Each year in the first weekend of August the medieval Provençal town of Grasse holds a riotous three-day celebration. The petal-strewn streets are alive with performers, scent is pumped into the air and there are concerts, art exhibitions, puppet shows, and a procession of floats festooned with flowers winds through the streets for the Flower Battle, where blossoms are flung into the crowds and firemen spray everyone with scented water. All this fragrant behaviour marks the start of the harvest of jasmine, a bloom of such stature in Grasse that it's typically known simply as "la fleur".
Though not native to the region, the jasmine grown here is prized and key to the fragrance industry that earned the town its reputation as the world capital of perfume. The Fête du Jasmin started in 1948, but the métier dates back to the 17th century when the town's major trade was leather. At that time the tanners of Grasse, centred around the arcade-lined Place aux Aires, began perfuming their leather, particularly for gloves, to disguise its smell. They used the enfleurage method to extract scent - performed to macabre effect in the 1985 novel Perfume (naturally enough largely set in Grasse). Flowers were placed in fat, which absorbed the scent and was then rubbed into the leather. By the 18th century perfume became the focus and the industry bloomed, as did the countryside, with more and more fields planted in the likes of rose, jasmine, orange blossom, violet and lavender.
From Grasse, on the foothills of the Riviera's Maritime Alps, you can see the Côte d'Azur about 20 kilometres away. The valley lying between, fanned by gentle sea breezes, has a balmy microclimate which, combined with good soil, is credited with producing flowers of fine quality - something of a floral terroir. But during the last century these fields have gradually been sold off to hungry developers, as the cost of labour and the growth of synthetic perfume components have made flower farming less rewarding. The production of flowers followed the less costly labour to Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and India, and today most perfume houses source their ingredients from these countries.
A notable exception is the house of Chanel. In 1987 it formed an exclusive partnership with the Mul family, owners of the fields that have been the sole source of Chanel No 5 Parfum's essential jasmine and May rose since its creation in 1921. The architect of this move was Jacques Polge, the head of Parfums Chanel and its chief "nose" since 1978. Only the third person to hold the position since Russian-born perfumer Ernest Beaux created No 5 in 1921 at the behest of Mademoiselle Chanel, Polge saw the partnership as the only way to preserve the integrity of the world's most famous perfume. With the exception of animal musk, now banned and therefore made synthetically, No 5 is still made to the original formula (locked in a safe, it can be accessed by just a handful of people including Polge and Christopher Sheldrake, the deputy nose and director of research and development).
"It's our job at Chanel to ensure when a fragrance is created that it doesn't change," says Polge. "And this is the reason we are here, because these fields are the same fields as in 1921."
The partnership also helps to preserve jasmine production in Grasse in general, which could otherwise disappear. The Mul family produces at least 90 per cent of the region's jasmine. Polge, who grew up in Vaucluse, near Avignon, holidayed in Grasse as a child and has witnessed the gradual dwindling of the fields. By the mid-1980s he feared there would no longer be enough left to make No 5. "At the time, no one bothered to replant jasmine," he says. And voilà - the idea to preserve the heritage of Chanel was born.
"The biggest producer today of jasmine is Egypt," he says, "but the jasmine from here is different - it's the model after which all the other jasmine is produced."
All the jasmine grown by the Mul family, Jasminum grandiflorum, goes into No 5 Parfum; the other expressions of No 5 - Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette and Eau Première - are made with Indian jasmine and rose from Bulgaria. Harvested from August to October, the jasmine is picked from dawn and mainly by women, who are considered more precise and less inclined to damage the plants that continue flowering throughout the harvest. At 1pm the pickers line up with their wicker baskets to have their day's harvest weighed, most amounting to 1.5kg to 1.8kg. The total daily harvest is between 100kg and 200kg. The flowers are processed immediately to capture their qualities before they fade, first into "concrete" for which 350kg of flowers are needed to make a kilogram, which in turn produces 550 grams of "absolute", the concentrated extract. Ultimately, one 30ml bottle of No 5 Parfum contains a thousand jasmine flowers and 12 May roses.
The mind boggles. The entire supply of jasmine for No 5 Parfum is grown on just these three hectares of land, the crop so precious it's ringed by high stone walls and protected at night by heavy metal gates and prowling dogs. Chanel's fields are not open to the public, but scent devotees can visit the International Perfume Museum's two hectares of fragrant gardens of jasmine, May roses, orange blossom and more, arranged according to olfactory notes, and part of a conservation project.
The museum itself has curated perfume history from ancient Egypt to the present, and includes a large collection of rare phials and pomanders. The prize exhibit is Marie Antoinette's 40-kilo mahogany travelling case, complete with chocolate warmer and spittoon. The museum's olfactory workshops may even unlock some of the mystery of scent, but Monsieur Polge would say that elusiveness is an essential element of perfumes.
"I think the style of Chanel perfumes is that there always has to be a certain dosage of mystery," he says. "I don't think you can dream on something that is too obvious." Marilyn Monroe, who famously said she wore nothing but Chanel No 5 to bed, might have agreed.
Related link: French travel features.