoking establishments! I am very happy about this of course and New Year’s Eve in Cannes was my last night inhaling the noxious fumes of cigarettes. 

The evening of the 31st, we went to Farred, a beautiful Moroccan restaurant in a little lane between La Croissette and the Rue d’Antibes.  I had hoped we would go to a chic club to dance the night away, (when in Rome…or Cannes) but that was too expensive and the restaurant had a warm and friendly ambiance, as well as a great live band and a belly dancer.  (not to mention plate after plate of great food)  I’ve noticed that the people here really bond with each other, table to table, group to group in a way I’ve not seen in NA.  So by midnight, it’s like one big party where everyone knows everyone. Very social, the French.

Just after midnight, I went out into the street to look toward the bay where an extravaganza of fireworks was being displayed set to classical music. I was on my own for this venture, since my companions are both from Brasil (one a lawyer, the other a sushi chef) and to them, 7 degrees C might as well be the Arctic!)

As I stood there alone and watched the feu d’artifice and the crowds of people hurrying toward them, I was again smitten with how much I love this place and its people. A downside is that it’s really expensive and of you don’t speak good French. it’s a bit lonely, but the upside is that it’s orange and clementine season in December and January  (the best I’ve ever had) and most of the time it’s sunny and mild and everywhere you look it’s beautiful.  Oh, and the people are really great, once you know how to deal with them… (here I must recommend ‘Talk to the Snail’ by Stephan Clarke- a hilarious ‘how to guide’).

At this point the end of this leg of the journey is in sight.  I don’t know how or when or where, but I do know that I want to come back. Somehow. In the meantime I have an internship to attend, and then an empire to create.  All the rest will follow.

Interning in Robertet

steam distillerssteam distillerssteam distillersToday I was given a full tour of Robertet, the company with whom I have been an intern for the last 3 weeks. I’m not sure how many acres the whole plant takes up, but suffice to say that there is a collection of little scooters for employess to travel from one side of the property to another.  (*see notes at the bottom for some industry stats…)

We began in the main building, which houses the offices and laboratories (which was designed by Monsieur Eiffel, the man who designed the Eiffel tower) and then entered the more industrial sections where the extraction of the natural raw materials takes place.  The first area is dedicated to the extraction of absolutes- ranging from musk ambrette to lavender to tonka.  The machines here are smaller than the regular distillers and perform only part of the functions required to yield the precious pure absolutes.  (To outline briefly, once the plant matter has been washed successively with a solvent, and the solvent removed, the resulting semi-solid concrete is washed again a number of times with ethyl alcohol to separate the waxes from the material of olfactive value, or, the absolute.  After every wash, the resulting slurry must be drained like cheese curds through a fine cloth tied over a large barrel.  Or, depending on the absolute in question, a preferable method may be to strain the mixture through a cylinder containing perlite which acts as a purifying medium.  Once the waxes are washed clean, the alcohol is distilled off in a vacuum and the thick syrupy and highly fragrant absolue is left. )

Next was the hydrodistillation and distillation warehouses where many huge stainless steel extractors were in action, despite the intense summerdistillers or space ships? heat, fed by and emptying into a complicated network of pipes and tanks on two levels. There was a semi-truck load pile of bales of mousse de chine (oakmoss) stacked outside, a heap of fresh verbena leaves, a mountain of large plastic bags of ground orris root; and ground fenugreek, all awaiting extraction.

Soon after, we entered a smaller warehouse and I was told that this was where the most traditional and basic equipment and extraction techniques were implemented to distill the fabulous orris butter from the sliced, dried and aged rhizomes of the Iris. Inside the aged old office, the wooden shelves displayed small stacks of the precious butter yielded after many hours of steaming the sliced rhizomes.   Orris butter is a highly expensive product (due to a very low yield and the long time orris extractionrequired for the distillation) and is high in myristic acid, a large fatty molecule that causes the solid consistency of the product.  The smell is fatty, slightly animalic, cool fresh and earthy, creamy pale green violet; unique and, in my opinion, very beautiful.  Orris has a reputation as a fantastic fixative and soul note and contributes to a powdery rich body note in perfume.

