Grasse: Where I Noted That I Can’t Be A Fragrance Chemist


Grasse, in France, is the magic land of perfumes

A perfect day at Grasse. Picture by Anu Anniah

A couple of years ago, I visited the beautiful sea town of Nice in France. France for some reason always conjures up images of well-dressed women and exotic perfumes. Oh, and romance in the air!

Having gone to Nice, and with my penchant for perfumes, it would have been a shame not to hop over to Grasse, the perfume capital of the world!

Perfume Addiction

I am a perfume addict. I love the smells and the bottles, and the whole experience of trying different perfumes in those huge perfume malls at airports. That’s where I linger the most. Which is more than I can say for most perfumes I wear. They don’t linger. Or maybe I haven’t found my unique scent yet! None of this stops me from hoarding perfumes.

I love perfumes so much that I’ve actually followed a perfume trail of someone at work, or sniffed the air and made weird comments like ‘XYZ was here some time ago’.

My friends know I like perfumes. So they have taken to giving me perfumes at the drop of a hat. Now I have a shelf full of unopened bottles, and nowhere to wear them since I am at home all the time!

All this obviously made me feel pretty confident about my abilities to discern delicate scents and tell one perfume from the other.

Grasse shattered all that.

Reaching Galimard — an Uphill Task

My friend on the trip had it all worked out. She had picked the day that we would visit Grasse and the famous Galimard Parfumerie.

She had also booked a slot in their famous perfume-making workshop. If you visit Grasse, you must attend a perfume-making workshop. You must!

Both of us were super excited and looking forward to a day where our senses would be heightened, and we would be high on intoxicating smells of perfumes.

No doubt, the day turned out to be all that. But not before some drama. And some more after!

We got off the train from Nice to Grasse and headed out confidently towards Galimard. We had maps and we had our good friend Google.

Picture by Anu Anniah

We had given ourselves plenty of time to reach Galimard. We wanted to browse the perfumes on display, soak in the atmosphere, and get into the right mood for the workshop. After all, we were going to create masterpieces that the perfume world would thank us for.

But the stars were not aligned. Neither the maps nor Google could help us. There was something up that day with the town, I can’t recall what. There were no buses and no taxis. And no humans.

We walked for half a century in what we hoped was the right direction. It was an uphill task, literally. My friend is young and sprightly. I am, let’s just say, not inclined to uphill activities!

It took us a while to reach the crossroads in life. The signs dangled temptingly and drove us to indecision. Galimard? Or Fragonard? Oh..or Molinard?

Picture by Anu Anniah

Since we had a slot booked and paid for at Galimard, the indecision didn’t last for long.

But the uphill journey had used up all the food we had stored for the workshop. We had to refuel.

Luckily, there was one place that was open and had all these delicious looking pastries. We pointed to and ordered a few of those unpronounceable but delicious looking things and stuffed our faces.

We were ready to face the perfume.

A Perfume Making Workshop

When we reached the door of Galimard, and it welcomed us with the atmosphere that only a perfume shop can offer, all the trouble was forgotten. It was bliss.

Picture by Anu Anniah

Both of us had such smiles plastered on our faces that the folks at the factory must have wondered if we had some issues with our facial muscles.

We headed straight to the perfume-making workshop.

It was like being in a very advanced chemistry lab. Rows and rows of neatly labeled bottles, and what looked like pipettes, burettes, conical flasks, graduated cylinders, and other equipment whose names I have forgotten.

The instructor arrived, and there was a hushed silence. It was like a magic show was about to begin. Perfumes are magic, aren’t they? They transport you to places. To fields of lavender flowers, to orchards of lemons and oranges, to places with leather and horses and handsome men…ok. I’ll stop here and let your imagination take over.

Making perfumes is serious business. A perfume creator is called a ‘nose’. Appropriately named since that is the part that nose this business. I was reading up a little about ‘noses’ and what they do. It is a fascinating world. Ran into this very interesting factoid. The story about Christine Nagel and how she became the in-house ‘nose’ for no less a brand than Hermes.

