A Fragrant Find: The art and science of perfume-making in Paris museum, Musee du Parfum Fragonard

Set up by Maison Fragonard— a traditional, family-owned French perfume house dating back to 1926, the museum was the first of its kind to open in Paris in 1983

author_img Malavika Bhattacharya Published :  25th December 2022 08:31 PM   |   Published :   |  25th December 2022 08:31 PM
Musée du Parfum Fragonard

Musée du Parfum Fragonard

Where would you find roses from Turkey, lemon from Italy, jasmine from India and French mimosas, all under one roof? The answer is, in Paris. Not in an exotic flower market, but in a museum dedicated
to such items with its own historical cachet— French perfume.

Set within the historic Opéra district, surrounded by landmarks such as the Palais Garnier and Madeleine church, the Musée du Parfum Fragonard, generally flies under the tourist radar. Located
in an 1800s townhouse, the museum is a homage to the ancient technique of bottling scents.

Set up by Maison Fragonard— a traditional, family-owned French perfume house dating back to 1926, the museum was the first of its kind to open in Paris in 1983. Through free tours and interactive exhibits, visitors get a behind-the-scenes look at scent creation, and can even test their olfactory senses at a fun game of ‘guess the essence’.

The guided tour of the two-storey private museum is a journey through the process of perfume-making, which combines art and science, history and innovation, and facts and fascinating insights shared by the guide.

Exotic flowers that make the raw materials for Fragonard’s line of perfumes are displayed in beautiful jars. These blooms are gathered by hand— a method that has remained unchanged for decades. The volume of flowers required to make a scent is unbelievable. Did you know it requires 3,500 kg of roses to extract just a litre of rose essence, that goes into a tiny bottle of perfume? Or that Italian iris is the most expensive essence to create, as it is extracted from the root, which can take up to six years?

Creating a fragrance is a long-drawn, labour-intensive and expensive proposition that involves extracting essences and then artfully combining different scents. Past the ingredient displays, is 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 per cent essence. It stays on the skin for a maximum of three hours,” says the guide.

In between is Eau de Parfum, with 15 per cent essence, followed by perfume, which is the most concentrated, containing 20-24 per cent essence. It can stay on the skin for five hours to the whole day. A flower essence is pricey, and correspondingly, of the three varieties, perfume wears the highest price tag.

With all the numbers and laboratory-like displays we’ve seen, it feels like it takes a chemistry genius to create one little vial of the good stuff. No wonder then that ‘noses’ are the most revered species in the perfume industry. The talented professionals who create perfumes are called noses, tasked with the challenging job of making 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—a process that can take seven to eight years. Noses need to have an acute sense of smell and are able to recognise up to 400 scents.

As we try to fathom this number, we move into a chamber crammed with all manner of containers in different shapes, sizes and materials. There are delicate porcelain vials and shimmery crystal jars, bejewelled metal pomanders and rugged stone vases.

The collection traces the evolution of perfume bottles up to the 20th century, housing many antique pieces from all over the world. Over the years, perfumers used a range of intriguing instruments to formulate scents, and one sees these vaporisers and distillers on display.

An elaborate apparatus that resembles a musical instrument occupies pride of place in the centre of the room. The ‘perfume organ’ is a Fragonard masterpiece, made up of over 200 bottles of the essence and constructed to look like an elaborate church organ.

“Each bottle of essence is called a note, just like in music,” says the guide. Like how an organ comprises 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.

There’s something deeply poetic about equating fragrance to the melody. After all, sound and smell both appeal to memory, impact our mood, and have the ability to tug at our heartstrings.