Grasse's perfume industry has its origins, rather implausibly, in leather tanning. During the 16th century, tanners made scented leather gloves—a hot item in an age when poor sanitation and haphazard refuse disposal meant that ambient smells were much stronger than they are today. The leather was perfumed with essences of wild Mediterranean flowers—and as time went on, extracting these essences became a specialized task. Grasse's perfume industry was born.
Today, Grasse is to fragrance what Wall Street is to finance. It is home to the world's top perfume houses, and almost any designer scent you care to name has been wholly or partly developed here—including the aforementioned Chanel No. 5 (created in 1921 by Ernest Beaux, and so named because it was the fifth scent that he presented to his client, the couturier Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel).
Grasse was once famous for its fields of wildflowers, which used to be laboriously hand pressed to make perfumes. But most of the flowers are now grown in cheap-labor countries like Bulgaria and China. Grasse also imports hundreds of exotic ingredients, such as Indian sandalwood and Madagascar patchouli leaf. These days, however, synthetics often mimic traditional perfume ingredients like ambergris (a substance found in a sperm whale's intestines) and musk (taken from a gland near the foreskin of a Himalayan deer).
All of that means that concocting your own fragrance is now a relatively painless and inexpensive task. With a good nose, about $36 and two hours to spare, you can mix your own scent at Parfumerie Galimard's Le Studio de Fragrance, tel: (33-4) 9309 2000. There are 137 essences to choose from as you blend top notes (the ones that hit you as soon as you smell a fragrance) with fond, or base, ones (the scent that lingers after you've left a room).
If you're lucky, you might get some tips from "the Nose"—Galimard's master perfumer, Jacques Maurel. Part of an élite group of fewer than 20 top perfumers worldwide, Maurel has powers of smell that a bloodhound would envy. He says "fruity and flowery scents," are in fashion now—and it's his business to know, because all but a handful of the 100 or so fragrances launched each year are soon withdrawn from the shelves of the world's beauty stores and duty-frees.
Sadly, your bespoke fragrance probably won't be the next CK One. But you do get to brag about its uniqueness—and receive a certificate to prove it—and you can reorder anytime. That smells like a good deal.