We were all assigned our own special desks stacked 3 rows up with all kinds of scents. It was mind-boggling. The instructor knew her stuff, and the next 1 hour was pretty darn awesome.

We had a short session where the instructor explained to us about base notes, middle notes, and top notes in perfumes. Middle notes are also called heart notes. Top notes are the ones you meet first. But they are fickle. They don’t last long. The heart notes last for about an hour or so. The loyal one, the one that stays with you through your day is the base note. That’s the one to watch out for.

Then we started. If seeing the rows of bottles and scents was mind-boggling, the process itself was mind-boggling’er’. I started off with great enthusiasm. We had to pick up a specific number of base notes, a specific number of heart notes, and a specific number of top notes.

This was followed by an elaborate procedure of measuring out all these ingredients meticulously and bringing them together. I am unable to recount the process because I was pretty confused by the end of it.

I think I will blame my lack of recall on the fact that all those heady scents made me a bit light-headed. Through it all though, I continued to labor under the impression that I was creating the best perfume on earth. My light-headed self even imagined all the awards I was going to get for creating that perfect mix of intoxicating smells.

Receiving Our Creation

The chemistry experiment ended and my friend was beaming with pride. She was very happy with her creation and remarked that it was just as she had imagined it.

I, on the other hand, had lost my ability to smell. My nose had given up. I think it was just drunk. I could no longer make out good from bad, and fruity from flowery.

I too tried to beam with pride as I handed over my creation for bottling. We were given a range of bottle shapes to choose from.

We were asked to choose the name for this perfection in a bottle. I chose the name ‘Kanda’. It is what I call my little girl. It is a term of endearment in my language, Kannada.

Kanda — created by Anu Anniah

We waited in the showroom while the bottling and labeling happened. We had so much fun browsing all the perfumes on display and pickup up stuff for friends and family.

The kind folks at the store also explained to us the difference between eau de parfum, eau de toilette, and eau de cologne. Obviously, eau de parfum is top of the charts with the maximum concentration of fragrance oil.

We bought a huge haul of stuff, picked up our creation proudly, and dragged ourselves towards the exit.

All in all, a day well spent. I imagined this is how kids would feel in candyland.

Going Home was an Uphill Task Too

As mentioned earlier, something was up with the town that day. I can’t recall. We realized in horror that we had missed the last train out. It was evening. There was nothing in sight for miles — no buses, trains, taxis, or humans. It was beautiful, peaceful, and panic-worthy. Even the store was beginning to empty out, and everyone was packing up to leave. How were we going to get home to Nice?

We ran back to the helpful folks at the checkout counter. They suggested that they could call a cab for us, but it would be expensive. What choice did we have? When the lady told us the fare, we almost fainted.

Long story short, we asked her to book us a cab, and waited outside for it to arrive. All the enthusiasm of the workshop, and having created world-famous perfumes had evaporated along with the top notes of the perfumes.

We were both sulking so much that we stopped talking to each other too!

The only saving grace was this lovely cat that appeared out of nowhere and rubbed herself against us lovingly while we sat there with morose expressions. She may have transferred some positive energy to us.

The cab arrived, we bid adieu to our mew friend, and reached home at a reasonable time.

Did my Kanda Like the Perfume?

My little girl was super thrilled that I had created a perfume just for her. But…

It has been over two years since the delightful workshop. I clicked the photo of the bottle today. As you can see, it is still very full.

With that, I am officially giving up on any dreams of being a ‘nose’. I will continue to be a perfume connoisseur though. My perfume collection is at 10 regular bottles of perfumes, an unaccounted number of spray bottles, about 5–8 mini bottles (they just look so darn cute), and one recently acquired solid perfume that is so amazing.

I also have a spare copy of a rose lavender perfume from Fragonard, because, you know, I don’t know when I can go again.

This story is published in Writers on the Run.

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