As the sun peaks over the French Riviera, a crew of flower pickers rush to meet the morning’s crop of jasmine at La Domaine de Manon. From August to October, during the hours of 6am to noon, seasonal workers harvest the extra-large jasminum grandiflorum blooms at the century-old, family farm in Grasse. The intensely fragranced jasmine and the heady centifolia rose are the signature flowers of the French region once known as the world’s perfume capital. The day’s harvest will be delivered straight to a scent extraction plant to produce “absolute,” the basic compound for several Christian Dior perfumes.
“Today, it smells like bananas,” declares Carole Biancalana, cupping a handful of the still-dewy petals to her nose. Biancalana runs the three-hectare organic flower farm that supplies jasmine and the pink May roses exclusively to Christian Dior’s perfume laboratories. Like grape varietals for wine, flowers harvested from Grasse have a distinct scent because of the terroir. “Every day jasmine smells different—almond, mango, banana, milk, peach,” she notes, describing a nuance honed by seasons of flower harvests.
Access to La Domaine de Manon’s high quality blooms is a vital component of the Dior perfume’s supply chain. While more and more perfumes and household scents are entirely synthesized in laboratories today, luxury labels like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior (both owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) tout the superiority of natural materials in their formula. Compared to the predictability of lab-made scents, relying on nature-dependent sourcing is slow, laborious, less predictable—and when it all comes together, incredibly romantic.“A perfume is, above all, the art of raw materials.”
The amount of raw materials used to produce perfume is astounding: 600 kg of jasmine, or 6 million flowers, are needed to obtain 1 kg of absolute. A full day’s harvest will yield just enough essence for one bottle of perfume. To ensure a steady supply of flowers, big brands are entering into years-long exclusive contracts with growers. Though Dior’s perfumes do have synthetic components, like nearly all modern perfumes, flowers remain vital to its formula and brand image. With the threat of climate change looming, perceptive perfumers are investing upstream and turning their attention to the soil. Dior’s master perfumer, or “nose,” François Demachy, is a leading proponent of this philosophy. With the financial backing of the world’s richest luxury brand, Demachy locks in years-worth of harvests from growers around the world. “As magical as it may be, a perfume is, above all, the art of raw materials,” he likes to say.
The threat of climate change
For over a decade, perfume experts have been fretting about how climate change will affect the $40 billion global perfume market. Several key crops are already in short supply: Madagascar vanilla, patchouli, sandalwood, and vetivier. UK-based risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft publishes a Climate Change Exposure Index (CCEI) that describes how weather patterns will affect crop yields in the coming decades. They classify Grasse as “extremely high risk” as well as several key regions that supply the world’s perfume ingredients. Sustainability resource Greenbiz paints an alarming picture:
“Haiti provides half the world’s supply of vetiver, a grass used in a host of fragrances, yet is the second most exposed country in the world to climate change, according to the CCEI. Meanwhile, 92% of global vanilla production comes from countries classified as high and extreme risk in the CCEI, including Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico and Papua New Guinea.”
A 2015 study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also suggests that flowers are emitting less fragrance as global temperatures rise.Perfume brands that depend on natural aromatics are grappling with the prospect of an impending shortage.
Biancalana nods quietly at the mention of climate change. “We have to adapt our work to the climate. For example, September now is very cold,” she says, noting that her 77-year old father, who used to run the farm, has never experienced temperatures dip to the 10 degree lows as they’ve had this season.
Perfume brands that depend on natural aromatics are grappling with the prospect of an impending shortage which could collapse their production cycles. In Dior’s case, the strategy rests with the house’s master perfumer or “nose.”
The nose knows
Upon joining Dior in 2006, Demachy asked for control over the sourcing of his ingredients. The fact that Christian Dior launched a brand based on a love for sumptuous fresh blooms makes ensuring a steady supply an even more urgent duty for Demachy.
Born in Grasse and trained in the study of raw materials at the fragrance manufacturer Charabot (now Robertet), Demachy is particularly attuned to how changes in the land, soil, and climate can alter the alchemy of perfumes. Prior to Dior, he spent 28 years overseeing the perfumes at Chanel, where he honed an acuity for working directly with flower farmers. As the maître parfumeur of Dior, Demachy has the purse strings to invest in growers and diversify his flower suppliers.
“Making a fragrance is like cooking. As a chef knows the source of his ingredients, I do the same,” he explains.
Demachy personally selected Le Domaine de Manon—one of the six remaining jasminum grandiflorum growers in Grasse—after hearing Biancalana’s talk about her family’s farm at International Congress for Agriculture in 2006. He also brokered an exclusive contract with Clos de Callian, another rose farm in Grasse, and is considering turning a five-hectare plot around Christian Dior’s castle, called La Colle Noire, into rose fields.Surrounding the newly-restored 17th century villa are about 250 varieties of flowers, fruit-bearing trees, herbs, and even a baby Sequoia from California.
Conservative and soft spoken, Demachy comes alive outdoors. “Should we start at the garden?” he says warmly when we first met at Les Fontaines Parfumées, LVMH’s dreamy perfume headquarters in Grasse. Surrounding the newly-restored 17th century villa are about 250 varieties of flowers, fruit-bearing trees, herbs, and even a baby Sequoia tree he brought back from a trip to California. On the ground are 20 varieties of mint. “The idea is to walk on it and smell,” says Demachy as we progressed into the thicket of the garden. “There’s spearmint, peppermint, strawberry mint,” he says plucking leaves from the ground and placing them in my hand.
