Paris and Its Perfumes
Immerse Yourself in the Art of Smell
Paris has been the perfume capital of the world since the days of the royal court at Versailles. To sample the history of perfumery, go to the Fragonard museums in the Opera district. The first, in a beautifully decorated Napoleon III townhouse on the rue Scribe, houses several hundred objects related to perfumery, including tiny ancient glass flasks for holding fragrances and Art Nouveau crystal decanters. The second, the Musee Fragonard Theatre des Capucines, housed in an old theater, holds a miniature perfume factory and tells the story of 3,000 years of perfume making, beginning with the processes by which flower and herb essences are extracted from raw materials. I learned that the production of pure flower and herb oils, centered near the town of Grasse in Provence, combined with the French traditions of excellence in the arts and well-made products, accounts for the dominance of the French perfume industry.
The simple flower scents like rose or lavender colognes, common in the late 1800s, have evolved to the complex fragrances developed over the last 80 years, which can contain upwards of 60 to 100 ingredients.
When a perfumist designs a new scent, a process that can take more than a year, he or she works at an orgue a parfum, a perfume organ. To see one up close, I went to the main Sephora emporium. At a large U-shaped desk, which holds over a hundred perfume ingredients in vials, the trained perfumist mixes scents, surrounded by men and women who ask him for samples from individual vials or for custom-mixed scents
The Grand Salons: Maisons, or perfume houses, in Paris in which they carry all their fragrance products, including limited editions available nowhere else. The House of Caron, near the Champs Elysees, has been refurbished to look like a 19th century salon in which elegant ladies and gentlemen came to purchase their eaux de cologne.
L'Artisan Parfumeur, located just east of the Louvre, has designed its grand store to resemble a modern fragrance laboratory. This relatively new firm specializes in simple, stylish scents. They even had the gift of the Magi—frankincense, myrrh, and a bit of gold—all packaged in a small velvet bag. This firm produces games of scent to tickle the senses, which also help to develop your sense of smell—an ability held in high regard in France.
A Perfume Boutique: The tiny Catherine boutique, north of the Tuileries Gardens, gave me insight into how a Frenchwoman chooses a fragrance. The saleswoman was more than pleasant when answering my numerous questions and appreciated that I had taken the time to learn about perfume before coming to the shop. When she let me sample a cologne, she didn't just spray it on my wrist; she spritzed it up one arm, around my neckline, and down the other arm, leaving me feeling as if I were enveloped in scent.
The saleswoman also sprayed out some samples of three new perfumes on fragrance cards for me to take home. These cards list the main flower and herb ingredients of a scent, information that is thought important for anyone to know, not just professional perfumists.
An Enduring French Tradition
It is absorbing to observe how the French themselves—both men and women—take fragrance as seriously as they do wine, chocolate, and cheese, educating themselves on its fine points, making their choices with care.
The Paris Perfume Trail:
Musee Fragonard Scribe, 9 rue Scribe, 75009 Paris (Metro Opera); www.fragonard.com.
Musee Fragonard Theatre des Capucines, 39 Blvd des Capucines, 75002 Paris (Metro Opera).
Sephora, 70 av des Champs-Elysees, 75008 Paris (Metro Franklin Roosevelt
Caron, 34 avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris (Metro Franklin Roosevelt); www.parfumscaron.com.
L'Artisan Parfumeur, 2 rue de l'Amiral de Coligny, 75001 Paris (Metro Louvre); www.artisanparfumeur.com.
Catherine Boutique, 7 rue de Castiglione, 75001 Paris (Metro Tuileries, Concorde).
Perfume by Cathy Newman (National Geographic Society, 1998) colorfully details both the science and the art of perfume.