Next stop is at the very bottom of the Robertet grounds, is a modest and rambling lab, complete with a plethora of amazing pyrex flasks and tubes and glass vacuum extractors and bubbling bottles and a stunning view out toward the mountains in the direction of Nice.  Here, one quite young chemist, Dominique, is working to create new natural materials.  I smelled some of the products, including a chilled vial of a molecularly distilled ylang ylang that is another product made exclusively for Chanel.  It was exquisite! -very sweet and pure, without the slightly medicinal or ‘dirty’ aspects of normally distilled oil.  This is one of the main reasons for molecular distillation, or even fractionated oils, where various fractions are separated out and only the best quality, olfactively, are chosen.  The  re-created composite oils are missing the less desirable notes but have not been manipulated with anything other than a bit of heat, and not even much of that because in a vacuum, the heat can be kept extremely low. Becausemore precious than gold the respective boiling points of the various chemicals that make up an oil are different, they evaporate at different times that can  therefore be timed and separated.. After the most interesting ones can be chosen and blended in various proportions to yield a new product. This is another art form, I believe, and a form of perfumery in its own right.     Co-distillations of raw materials, such as myrrh and cedarwood, are also being explored as a means of yielding unique olfactive notes.  Such a fascinating realm of experimentation!

in the perfumery labAs for my work during the internship, the day includes an olfactory test twice per day, smelling 10 raw materials on blotter strips- synthetics in the morning and naturals after lunch.  Otherwise, my daily experiences can range from touring the various GC labs, meeting the marketing people, or today, making a batch of toothepaste for the flavourist’s department to do trials with.  I also am called upon to do translations periodically for emails and memos being sent to English speaking clients.  And always, for everyone, testing, testing, testing.  There is a room attached to our lab that contains 6 small rooms, each can be sealed and has a toilet inside.  This is where many products are tested- deodorants, tile cleaners etc.. These are not active toilets, of course, but are used in simulation tests and each cubicle has its own ventilation system.  There also testing rooms with rows of washing machines or dryers to test detergents and related products right down to what a towel smells like after a week, 2 weeks and so on after drying.   Product development is a major part of the company’s portfolio- testing product stability under all conditions.  A few days ago I was shown a room with ovens ranging in temperature from 37 to 60 degrees where products can be kept for up to a couple of monthes to observe what happens to the cream or shower gel etc  so that all possible flaws in the formulation are found before the product goes to market. In the formulation lab across the hall from ours, the windows are lined on the inside with glass shelves where stacks of jars of samples can sit for monthes in the sunshine (it’s pure sun here ever day by the way…) just to test the effect of the UV and fluctuating temperatures.  I had no idea so much time goes into the process of developing a product, but I have to admit, I’ve gained a lot of respect for the companies whose standards are so high. 

To name some names, some of the companies that Robertet has created products for are Gucci, Escada, Dior, l’Occitane, L’Oreal, Armani, plus many many more. The products created for these name brands are created from beginning to end by Robertet (and other similar companies like Mane, IFF the old smoke stacketc)  and more often than not includes the fragrance, cosmetic formulation (and testing of course), packaging concept, marketing etc.  It’s an incredible process really and all carried out by a bunch of down-to-earth friendly, highly trained, not overly hard working, (being French and all) but dedicated, men and women.


* In 2006, Robertet generated 221 million euros in turnover with 50% of sales in flavours, 35% in compositions and 15% in raw mterials/ingredients. Sales are worldwide with the US taking 40% and Europe 38%.   And, in case anyone is interested in an purchasing raw materials from Robertet, the base minimum order per product is 500 euros .   This is a big company dealing with the big players in the industry. In the shipping area yesterday, I saw an order being prepared and included was a aluminum bottle of Rose Absolute of about two gallons in volumn….worth an absolute fortune!