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Grasse, the womens perfume capital of the world.

Flowers and a few animal essences such as musk and amber are the basic ingredients of all perfumes. Indeed, it is because of flowers that the real perfume capital in France is not Paris but Grasse, in the Cannes hinterland, on the French Riviera. For centuries, roses, jasmine, lavender, irises and mimosa have been grown here along with aromatic plants to extract their essences.

In this small sunny town, perched in the foothills of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, a few thousand people work to make womens perfume and aromas, generating a turnover of more than a billion per year, or 50% of the market for French perfumes and food aromas and 6% of the world market. A number of major perfume groups, such as Sanofi, are represented there.

But essences are the real trade in Grasse, with names such as Givaudan-Roure and Robertet. Nowadays, flowers are rarely cultivated on site due to the excessively high production costs and most flowers and, of course, spices are imported from Bulgaria, Turkey and Madagascar.

In spite of the difficulties and relocations of some of its industries, the tradition is carried on at Grasse. Robertet, for instance, produces custom-made essences for its clients from the Middle East, who are willing to pay thousands for a liter of compositions that blend the finest of essences. This kingdom of womens perfume has seen the birth of new vocations: two sisters, heirs to the Fragonard brand, have just relaunched some of the perfumes that once made the fame of the brand. But, conversely, labor costs and environmental concerns have compelled others to relocate (indeed, the perfume industry is extremely polluting).

The tradition of French perfume manufacture goes back many centuries.

Today, French perfumes account for a substantial share of world perfume exports and four of the eight major groups in the sector are French. As an evanescent product par excellence, supporting thousands of jobs and colossal sales figures, perfume is a luxury product that is increasingly popular; as a sector, it has, for a number of years, undergone some considerable changes.

Rarely has an industrial sector of such importance consisted of so many contradictions: as the quintessence of luxury, sensuality and refinement, the perfume industry is also the domain of powerful industrialists, of experts in marketing and publicity launches at the global level. In spite of the product's somewhat frivolous connotation, the perfume industry has drifted through the recession virtually unaffected, without ever dropping into negative figures (in France, nine out of every ten women and one out of two men use perfume).

And despite several centuries of tradition, French perfume manufacturers now use state of the art technologies. Perfumes are perfected by inspired inventors (the famous "noses" skilled in the art of blending different essences) who know all about the latest findings in chemistry as well as the market prices of expensive natural raw materials. Perfumes are packaged with care, given evocative names and labeled by all the greatest fashion names.

Nonetheless, they have never been as popular and are now sold on the shelves of large stores. At the same time, perfumes appeal not only to women but also more and more to men, young people and even children, a market in full expansion. In this sector, France occupies pride of place, with four corporations in the leading pack, followed by a myriad of more modest companies. As a whole, the industry represents a domestic market, but not forgetting that French perfumes represent a good share of world exports in this sector.

French perfume for women account for some one hundred launches per year .

Some one hundred new perfumes were launched last year, involving just as many operations with huge implications. Last autumn (the main launches always take place towards the end of the year, with Christmas presents in mind), Lancôme launched Poême; Dior, Dolce Vita; Cartier, So Pretty. Not to mention Le Mâle by Jean-Paul Gaultier or Nilang by Lalique and, of course, the half dozen or so perfumes signed by Italian or American stylists, which are often manufactured by the profession's big names.

The new vintage promises to be just as good, even if the launches are those of lesser known brands: Paco Rabanne is launching Paco, backed by massive ad campaigns in the press and on television; Gianfranco Ferré, Geffeffe; Michel Klein, a most Parisian Rendez-vous; Gianni Versace, Blonde; Régine's, Palace; and Tiffany, Trueste... There is no respite in the world of French perfumes, with its succession of launches. Indeed, for brand names, the stakes are high: since the world launch of Poison by Dior in 1987, a launch has to be on a massive, global scale in order to succeed.

As a frivolous product with but a fleeting effect, French perfume for women is the mainstay of a considerable industry. French companies are well represented among the sector's big names: L'Oréal takes second place after the American group Estée Lauder. The French perfumes and cosmetics champion manufactures and distributes the brand names Lancôme, Ralph Lauren, Cacharel, Guy Laroche, Giorgio Armani, Paloma Picasso and Lanvin. Hot on its heels is Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy (LVMH), which owns Christian Dior, Guerlain, Givenchy and Kenzo.

The Elf Aquitaine Group is not far behind, through its subsidiary Sanofi, with the brands Yves Saint-Laurent, Nina Ricci, Van Cleef & Arpels, Oscar de la Renta. Finally, Chanel boasts a huge turnover, with its eponymous brand and Ungaro. It is obvious, then, that the big companies collect a multitude of brands and that some, which might be mistaken as American or Italian, belong in fact to French groups. In an exchange of proven processes, French fashion stylist Jean-Paul Gaultier manufactured his perfume - whose bottle is shaped like a woman's bust - with the Japanese Shiseido.

Behind these major players, there are scores of smaller companies that exist or survive. For instance, Cartier and Annick Goutal (Taittinger group), whose highly sophisticated "liquors" have yet to attain greater notoriety. Among many others, luxury houses such as the jeweller's Boucheron or the crystal glass makers Lalique have also launched their own perfumes, not to mention other, lesser known brands such as Ulric de Varens, the champion of inexpensive french perfume women which, in France at least, are distributed only in large department stores and hypermarkets.


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