Conceived with the celebrated landscape architect Jean Mus, the garden also serves as LVMH’s manifesto about the superiority of natural aromatics. Opening Les Fontaines Parfumées signals LVMH’s interest in having a base closer to where materials are sourced, explained Bernard Arnault, LVMH chairman and CEO in a press statement. “By establishing this new maison dedicated to perfume in Grasse, LVMH is once again helping preserve and transmit exceptional skills, enabling them to resonate from their native regions.”
But as the world of perfumery is mired in trade secrets, LVMH’s messaging about natural materials blurs the fact that its perfumes do contain synthetic molecules. Lab-made ingredients are “the stock in trade,” as perfume critic Chandler Burr wrote in the New York Times. “Creating a perfume without them is like painting a picture without blues or reds. You could do it, but why? Synthetics give you range, from the amazing milky molecule lactone, which makes Gucci’s Rush the ingenious piece of abstract art that it is, to the gorgeous synthetic iris that the perfumer Olivier Polge created when he made Dior Homme,” he explains.
The public prejudice against synthetics has compelled marketers to keep the lab work in the dark, and in stark contrast, shine the spotlight on the glorious, perfumed flower fields. Who wants to spritz themselves with the methyl dihydrojasmonate, the core ingredient of Dior’s Eau Sauvage, or dab on aldehydes, the secret of Chanel No. 5?
A brand in a bottle
LVMH’s fragrance and cosmetics business is on the rise. Its 10 perfume houses posted sales of $2.5 billion (€2 billion) last year, a 6% improvement from 2016. Dior’s J’Adore is consistently ranked among the world’s bestselling perfumes. Last November, Demachy introduced the latest version of J’Adore L’Or, a stronger version of the original scent designed in 1999. The intensely floral scent associated with gold-toned advertisements featuring Charlize Theron is currently Sephora’s top-selling perfume in France. Like Dior’s debut floral extravaganzas, a liter of J’Adore contains 10,000 flowers including jasmine and roses grown at La Domaine du Manon and Clos de Callian.
Designing a scent requires an aptitude for branding. Many of Dior’s fragrances tend to be more floral by virtue of Christian Dior’s life-long obsession with gardens and flowers. He’s known as the first couturier to launch a perfume brand—Miss Dior—at the same event he unveiled his first collection in 1947. He named gowns after flowers and ordered liters of the heady floral essence to perfume his entire atelier in Paris. Florists worked overnight to fill the showroom with “sweet peas, roses, white lily-of-the-valley, and long blue delphiniums by the thousands,” according to an account of Dior’s first show. The set decoration for many Dior’s fashion shows have followed the same template since.
Grasse supplies another critical element at the end of Dior’s perfume supply chain. Its lush landscape, storied chateaus, and perfect climate offer a spectacular backdrop for Dior’s marketing campaigns and photoshoots year round. The face of Miss Dior, Natalie Portman in particular, has been photographed showering in wispy petals, frolicking in flower fields, or tumbling into a bed of pink roses. For J’adore, Charlize Theron narrated a melodramatic montage featuring the flower fields of Grasse. It’s a cliché yes, but it’s a formula that works in the thriving global perfume industry. To convince customers to pay hundreds of dollars for a small vial of mysteriously scented liquid, a steady supply of romance is key.
To create a new fragrance, Demachy begins like every other designer. He “sketches” a scent concept with a particular clientele in mind. From the idea, he goes into his jewel box laboratory at Les Fontaines Parfumées, sampling from over 2,000 bottles of absolutes, refining that idea with each whiff. He spends months smelling, sampling, and at times consulting with Louis Vuitton’s nose, Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, whose office is down the hall from his. Developing a fragrance can take up to five years, he explains. Aside from the roses and jasmine from Grasse, Demachy, whose perfume résumé includes bestselling editions of Fahrenheit, Dior Homme, Miss Dior, and Tiffany, also experiments with unusual substances like amber gris, an odious grey wax vomited by sperm whales.
Several essences—sometimes up to 30 ingredients—are blended into samples to ensure the fragrance turns out exactly as the nose intended. Perfume making is an exacting and elusive science: Using fans of fragrance test strips, Demachy and his lab assistants monitor the smell of each batch before the top secret formula is finalized.
Today, about 60 fragrance producers employing 13,000 workers ensure that the mystique of Grasse continues. Everyone from luxury brands to laboratories formulating scents for laundry soap has established a base in the region some tritely refer to as the “Silicon Valley of perfume.”
Once the world’s cradle of perfume making, where all fragrance crops were bartered, much of the region’s arable lands have been turned to residential buildings and commercial centers. The tide shifted after World War II, explains Amelie Puget, a docent at the International Perfume Museum. Because the cost of labor is higher in France, growers couldn’t compete with bargain prices offered by producers in other parts of the world. “The difference of prices was too much for many clients. The quality was here but the prices were too high,” she says.
For instance, a kilo of absolute extracted from Grasse’s mythic May roses costs €15,000 ($18,000), compared to rose absolute from Morocco at $2,200. Of course discerning noses will spot the difference, but the price disparity is just too great, Puget explains.
Several groups are fighting to save Grasse’s heritage amid stiff global competition. Through an organization she co-founded called Les Fleurs d’exception du Pays de Grasse (Exceptional Flowers From Grasse Country), Biancalana co-authored a petition to get Grasse on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. But Puget says that it’s the luxury brands that are essential to the region’s survival. “The culture here in Grasse won’t disappear, I’m sure about that. It’s because they [the growers] are under contract with big brands like Dior, Chanel and Louis Vuitton,” she says. “It’s about luxury, and luxury will never die.”