It is one of the most bewitching corners of Paris, calm, refined and fragrant, much like the product whose history it contains.
On the bustling Rue Scribe, behind the gold-embellished edifice of the Opera Garnier, sits the flagship store of the Fragonard perfume empire. It is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of beautiful things. Its fragrances waft through the fumes of the ceaseless traffic, literally leading pedestrians by the nose into an exotic world of colour, sublime design and friendly service.
But a few steps further around the block a delightful surprise awaits. Here at the heart of the elegant little Square de l’Opera-Louis-Jouvet is to be found the Musée du Parfum Fragonard.
It is housed, appropriately, in a building infused with architectural and cultural history. Behind the façade of a 19th century ‘Oriental-Indian’ style palace was one of the favourite haunts of the city’s style icons and dandies. The Eden Theatre contained performance spaces, galleries and a winter garden. Audiences flocked here to watch the comedies of the time. It was a place in which to see and be seen.
It would subsequently become a popular velodrome and, later, the premises of the distinguished English furniture maker Maple & Co, who transformed it into a an immense showcase for interior design, from Victorian to colonial, Asian, neo-classical and quintessentially British. The beautiful polished wooden floors which caught John Blundell Maple’s eye back in 1896 are still in place, imbuing this museum dedicated to the great tradition of perfume making with a profound sense of history and craftsmanship.
The house of Fragonard was founded in 1926 in the French Riviera town of Grasse by Eugene Fuchs, who turned the local tannery into a factory to process the profusion of wild flowers growing on the hillsides of Provence. It is now the heart and soul of Grasse, the major employer and a name synonymous the world over with refinement and beauty.
Fuchs took the name as an homage to Grasse-born Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the world famous painter to the king and creator of bucolic scenarios of comely, creamy skinned girls, rosy cheeked cherubs, china blue skies, russet sunsets, blossoms, birds and butterflies. Those images remain an integral and vital element of the company’s design palette and marketing brand.
In the 1950s, Fuchs’s grandson Jean-François Costa not only put the company firmly onto the world map but, with his wife Hélène, also amassed a large collection of perfume flacons, paintings and furniture from the Age of Enlightenment, as well as Provençal costumes and jewellery.
Their daughters Agnes, Françoise and Anne have grown up surrounded by objects of wealth and beauty, but, in keeping with the family tradition, their mission is to share them with the wider world.
‘The art of living’ is the philosophy which guides their lives and their careers at the helm of what is now a global empire. They looked long and hard for the right place in the French capital in which to house the collection and a museum dedicated to the family industry. In 2014, having identified the abandoned pleasure dome that had been The Eden, they set about revitalising the Square de l’Opera-Louis-Jouvet and bringing it to new life.
‘We had the good fortune to be the daughters of collectors,” say Agnes and Francoise, who initiated the founding of the museum. “Our father Jean-François Costa was fascinated by his trade and was one of the first to collect objects relating to perfume. He created several museums, in Grasse and Paris, to share his treasures with the public.
“Our parents passed on to us a taste for beautiful objects, the values of sharing and the expertise of the perfumer. We are very proud of our third Parisian museum, where the most beautiful objects in our collections have been brought together in an unusual building, combining history, culture and modernity.”
Guided visits to the Musée du Parfum are free of charge and are charmingly delivered in the language of the visitor. The tour itinerary leads out of the cool, minimalist foyer and into the powerhouse of the operation, a vast, timber floored industrial space, where a unique collection of copper stills bears witness to the ancient art of the perfumer. Archive video projections show the original methods of flower gathering, extraction and distillation which are still broadly employed by Fragonard to this day.
The gallery of perfume bottles contains an exquisite collection of gold and silver filigree, lapis lazuli and porcelain flacons, pomanders, vanity cases and toilette sets, though a little more time to examine its precious contents would be appreciated. Glowing like jewels inside their glass display cases, they tell the 3,000-year story of perfume, from ancient Egyptian and Roman ritual, through to the traders who sailed the world in search of exotic spices and plants, to the 17th and 18th century French royal court where pomanders and perfumed vapours would be used to cover bad smells, and right into the present day.
Costa’s remarkable collection contains the gorgeous collection of bottles he commissioned from the French glass designer Lalique. They sit side by side with Lancôme’s famous moon-faced glass bottle, Elsa Schiaparelli’s sinuous Flacon Zut and a burnished tortoiseshell powder compact in the shape of a telephone dial, designed by Salvador Dali.
The pinnacle of the tour is our arrival at the perfume organ, a three-tiered semi circle of over a hundred small bottles of scented essences. In the old days, the perfumer sat in state at the organ, juggling strips of paper soaked in a vast variety of scents, constantly in search of heady new combinations. Today’s ‘noses’ (the top perfumers) add an expert knowledge of science to their mastery of fragrances. The guide tells us that a good nose can memorise hundreds of primary scents in order to create blends that meet the expectations of a demanding clientele.
Then it’s out into the daylight for a brief shot at being a perfumer’s apprentice. We struggle to identify some of the basic essences in attempting to concoct our own favourite combination. Is this mimosa or jasmine? Lemon citron or iris? Rose or lavender? Sounds simple doesn’t it? Be assured, it is not.
There are few more soothing ways of passing a few hours in the City of Light. With characteristic warmth and generosity, the Costa sisters have opened wide the door into the history and traditions of their family business. The tour leaves visitors with an overwhelming desire to take the next flight to Grasse, where the scents and colours of Provence are most vibrant and the heart of Fragonard beats most strongly.