Travel

This Tiny French Town Grows the World’s Best-Smelling Flowers

Take a trip to the perfume capital of the world.

When you work in a jasmine field, the office always smells good. | Roger Hutchings/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
When you work in a jasmine field, the office always smells good. | Roger Hutchings/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Alexia P. Hammonds has strong opinions about perfume. 

“Women shouldn’t have signature scents,” declares the founder and CEO of the Eat, Sweat, Undress wellness and hair fragrance line. It’s a philosophy in direct opposition to her fragrance-filled upbringing, with a mother and grandmother who both swore by Chanel No. 5. But the self-proclaimed perfume nerd takes her stance seriously, going so far as to calibrate her day through the nose. Sniff her in the morning and you may find something floral and bright; for bedtime, it's a musky tobacco.

When she set about launching her own line of hair fragrances (including the obligatory flirty musk, Carnal 4), Hammonds turned to the experts in Grasse, France. “Everyone wants their fragrance to say ‘Made in France.'" And there's plenty of evidence to back that up. 

Known as the perfume capital of the world and home to some of the oldest perfumeries in Europe, the Provençal town of Grasse produces exquisite flowers that are blended into offerings from the likes of Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford, Dior, Hermès, and Chanel. When she launched her line in October 2020, Hammonds became the first Black female founder to join the ranks of the luxury houses in Grasse.  

“The perfumers choose you,” she explains of the prestigious perfume industry here. “It’s more if they want to take you on as a client. You don’t choose them.”

These Centifolia roses belong to Christian Dior. | Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Not too far from the glitz and glamour of Cannes on the French Riviera, Grasse sees two million visitors in a regular year.  Its unique topography, nestled between mountains and the sea, produces heavenly scented fields of jasmine, orange blossoms, mimosa, and lavender. Some of the fields are accessible for careful frolicking and photo ops; others are strictly protected by the perfumeries, much like vineyards to a winery. And like grapes that produce specific wine varietals, the blooms in Grasse have their own distinct scent, owing to the terroir. 

The rose, specifically the Centifola or May rose, has brought particular prestige to the region. Blooming only in May and only in Grasse, its sweet and spicy essence is key for sought-after fragrances from Le Labo’s Rose 31 (Le Labo’s tagline is “Born in Grasse, Raised in New York”)  to Chanel No. 5, a cult classic since 1921. (When asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe famously answered "five drops of Chanel No. 5,” and nothing else. Sales skyrocketed.)

Grasse has always been a smelly town. But in the beginning the smells weren’t all that… pleasant. In medieval times the town dabbled in the leather business, but a pungent odor lingered on the merchandise, putting off the noses of the Italian nobility meant to wear it—until a local leather tanner made a pair of scented gloves using the roses and spices from the surrounding hillside. He gifted them to Catherine de Medici, and soon all the well-to-do donned leather accessories that smelled like flowers. Eventually, production shifted from leather to fragrance. 

Today the town is home to the prestigious Grasse Institute of Perfumery, which offers short-term perfume instruction as well as an 18-month immersive program that only accepts 12 students at a time, for those whose higher calling is to smell.

Smelling things at the Fragonard perfume store. | Veniamin Kraskov/Shutterstock

A visit to Grasse should include a tour of some of the oldest perfumeries in France. There’s Galimard, founded in 1747 and provider of fragrances to the court of Louis XV; Molinard, established in 1849, whose factory features structures designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame; and Fragonard, established in 1926, in the center of the city. 

“I loved browsing Fragonard,” says Hammonds. “It was just a cool thing to walk around and see how people experience fragrance. Because fragrance is so subjective.”

In the heart of the old city is the Musée International de la Parfumerie (International Perfume Museum), with adjoining conservatory gardens. Objects on display trace 3,000 years of perfume history and the many uses of fragrance, from magic to seduction to hygiene.

And a walk down the medieval town’s cobblestone streets presents you with orange villas, picturesque squares with shops and gurgling fountains, and other non-perfume activities: the Museum of Art and History of Provence houses three canvases by Rubens in an 18th century building.

The market square is a good place to dream about perfume. | ArTono/Shutterstock

But of course you can’t leave Grasse without trying your hand at making your own signature scent. Options for perfume classes abound; Hammonds opted for one at Molinard, where a two-hour session runs about 199 Euros, or $237, and introduces you to a wonderland of 100 building block essences to find your own smell. 

“You choose from different base notes, middle, or heart notes, and top notes and they blend it for you,” says Hammond. “And while you’re doing that they give you the town’s history and pour you Champagne. I was like,  ‘We need more like this in the States!’” 

After you name your scent Molinard then bottles it, labels it, and adds your unique fragrance recipe to their files. “If you want to come back in and re-order, or email them, you can always do that,” says Hammond. “I love that.”

And if you decide to launch your own line, you’ll already have one scent down.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She wouldn't mind if you smelled like a tobacco musk.
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