French fragrance masters of Grasse get Unesco heritage boost

GRASSE, France (Reuters) - Perfume-making techniques used in Grasse, a southerly French commune where iris, jasmine and other fragrant plants have long flourished, won U.N. recognition on Wednesday, boosting a bid by local industry champions to lure back more specialist growers.

FILE PHOTO: Jasmin farmer Maurin Pisani (not pictured), holds a jasmin flower in Plascassier near Grasse, France, November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/File Photo

The United Nation’s cultural agency said it had added the skills linked to cultivating flowers and blending fragrances in Grasse to its list of protected treasures.

Still considered by perfume manufacturers to be one of the world’s most prestigious fragrance centers - owing to a know-how developed over more than five centuries, and a micro-climate favoring the growth of ingredients like tuberose - the number of producers has nonetheless dwindled.

Some business has shifted to Tunisia or Morocco where production costs are lower, while real estate developers have also made in-roads in a prized corner of the French riviera near Cannes, snapping up what used to be agricultural land.

Some 30 hectares (74 acres) of land are dedicated to the pursuit today, versus almost 2,000 in the 20th century, though Grasse’s city council last week said it had turned 70 hectares of fields marked for potential urban development into an agricultural zone to encourage growers to set up shop.

A handful of young entrepreneurs trying their hand at flower farming had already helped revitalise one of the industry’s most threatened specialities in recent years, according to local senator Jean-Pierre Leleux.

But “it’s still far from what it was in its heyday,” he added.

Originally revolving around leather tanning in the 16th century, the flower-based local industry later shifted into fragrances. The produce is still coveted by big luxury companies like Chanel or Guerlain owner LVMH, who also trade off their “Made in France” credentials.

Several local growers said big French brands were increasingly looking to sign exclusive contracts for entire harvests, ensuring their supply of raw materials. France is the world’s top perfume exporter.

Authorities in the region are also looking to set up more formal courses to foment farming or blending skills that used to be passed down within families, at a time when demand for the end product should be on the rise, according to perfume associations, boosted by growing appetite for naturally-sourced cosmetics.

Writing by Sarah White; Editing by Angus MacSwan