In a 19th century Parisian townhouse, near Paris’ imposing Palais Garnier Opera, are carefully stored roses from turkey, lemon from Italy, jasmine from India, and French mimosas (the flower, not the cocktail). This is not, as you would imagine, an exotic flower market, but a museum to those most coveted of prizes – French perfume. By Malavika Bhattacharya
Slotted within the impossibly stunning facades of Paris’ Opéra district sits the Fragonard Musée du Parfum, an homage to the ancient art of bottling scents. In 1926, when Eugène Fuchs founded the perfumery, he wanted to pay tribute to the perfume mecca of Grasse on the French Riviera. And so, he named his perfume house for Grasse-born painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, best remembered for his work for King Louis XV.
The building itself has a storied history, originally housing the oriental-style Eden Theatre, then converted into a velodrome when cycling came into vogue in Paris. In 2015, Maison Fragonard threw open the doors of the museum, and today it remains an off-the-radar stop on a Parisian itinerary.
Roses And Noses:
On a guided tour of the two-storey private museum, I learn that perfume making is an art made up of nine parts science to one part whimsy. Creating a fragrance is a long-drawn, labour-intensive, and expensive proposition that involves extracting essences and then artfully combining different scents.
Exotic flowers that form the raw materials for Fragonard’s line of perfumes are displayed in beautiful jars. These flowers are gathered painstakingly by hand – a method that has remained unchanged for decades. The sheer volume of flowers required is unbelievable. For instance, to extract a litre of rose essences requires 3500 kilograms of roses. Italian iris is the most expensive essence to create, as the essence is extracted from the root, which can take up to six years.
We move past the displays of ingredients to a dimly-lit room, where great metallic apparatus’ demonstrate how flowers are turned into sweet-smelling potions. Steam distillation is used to extract the essence from flowers like rose and lavender, while other flowers like jasmine need a more modern, cold extraction technique.
How much essence goes into a bottle of perfume? Fragonard has the science down pat. “Eau de toilette is the least concentrated form of perfume, with 10 percent essence. It stays on the skin for a maximum of three hours,” says my guide.
In between is Eau de Parfum, with 15 percent essence, followed by perfume, which is the most concentrated, containing 20-24 percent essence. It can stay on the skin for five hours to the whole day. Flower essence is pricey, and correspondingly, of the three varieties, perfume wears the highest price tag.
With all the numbers and laboratory-like displays I’ve seen, it feels like it takes a chemistry genius to create one little vial of the good stuff. Little wonder, then, that ‘noses’ are a most revered species in the perfume industry.
Perfumers, commonly called ‘noses’, are tasked with the beautiful and challenging job of creating scents that appeal universally to mood and memory. The profession requires intensive study – chemistry at university, followed by attendance at a special school for perfumers – and can take seven to eight years. Noses, naturally, need to have an acute sense to smell, and are able to recognise up to 400 different scents.
As I try to fathom this number, we move into a chamber crammed with all manner of vials. Delicate porcelain, shimmery crystal, and bejeweled metal pomanders: the collection traces the evolution of perfume bottles from the 18th to 20th century.
An elaborate apparatus that resembles a musical instrument catches my eye. The ‘perfume organ’ is a Fragonard masterpiece, made up of over 200 bottles of essence and constructed like a church organ.
“Each bottle of essence is called a note, just like in music”, says my guide. Just as an organ comprises several distinct musical notes, so is perfume a complex harmony of essences. Perfumers mix anywhere between 20 to 250 notes to create a single fragrance; a task that can take anywhere between two months to years.
Sound and smell, both, appeal to memory, impact our mood, and have the ability to tug at our heartstrings. There’s something deeply poetic about equating fragrance to melody, but then again, I would expect nothing less of the French.
Put your olfactory senses to the test at the museum’s essence-guessing game. After the tour, browse the boutique’s lush collection of fragrances and bath-works for some gift shopping and pick up a bottle of their top selling Belle de Nuit.