Do you have any idea what a goatskin glove smelled like in the 16th century? Very bad. Borderline putrid. Pretty much like a dead goat. Also, lye. And because the French town of Grasse was all about selling leather goods, this was a real problem for residents. “So we started taking the plants that grew naturally here — lavender, rosemary, thyme — and using those to scent the leather,” explains Antoine Leclef, a horticulturist from the region. (He uses the first-person quite broadly…. He was born in Grasse several hundred years later. Leclef is 34.)
As the story goes, Catherine de Medici made it known that she was a big fan of her sweet-smelling gloves, and soon Grasse couldn’t scent its leather fast enough. After a while, the town got more ambitious about wielding the power of fragrance: Why not try to cultivate flowers and plants from other parts of the world? Jasmine and tuberose and, above all, roses. It turned out they all thrived in these hills, about 12 miles north of modern-day Cannes. Today, if you have ever heard anything about Grasse, it is probably that it is the “cradle” or “birthplace” or “capital” of perfumery. Take your pick.
By the last century, though, this cradle was showing serious cracks. Where there were once hectares upon hectares of flower fields, only a few parcels remained. As convincing synthetic versions of Grasse’s crops were becoming available, urbanization was also overwhelming the French Riviera. Buildings grew more abundantly than bushes. According to Grasse Expertise, a group created five years ago to support and offer a trademark for local growers and perfumers, by 2008, the region (which officially extends beyond the town itself, down to the Mediterranean coast and west toward Marseilles) had only two producers of perfume plants.