Ever since the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici set the fashion for perfumed gloves, products from the parfumeries in Grasse have found wide appeal.
Today, the perfume factories are chiefly concerned with extracting the fragrance of the flowers from the nearby countryside to produce ''pure essence'' or ''absolute oil.'' Most of the pure essence is supplied to cosmetic firms, couturiers, and other companies to be used as the base for perfumes and other related products.
Finished perfumes sold in stores contain 20 percent of the pure essence; the rest is alcohol and distillate water.Toilet water contains 6 percent essence, and cologne contains 3 percent.
Local growers still produce the bulk of the flowers used by the Grasse perfume factories. Rather than vast fields of blooms, most of the flowers are grown in small pockets by individual families. Jasmine, rose, orange blossom, lavender, daffodil, mimosa, cassia, and violet are the chief crops.
Harvesting the flowers requires a great deal of care and timing. Jasmine, for example, is one of the most expensive flowers, and must be picked at sunrise. Otherwise, as the day progresses, the perfume diminishes. Rose is another flower that must be collected at dawn.
It takes about 1 ton of flowers to produce 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of essence. One kilo of essence costs approximately 40,000 French francs (over $6, 600 at current exchange rates).
Four processes are used to extract the ''absolute oil'' from flowers.
The absolute oil from roses, violets, and daffodils is extracted by ''masceration.'' In this process the flowers are mixed with very pure pork and beef fat, heated close to the melting point. The flowers are stirred in the mixture for about 24 hours until the fat is saturated with fragrance. The fat is then rinsed with alcohol, which absorbs the fragrance from the fat. The alcohol is distilled to obtain the pure essence. ''Enfleurage'' is a similar process, with no heating involved.
Steam distillation is used for rose, lavender, patchouli, and mimosa. The flowers are subjected to pressurized steam, which carries the essence. The steam is condensed by a current of cold water, and the mixture of essential oil and water flows into a decanter, where they separate because of a difference in density.
The fourth process consists of dissolving the scented part of the flower in a volatile solvent - usually petroleum - which is later evaporated. This leaves a waxy residue that is treated with alcohol and distilled to obtain the pure essence. This process is used for jasmine, rose, mimosa, and violet.