Fragonard: Perfume and the Art of Living

Fragonard Young girl freeing a bird from its cage © Fragonard

Guy Hibbert visits the respected Grasse perfumer

What’s in a name? In the case of this famous perfume house, a lot like that happens. Imagine the conversation. “What are you wearing?” “I wear Fragonard.” The name rolls seductively on the tongue. A fortuitous spelling also: Fragonard parfumed. Now imagine, if you can, the swirling silks and sumptuous love scenes beautifully evoked by the 18th century Rococo master painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. When the founder of the Fragonard perfumery, a newcomer to Grasse, settled in 1926, he chose to honor the painter of local origin in the name of his company. It turned out to be an inspired decision (especially since the entrepreneur was called Eugène Fuchs). Today, perfumery flourishes in the capable hands of three of the founders’ great-granddaughters. It is a reassuring family epic of know-how and care that survives the fiercely competitive world of mass-market perfumes, as I discovered during a recent visit to Grasse and the factory.


But first, a little local history. As anyone who has visited a tannery will confirm, this is a pretty smelly business and not one you would associate with finesse in perfume making. Yet the town of Grasse, perched on a sunny hill above Cannes and the French Riviera, can claim to have excelled in both sectors. Tanneries date back to the 15th century, when Grasse had a reputation for producing the best leathers. Catherine de Medici is said to have required her fancy leather gloves to be scented to mask the unpleasant natural aromas. Whether the legend is true or not, there is no doubt that these two industries are surprisingly intertwined: Louis XIII inaugurated a guild of Master Gloves and Perfumers.

The Fragonard Perfumery in Grasse
The Fragonard Perfumery in Grasse. © Fragonard


Thanks to abundant water and a mild climate, the city of Grasse quickly understood that its future was to meet the growing demand for perfume. The sun-drenched fields in the valleys under Grasse have become a patchwork of flowers and aromatic herbs necessary for the production of fine perfumes. Jasmine, May rose, iris, geranium, tuberose, and neroli (bitter orange blossom) are some of the plants still cultivated and harvested – often by the same family farms that worked here over the centuries. last years.

Today, these plots are prized and cherished by big names like Lancôme and Chanel but it has not always been an easy race. In the 20th century, so-called synthetic fragrances threatened to dominate the market. The iconic Chanel No. 5, launched in 1921, was the first blockbuster perfume using aldehydes. The scents created by the fusion of various chemicals opened up a world of mass production as well as the creation of more unusual and intriguing scents that had little to do with the aromas of the natural world. As chemists developed new techniques and global markets opened up in the 1950s and 1960s, low-budget street perfume was born, affordable and intelligently marketed to a largely indifferent mass audience. at the source or inheritance of the product.

Belle de Nuit, like many perfumes, has toiletries
Belle de Nuit, like many perfumes, has toiletries. © Fragonard

Through this period of turbulence, Fragonard innovated while remaining faithful to its values ​​and is today one of the very few family-owned artisanal perfume houses. Among his most famous perfumes are Belle de Nuit, launched for the first time in 1946 and Billets Doux (1950), two typically feminine fragrances created in a post-war world in search of escape and luxury, in the style of times updated and relaunched. The 1960s saw the birth of Soleil, a burst of Provençal sunshine and flowers from Grasse, still sold today with its unique “sun” stopper. Other fragrances follow one another over the decades, culminating with Fleurs d’Oranger Intense: launched in 2016 to celebrate the house’s 90th anniversary, it pays tribute to bitter orange blossom and its extract, neroli, the emblem by Fragonard. The product range now includes nearly 50 fragrances and toilet water for men and women. An impressive line of soaps, shower gels, room fragrances, clothing and lifestyle accessories have extended the brand beyond its roots.

jean françois and françois costa 1948
Jean-François and François Costa in 1948. © Fragonard


This success and continuity came first under the direction of Jean-François Costa and, over the past two decades, by his daughters Agnès and Françoise, both directors, and Anne Costa, head of the laboratory. As consumers demand more natural and sustainable products, they have guided the company to a sweet spot, increasing and modernizing production while focusing their lines on natural and seasonal flowers, woods and fruits. They even have a flower of the year – the one for 2021 is passion flower – for which they create a unique scent. Packaging has a major role to play in the purchasing decision and Fragonard’s in-house design team has created a portfolio to be proud of, featuring colorful and evocative designs drawn from nature that evoke sensuality and romanticism.

