Chanel’s French Inspiration

In Grasse, fields of jasmine inspire the world’s most intoxicating perfume. | By Cathy Newman  
Provence
Joseph Mul’s fields in Grasse, France, produce jasmine exclusively for the manufacture of Chanel No. 5 perfume. Workers start harvesting the blooms at sunrise. Photo by: Mario FOURMY/REA/redux

Joseph Mul, who grows jasmine for perfume on his farm near Grasse, opened a small tin of amber-coloured wax, waved it under my nose, then looked at me expectantly. My nose drew a blank. At first, I smelled absolutely nothing, then suddenly the fragrance lifted and I caught my first hint of French jasmine. It was as lush and warm as a tropical night—a scent to conjure dreams.

I think it is the most beautiful fragrance in the world.

It is also quite rare. Once Grasse, located about 27 kilometres west of Nice, was the capital of flowers grown for perfume, but villas and condominiums became an easier crop. The business of growing flowers for their essence shifted to places where land and labour were cheaper, like Egypt, Morocco, and India. Mul and his son-in-law Fabrice Bianchi own the last large field of jasmine in France. The distilled essence of jasmin de Grasse is one of the main components of Chanel No. 5, which Marilyn Monroe once famously said was the only thing she wore to bed.

“Jasmine is special,” Mul said as we toured his field. His jasmine bushes were 45 centimetres high and months away from harvest. I would be back home by then. My assignment, a story on perfume for National Geographic, had come to an end. Time to return to Washington and write. But I had a memento: a blotter of French jasmine given to me by Françoise Marin, a perfumer who grew up in Grasse.

Eventually, the blotter’s scent faded; a bit of loveliness had evaporated from my world. I remembered Françoise’s parting words to me: “You must come for the harvest.”

In late September, I did. For the love of a flower’s exquisite scent, I bought a plane ticket and returned to France, driving from Cannes on the Côte d’Azur up into the gentle roll of hills surrounding Grasse.

The town itself—a series of stucco buildings in sorbet colours—is a symphony of scent. Scarlet geraniums cascade from window boxes, releasing their leafy astringency when brushed. Confiserie sweet shops display tray after tray of candied rose and violet petals. Pastry shops sell small cookies called navettes, fragrant with the delicacy of orange blossom water.

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The handpicked petals are placed gently in special wicker baskets. Photo by: Mario FOURMY/REA/redux

Despite the shift of the industry to less pricey locales, Grasse’s fragrant past lingers in the form of a rose festival in spring, a jasmine festival in summer, and multiple perfume houses, of which three (Fragonard, Molinard, and Galimard) open their doors for tours year-round. The International Perfume Museum on the Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon maintains a fragrant plant conservatory and exhibits that explain the history and production of perfume. Though Joseph Mul’s fields are private, those longing for a more hands-on experience can visit the small plots of jasmine, rose, and tuberose owned by the Biancalana family in nearby Plascassier. For €6/Rs490 you can take a tour of the fields and pick a few flowers—August to October is best for jasmine—and learn how they are turned into the lush oils that go into perfume.

Arriving at Mul’s farm in early morning, I found workers already in the fields. They hand-pick the small white blossoms one by one and place them in special wicker baskets. I found it reassuring that the world still had room for a basket made with no other purpose than to hold jasmine. In the weighing shed, baskets of blossoms were hoisted on a scale.

At the on-site factory, Mul invited me to step into a steel extraction vat the size of a hot tub. At his signal, basketfuls of jasmine showered over me. Blossoms rained on my shoulders, piled in my lap, became entangled in my hair. The scent was tantalising. I was waist- and then shoulder-deep in flowers that were the essence of the ephemeral. I held a blossom in my hand. Minutes later it turned brown.

As I write this, a tiny jar of Mul’s absolue jasmin de Grasse sits on my desk. I open it and am back in Provence, enveloped in a cloud of fragrance, fragile as a fleeting dream, intoxicating beyond words.

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