Forget Grasse! The future of perfumery is in India…

Herbs and spices of India

2 years ago, I exchanged communications with Anya McCoy, President of the Guild of Natural Perfumers about the future of perfumery and Grasse. My belief was that Grasse would eventually lose its reputation as the capital of perfumery and one would have to look somewhere in Asia (China and India) to bring perfumery back to the future!

The main reasons that led me to think this way were mostly the tightening of EU regulations and the madness of IFRA (International Fragrance Association) standards that have killed the Art of perfumery, transforming artist perfumers into nothing more than bureaucrats having to fill tons of documents to attain distribution’s status… Octavian Coifan, the Paris-based perfumer and historian of perfumery qualifies the actions of IFRA as being ‘a cultural genocide’ in his post entitled ‘Is fragrance Art social?‘ while Roja Dove, the British fragrance guru and French independent perfumer, Serge Lutens have all joined the condemnations  of the restrictions dictated by IFRA in the name of ‘Health & Safety’… 

But  2 events I read of recently, make my prediction even  more real. First, the leak of aluminium toxic wastes in Hungary despite the approval of the EU! Who can trust the EU when their scientists, toxicologists and other experts are so biased that they refuse any kind of independent reviews? It seems obvious that they have closed their eyes on the potential dangers of this obsolete factory in Hungary and I would not be surprised to hear that some independent scientists had warned against this danger…

Back to IFRA, the restricted or prohibited materials such as essential oils of oak moss or costus are natural but yet, IFRA promotes the use of aromachemicals to replace them! Once again, IFRA is only the puppet of a consortium of lobbyists protecting the interests of the major chemical and cosmetics conglomerates thanks to whom IFRA has its raison d’être. The madness of this association goes as far as wanting to ban the use of citrus or basil… However, nobody prohibits their use in food. Not to mention the poor bergamot which has now been so deprived of its furocoumarin that its use in perfumes is equivalent to adding kernels of olive without the olive in a Greek salad!

Grasse has not been spared by the murdering of the Art of perfumery. In fact, going to Grasse nowadays is like visiting Pompei in the aftermath of the volcano eruption… The past jasmine and lavender landscapes are being replaced by luxury property developments; the rose de Mai (centifolia) is becoming a rarity and the plantations are reduced to a few such as La Bastide du Parfumeur (now know as ‘Museum of International Perfumery’)with a meagre 2 hectares of cultivated land left and the only landmark of Grasse being the mostly obnoxious odors of the fumes from the 100s of laboratories synthesizing raw materials…  Small artisan perfume studios that used to work from the back of their garden or their garage outside Grasse, in the Valley of Vesubie have all closed down because they cannot comply with the diktat of Brussels both financially and technically…

One of those traditional artisans explained to me that he is closing down because he has been asked by H&E to replace the rose petals he used for his rose Eau de toilette by synthetic equivalents that are supposedly safer and more stable (during the laboratory tests!). The problem was that his eau de toilette had a shelf life of no more than 1 year because of the fresh botanicals he was using! Distributors want long shelf life and huge profits and using ancient methods such as enfleurage or distillation are costly… Quality has not been the name of the game for many years in most of the Houses of Parfums in Grasse. Of course, the city has not yet lost its reputation as the place to go to for learning everything about the history and the making of perfumes but this is about to disappear as well.

View of Grasse – Where are the fields gone?

Because the second event that tells me that Grasse is on its way out, is the creation by Symrise of a Perfume Academy in India… Now, to me any corporate of this size that invests millions of dollars in an emerging country is basically saying  to industrialised countries that they have gone past the sell-by-date and that it is time to go ”back to the future’‘…

It has always made sense that a country like India should become the place for perfumery. After all, it has a young and dynamic population, a growing emerging middle class that will want to spend more and more on luxurious goods but above all, its access to all the plants and flowers for essential oils and botanicals is unlimited… For sure, plantations in India are more than the tiny 2 hectares left in Grasse!  Flowers are used for every occasions: Buddhist festivals, births, weddings and any rituals… Spices of all colours and sorts are added to yummy and scented meals and herbs are used in Ayurveda medicine… Nature and botanicals are part of the Indian way of life! Besides, the links between India and Africa have been established for many years and Indian perfume and flavours laboratories are already setting up in countries like Nigeria : they extract the wealth of botanicals available in Africa (I recommend you read the blog African Aromatics by Sophia for an expert opinion on these) and develop fragrances adapted to both markets

But in my view, the main reason why India is set to become the next capital of perfumery, the next ‘cosmetics valley’ of this world is that maybe (just  maybe), it will allow old or vintage perfumes formulations to be recreated and relaunched in order to be sold in the growing markets of Asia and the Middle East WITHOUT any regulator on your back telling you that synthetics and GMO are the best options! Because India is a sovereign country and does not bend to any diktat but their own… Their closeness to Nature will probably make them realise that regulation kills industries like ours!