Fragonard also produces exquisite decorative objects, inserts, beautiful perfume bottles that respect the environment.
Fragonard also produces exquisite decorative items. © Fragonard


I asked Charlotte Urbain, Culture & Communication Director, how Fragonard stands out today in a competitive world. “Agnès, Françoise and Anne Costa develop Fragonard as the signature of a certain art of living which goes beyond the borders of perfume. About twenty boutiques serve as a setting, in France and since 2015 in Milan, for exclusive and constantly renewed collections where decorative objects for the home, fashion, accessories and jewelry coexist in harmony, affirming a pronounced taste for travel, ancestral know-how, and a colorful joy of living. And the latest addition is the opening of a guest room with a shop on the ground floor in the city of Arles.

This brand extension is a natural evolution for a company that has always been more than just a perfume store. Jean-François Costa was a great collector of historical art and objects related to perfume and created the first perfume museum in Grasse in 1975. Other museums followed in Paris, as well as museums devoted to Provençal life and to the painter Fragonard. Many stores sell faux Provencal housewares and fashion, but when you buy from Fragonard, you are buying in a South of France. Art of living with an authentic pedigree and genuine cultural status.

May roses grown in Grasse are a staple ingredient for many high-end perfume houses
May roses grown in Grasse are a staple ingredient for many high-end perfume houses. © Fragonard

In a world where environmental concerns are of the highest priority, the perfume industry faces many challenges. Sometimes the natural ingredients that consumers prefer can lead to unethical practices or an unsustainable crop for the environment. There are only a limited number of slow growing Indian sandalwood trees in the world. Natural mosses, vanilla, patchouli, musk – all of these have largely unresolved issues when it comes to sourcing genuine and original ingredients from nature. Synthetic recreations of natural essences are the industry’s response to ecological and ethical challenges. They have been using synthesized fragrance ingredients for about a century and many of the best fragrances incorporate complex blends of synthetic and natural materials. Some young consumers today are afraid of the mention of synthetic products and seek artisanal fragrances consistent with their understanding of what is “natural”, but this would be to ignore the fact that even the purest extracts of nature are. molecular compounds.

Other issues are also at play, such as the carbon impact of shipping, concerns about animal testing and wasted packaging. I asked Charlotte Urbain about these topics and got the impression that Fragonard is a company that really cares and doesn’t just make favorable statements to the press. To begin with, they have been in Grasse for four generations, making and selling most of their products in the region. They are committed to recycling and using sustainable sources for clothing, packaging and labeling. The main ingredient in their fragrance is 100% locally sourced grain oil. You will notice that when you buy their perfume, it comes in unusual gold colored foil bottles. These are lightweight, 100% recyclable, avoid the use of glass, and have the added benefit of allowing scents to last four years or more.

As Ms. Urbain told me: “Our perfumes and cosmetics are produced and distributed without an intermediary, so we mainly operate in short circuits. Our manufacturing plants are also our places of sale. In addition, we offer many fragrances in large containers (200ml) and with 600ml refills.

In Grasse, you can taste nearly 50 fragrances created by one of the oldest perfumers in the city
In Grasse, you can taste nearly 50 fragrances created by one of the city’s oldest perfumers. © Fragonard


During my visit to the Grasse factory, I was able to spend time in their shop trying out the samples of perfumes for men and women. For someone who used to suspiciously sniff out mainstream or high fashion perfume brands in airport duty free shops, with no previous experience and with a very limited olfactory palate, I feared this would be a challenge. to write something meaningful. But the contrast between these fashion brand fragrances and the Fragonard fragrances was obvious. The former are often difficult to identify, complex, mysterious – sometimes subtle and sometimes too powerful. What struck me with many Fragonard products is a pleasant recognition of naturally sourced elements, but only in the form of subtle notes skillfully combined with other intriguing notes. With almost 50 fragrances, it’s easy to find the one you like and they’re surprisingly affordable.

Fragonard as a brand seems to have it all when you consider the appetites and aspirations of the 21st century consumer. It has been a family business since day one. It is run by women. She sources, manufactures and employs locally. It embraces products of natural origin. It has cultural authenticity. What else? Oh yes, he has a great name.

For more information, visit the official website here.

From France Today magazine

About Oscar L. Smith

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