WHAT HAS GLOVES TO DO WITH FRENCH PERFUME?
The cultivated fields of rose, jasmine, lavender, orange blossom and mimosa are the basis of a French perfume export industry, which began in the 14th century and is now worth a thousand million Euros. It is centred just inland from the Mediterranean, in the hills of Provence, and the town of Grasse is now considered to be the world capital of perfume. But what started the French perfume industry and what has it to do with gloves?
The historic road of perfume leads us back to the ancient Eastern peoples. It is claimed that as the smoke of sacrifices rose to please the ancient gods, it was made fragrant by certain woods, plants and resins. Therefore the word perfume is derived from the Latin per (through) fumus (smoke),
Crusaders returning from the near East brought perfumes to Europe, but it was in the 16thC that it really took off in France when perfumed gloves became the fashion in France, and In those days the smell of leather needed to be disguised. Catherine de Medici even brought her own Glover with her from Italy when she married Henri I of France.
Grasse had been a tiny republic in the 12th century; exporting soap, oil and tanned skins, but later it became famous for its leather goods, gloves in particular. Jean de Galimard was the Lord of the nearby Seranon, and in 1747 developed a formula for mixing fragrances in his own perfumery in Grasse. Perfume came into its own when Louis XV came to the throne in the 18th century and was far more interested in his mistresses than in affairs of State. Galimard was soon supplying the pleasure-loving Court with olive oil, pomades and perfumes and the King’s court was called “la cour parfumée” (the perfumed court). Madame de Pompardour ordered generous supplies of perfume, whilst the King demanded a different fragrance for his apartment every day. The use of perfume in France grew steadily and by the 18th century, the wealthy showed their status by wearing expensive fragrances. When others in Grasse cashed in on the rich pickings, Gallimard founded the Corporation of Glovemakers and Perfumers
During the Renaissance period, perfumes were used primarily by royalty and the wealthy to mask strong body odours resulting from the poor sanitary conditions of the day, and perfume enjoyed a huge success during the 17th century when perfumed gloves became more and more popular in France. However, perfumers were also known to create poisons and it was reported that one French duchess was murdered when a perfume/poison was rubbed into her gloves and was slowly absorbed into her skin
Gallimard and his contemporaries used the oldest process of extracting perfume from plants, and this involved steam distillation in great copper ‘Florentine’ flasks and pipes. Two tonnes of rose petals produces one kilo of essence, which helps explain why perfume is so expensive. Even when Napoleon came to power, the exorbitant expenditures for perfume continued, and two quarts of violet cologne were delivered to him each week. It is said he used sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine every month. Josephine had stronger perfume preferences and was very partial to musk, and apparently she used so much that sixty years after her death the scent still lingered in her boudoir.
In the 18th century they also developed a new method called emfleurage. This extracted the fragrant oils from delicate petals by laying them in fat between glass plates, but is now too labour intensive for commercial use today. The latest method uses organic solvents to create a highly concentrated mix of essential oils and is called concreta. After alcohol removes the wax, the residue left is known as an absolute.
Some ingredients used in French perfume come from places even more exotic than the flower fields of Provence – sandalwood and spices from India, musk from deer which roam on the Himalayas, and ambergris from the depths of the ocean, which is a foul-smelling substance made in the intestines of sperm whales, but helps to fix the volatile oils so that they do not all disappear as the perfume is exposed to the air.
Once all these ingredients are assembled, the services of a very important person, is required, called ‘the nose’. After many years of training, memorising over 2,000 different odours, he can only work for short periods at a time as even his phenomenal sense of smell soon tires. Sitting at his desk, surrounded by what looks like an immense keyboard – an array of bottles containing essential oils and concentrates – he dips strips of blotting paper or mouillettes, experimenting until he finds the perfect combination for a new fragrance, which can contain more than 100 different ingredients.
He will look for a top note – the first impression the perfumes leaves, and after a few moments a heart or theme note is experienced, which becomes the base, remaining when the others have faded. Creating a great new perfume is much like composing a symphony from exotic volatile and very precious ingredients. Interestingly most Grasse factories, laboratories and noses remain largely anonymous.
It was great publicists, like Francois Coty and Coco Chanel who marketed perfume successfully in modern times, finding it earned them more money than their Haute Couture or other beauty products.
In the town of Grasse, the sweet aroma of perfume drowns even the stench of the traffic which clogs its narrow streets. Conducted tours of the town’s great perfumers reveal cases of ancient bottles and rooms full of gleaming copper vats, and you may have the opportunity to dip your finger in a waxy concrete of roses, or buy some soap, or a new fragrance. If you are extremely lucky, a rarity is to watch the nose at work.
Interestingly enough, some processes involved in extracting essential oils carry a high risk of explosion, so most of the working factories are now situated away from the town itself. Wherever you are in the area and you wish to buy perfume, stick to a given fragrance type – floral, woody, oriental or whatever – and try a maximum of three fragrances at any one time. A useful tip is to first appreciate the top note, then after it’s been a few minutes on the skin, see if you enjoy the more lasting impression. Once you have bought the perfume, keep it in a cool dark place – even so it will deteriorate if kept too long!