For a perfume lover, Grasse is Mecca. For a lover of Rochas Femme and the classic Diors, Art et Parfum in nearby Cabris is its Kaaba. Earlier this week, Denyse from Grain de Musc and I spent an idyllic day at Sainte Blanche, home of Art et Parfum and the estate of the late Edmond Roudnitska and now his son, nose Michel Roudnitska.
Before visiting Cabris, my visions of the hills rising off the Côte d’Azur came from To Catch a Thief. I didn’t see roadsters with gloved Grace Kellys and neckerchief-sporting Cary Grants, but the Grassois hillside was almost Disney-perfect. The view from our hotel encompassed clipped olive trees, cypresses, and red tile roofs rolling down to the Mediterranean miles in the distance. Flirtatious cats lounged everywhere. At night, frogs sang.
Sainte Blanche occupies a stretch of steep hillside just off one of the small, winding roads leading from Cabris. After Denyse leapt from the car and said something into an intercom, and the gates to the estate slowly swung open. I eased the rented Twingo down a narrow driveway and around to the rear of one of the two large, white stucco houses. One of the houses is Art et Parfum’s offices and laboratories, and the other is Michel Roudnitska’s private residence.
When Denyse arranged our visit, our hope was that Art et Parfum would be making the first commercial production of the concentrate of L’Artisan Parfumeur Séville à l’Aube that day. (For the inside story on the fragrance, be sure to read Denyse’s book, The Perfume Lover.) One of Art et Parfum’s functions is to blend the concentrates for high-end perfumes. The concentrates are then sent to larger facilities for dilution and bottling. Besides L’Artisan Parfumeur, Art et Parfum makes concentrates for Frapin, Parfums DelRae, Mona di Orio, and others. Unfortunately, all the pieces needed for the concentrate hadn’t come in yet, but it turned out there was plenty to see.
Art et Parfum’s director, Olivier Maure, emerged from the lab on the bottom floor of the house behind which we’d parked. Olivier started working at Art et Parfum in his late teens and now runs the place. He’s handsome in a kind, friendly way that makes you want to congratulate his parents on their good work. He’s a brunette, but a finger’s width of one eyebrow is white. The lines on his face are all smile lines, and he’s gratifyingly tolerant of visitors (me) with lame French language skills.
The air smelled of rich coconut. Gérard, the lab’s lead technician, was reconstituting organic vanilla paste in a liter-sized beaker on a heated pad in the lab next to where I'd parked. A magnet spun through the dark liquid. (“C’est la magique,” he said when I gawked at the magnet, which seemed to rotate of its own accord.) Shelves stacked with large containers of perfume materials took up most of the room.
I’ve seen living rooms larger than the Art et Parfum lab. In my mind’s eye, perfume production began in a factory on the outskirts of an industrial town, not in a room giving out to a sloping garden with turtledoves singing in the olive trees.
After a few minutes in the lab, Olivier led us into the garden Edmond Roudnitska carved into the hillside in the late 1940s when he bought Sainte Blanche. He plucked us Rose de Mai, lilac, peony, wild sage, wisteria, and thyme. (My notebook and copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire now bulge with pressed flowers.) The morning air alternated cool and warm depending on the clouds. The garden was lovely and a touch wild, with weeds interspersing the occasional Iris Pallida.
Olivier showed us a tree with sweet-pea shaped flowers and told us how the blossom was structured so that when bees landed on it, pollen automatically deposited on their backs. (More bee lore compliments of Olivier: the queen bee secretes geraniol to signal other bees; and some beeswax used for perfume is oddly fragrant from being used over and over by bees to mummify and sanitize a hive’s invaders.) Art et Parfum’s connection to nature showed everywhere we looked.
Denyse and Olivier chattered in French while I, following about three-quarters of what they said, wandered along, stupefied by beauty and the marvel of being there.
And then we were at the legendary patch of lilies of the valley Edmond Roudnitska consulted as he created Christian Dior Diorissimo. They were in bloom! The patch is about four feet deep by ten feet wide and spreads across shady ground. It was easy to imagine Roudnitska’s lanky form kneeling in front of them (surely a much smaller patch at the time) and inhaling the green-fresh fragrance.
Tearing ourselves away from the muguet, we went into the house and Art et Parfum offices. But this post is too long already. Come back next week, same place, same time for part two.