Visiting the Musée International de la Parfumerie in Grasse, France

by guest writer Maggie Lampe

The Musée International de la Parfumerie is a sensory experience, an education, and one of the greatest collections of perfumes and bottles. If you have no interest in perfume, plan a visit simply to see the building! The architecture is a seamless juxtaposition of history and modernity; and as you walk past rooms of ancient fragrance jars into bright collections of modern perfumes the walls shift from Haussmann style fireplaces to white walls and glass. Since 2004, Jean-Claude Ellena, the in-houise perfumer for Hermès, has been the president of the Association for the International Promotion for the Museum. If you settle in Grasse for longer than a short visit, consider become a patron of the museum and obtaining a year-long membership that will provide you with invitations to meetings and events associated with the museum. The best way to get involved with the perfume world and its’ members is to support it. If you do have interest in perfume, this site should already be on your vacation calendar.

I, personally, discovered the world of scent a few months ago. It started with a lesson in how to taste and turned into a conscious effort and a rewarding mental exercise. Thinking about what I’m eating, the flavors and textures I experience every day, categorizing them, and calling them by name opened floodgates to a new way of experiencing the world. Our senses of smell and taste are often pushed aside for sight, sound, and touch. I had a theory that they took precedence because we could share those senses with other people. We can all see and hear the same things and feel the same textures, so we use them as points of reference in our conversations. After living in France for a year and lingering around dinner tables for hours, my theory dissipated. We constantly make an effort to share tastes and smells. We set aside time in our days to eat the same foods and have the same experiences. Scent and taste can’t be touched or seen. It’s an internal experience; but it’s one that we all sense. You can close your eyes and cover your ears, but if you’re breathing you are smelling.

This fascination drove me to the Musée International de la Parfumerie to see how human cultures have used this sense, shared it, and bottled it up. I took around two and a half hours to go through the building. For a regular visitor two hours would probably be enough, but I was struck by a flood of olfactory memories on the top floor and had a difficult time tearing myself away.

The entrance to the musée is a bright courtyard that was once the doorway to the old Hugues-Aine perfumery in the XIX century. The front door and foyer bring you between an old stone archway into a floating hall of steel and glass; and the visit begins by outlining the role of scent as one of our primary modes of communication. It can indicate any number of conscious and unconscious clues about our environment: danger, sexual compatibility, social status, etc. The lessons about the importance of our sense of smell in these first exhibits beg the questions: Why do we often ignore it?

Immediately adjacent to these educational exhibits is a humid glass sunroom with plants commonly used in perfumery: patchouli, vanilla, cardamom, ginger, vetiver, jasmine sambac. Each had a small sign indicating some popular perfumes they were used in (Gentleman by Givenchy, Kouros by Yves Saint Laurent, Le Baiser du Dragon by Cartier and other connu vetiver and patchouli scents). Maps and charts hung on the walls showing where these plants could be found and how to categorize them into their scent families. Everything was informative and simple to understand. It was the small section in the middle of the room that made my visit longer: two rows of small capsules with scented raw materials. The capsules could be pulled from their labeled boxes and smelled to familiarize visitors with the raw materials. Oak moss, sandalwood, and clove tree captured me. Floored me. When I smelled that first capsule memories came rushing back. I couldn’t stop breathing until I had placed them. I was in primary school with the sandalwood; somebody had used it in an air freshener for my classroom. I was making Christmas gifts in my parents’ basement when I smelled the clove. The neighbors were there and it was cold outside. The oak moss kept me at the capsule for an indefinite amount of time. I couldn’t place it. I understood what it meant to be lost in thought. The memories were there but I couldn’t name them. I could feel them but couldn’t see them. Smell them but couldn’t find them.

The humidity of the room finally pushed me onto the adjoining balcony. Parts of the musée are absolutely fragrant (especially the exhibit where they keep the old equipment that used to extract the raw materials) and there are gardens every few floors where museum-goers can step outside for fresh air. They’re carefully maintained and full of plants from the region so visitors can get an understanding the Grassoise landscape. I bought a coffee from the typically French espresso vending machine at the museum entrance and had a cup while I overlooked the Mediterranean. Grasse is locally called “the balcony” (le balcon) because it’s one of the first spots that rises into the Subalps to offer a view of the sea. From these botanical gardens all you can see are blue skies and blue ocean separated by green land and terracotta roofs. It’s stunning.

The next section leads through ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe. The history of perfume is inextricably tied to the history of cosmetics, religious practices, moral codes, scientific development, botany, biology, and the production of tactile materials. To give an accurate picture of the perfume would require a museum larger than the city of Grasse itself. The way that the museum has shown the development of perfume (one of the most ephemeral mediums) is through the containers in which they were kept. The exhibits on these floors outline the shift from clay and pewter to glass and porcelain. The rise of sturdy materials made perfume and its transport more accessible to the population. Trade, of course, influenced the type of fragrances, and the cultural environment influenced their uses. In ancient Egypt scents were used in religious ceremony and mummification. Medieval Europe, an olfactory nightmare of death, sewage, and the stench of cities, used fragrance to ward off foul odors. The top floor of the museum also loosely recreates a 14th century apothecary shop where scent and medicine were intimately connected.

The visit flows down to one of the most fascinating parts of the museum: the collection of bottles from the European Romance era. Cleanliness and sanitation were more readily available during this time and scent became a method of attraction rather than a guard against the stench of the outside world. The bottles reflect the new seduction role that perfume adopted: men and women are depicted leaning toward each other, fragrances are stored inside of jewelry, and there is an influx of highly decorated bottles. One of my favorite rooms in this section holds a collection of traveling cases from the XIX century specifically designed to incorporate perfume into the daily tasks of grooming and care. Travel was a luxury, perfume was a luxury, and both were indispensable for a fulfilling and exciting life.

The following section of the museum holds a history of the perfume industry in Grasse. It explains the microclimate that allows perfumed plants to thrive, the methods perfected in this area for extracting the scents from flowers and herbs, and the culture that was created from this country based around a life of scent. I stopped for a while in these rooms. I’m sure that these old distilling machines are still fragrant with the millions of flowers that passed through them.

Finally, at the end of the visit is a fantastic collection of perfume bottles. There are thousands of glass works of art holding perfume through the modern age. You can see shifts in ideas, morality, and culture as you walk between the bottles of the late 1800s to the perfumes of 2015. The amount of material is almost overwhelming and it all ends with a wall of factice perfume bottles. They’re larger than life, solid representations of something that disappears and shifts in the moment and across the centuries: perfume.

Scent as a sensory experience is powerful and unavoidable. It permeates our lives and affects the way we understand the world. To ignore it is impossible but to embrace it, to live it, to notice it, and name it makes life more fulfilling. The Musée International de la Parfumerie is a space dedicated to this sense. If you’re ever in Grasse, come to this space! It’s a beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

April-September, 10am-7pm
October-March, 10:30am-5:30pm (Closed Tuesdays)

4 euros full price

2 euros (students over 18 and groups of 10+)

Free for those under 18 and patrons of the museum

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