As small artisan perfumers, we are unlikely to be able to compete with the likes of Symrise but I see an opportunity to position ourselves by helping smaller communities to develop and produce essential oils. Symrise and the other big ones are only interested in big scale production and in chemistry graduates… These companies are miles away from restoring the Art of Perfumery as they will carry on producing synthetics and creating  new odours to fulfil the demand of the industry and  keep up to date with modern technology.

Our objective should  then be to focus on rural farming communities, helping them set up essential oil extraction plants for smaller scale yields and ensuring they gain from the rise of perfumery in their country through education about the traditional Art of perfume making, sustainable agriculture and social enterprise. 

Rural life in India/Photo courtesy of Gautam
Link to Gautam pictures


  1. Three comments:
    It is not so easy to find unaldurated natural perfumes in India. QUite a few people have commented on so called traditional attars which contained chimicals.

    The place where the plants are grown is not necessarily the place where the perfumers create. There are perfumers all over the world, even in Saudi Arabia) . Unless you make perfumes by distilling blends of fresh plants, there is no need to live where the plant grows.

    Two hectares in Grasse: I don’t believe that. The fields for Chanel products alone are larger than that.

    Perfumery lives where there are people passionate enough to maintain and better this art.

    1. You make a good point about the places for perfumery. I do agree that India has yet to work on their quality before positioning themselves as the ‘new’ place for perfumery INGREDIENTS.

      The 2 hectares I mentioned were from the Bastide du Parfumeur. In her study called ‘La ville de Grasse est-elle vraiment la capitale du parfum (Is Grasse really the capital of perfumery?)”, the German author, Claudia Geyer has found out that ”some 200 Grasse farmers share 350 hect. of orange trees, 250 hect. of jasmine (according to my info, Chanel has 50 hectares of this), 250 hect. of rose plantations and 500 farmers share about 50 hect. of various cultures (such as lavender). This is really tiny compared with the 1000 of hectares in India or Egypt. The point I wanted to make was that ‘artisanal perfumery’ has disappeared from Grasse, mostly for financial reasons. This is in ‘artisan perfumery itself’ that I believe that India can have a role to play…

  2. ”Our objective should then be to focus on rural farming communities, helping them set up essential oil extraction plants for smaller scale yields and ensuring they gain from the rise of perfumery in their country through education about the traditional Art of perfume making, sustainable agriculture and social enterprise.”

    Good commomond , towards agribusiness sustaining future.

  3. When I visited India in 2001 I toured the fields and distilleries. At that time noticing all of the spice plantations and generations of creating attars and all I knew then that it was a perfumer’s paradise.

    Good article!

  4. What a great article Isabelle. Even here in Africa many botanicals with perfumery possibility never reach the market because it will cost to much to get a REACH certification even though they have been used for hundreds of years by local populations with no ill effect. Unless huge budgets are involved most will remain purely small samples of extracts.

    Your “back to the future” prediction brings to mind the ancient Austronesian spice trade and many analysts believe that Southeast Asia will once again play a crucial role in the culture of world history. Why indeed not the perfume center. Already the volume of trade activity has been growing faster there than any other area of the world and most expect this trend to continue.


  5. Isabelle… Thank you for putting into words the corporate feeling that many Natural Perfumers think and perhaps , mainstream perfumers in our frustration of the crippling bureaucratic rules that are constantly being presented by the EU. The use of these beautiful aromatics in creating exquisite little works of Art is being squashed under a ton of paperwork created by a federation that seem to have lost its way in the creation of perfume.

    I will observe the progression of this with great interest .

    Warm Regards, Janita

    Janita Haan
    Natural Perfume

  6. Thank you for all your comments. It is so helpful for me to see that many other people share my views on those topics… My hope is to contribute to the setting up of mini-plants for extraction of essential oils in those communities… The technology is available at a competitive price. It would be nice – for a change – to see it being used by like-minded people rather than big corporations…


  7. Right on the money, Isabelle….

    Here in the US we do not have to put up with the idiocy of the EU or IFRA…So far, though there are political forces that push in that direction…

    India is a logical candidate to become the Perfumer to the World almost by default….

    Good article

  8. Beautifully said! I’m so glad to see another ally in speaking out against the corporate take-over of the world! Corporations should be serving the needs of the people, not the other way around! Small farms all around the world could benefit by the private essential oil cultivation and promotion. They would win and WE would win, not the mega-corps! Thanks for writing this!

  9. You have constructed well formed arguments that has, this morning, made me stop to think about what is actually driving all these changes.

    Thank you for posting this wonderful article. I want to go visit India !

  10. I agree. I have lived in India for many years and they still make the most wonderful perfumes without the use of chemicals. Just pay a visit to the city of Lucknow and you will see . Tiny little perfume shops hidden in the bazaars where the owners have been making perfumes for hundreds of generations. Wonderful !
    Blessings, joey

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