The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Hidden beauty

This autumn, while I was staying in the south of France, I got the chance to visit what you could think of as the holy grail of the perfume industry: IFF-LMR (aka Laboratoires Monique Rémy), outside Grasse. These days the town is a minor player on the global stage, mostly trading on its past as the one-time centre of French perfumery, but it still has a few small manufacturers, including IFF-LMR, which makes some of the world’s finest and most expensive natural perfume ingredients.

Not that there’s much to see from outside. The Parc Industriel Les Bois de Grasse is about as exciting as any other industrial estate I’ve visited (ie not very exciting), with a collection of anonymous-looking warehouses and bland office blocks scattered around a series of wide, empty roads that sweep between the pine trees of the bois. IFF-LMR’s exterior is no different from the rest, and to be frank its interior isn’t much more thrilling: an open-plan office above a double-height warehouse, with modestly sized manufacturing and research areas beyond that.

Everything – the vinyl floors, with gentle ramps at each exit to contain accidental floods, the stainless-steel pressure vessels, the glass tubing – is shiny and spotlessly clean. ‘We’re certified to food hygiene standards,’ explains managing director Bernard Toulemonde, who is understandably proud of the place; all part and parcel of their emphasis on purity and precision.

One other thing makes IFF-LMR feel immediately different from most factories I’ve visited: the smell. Instead of the usual scent of sump oil and burning electricity, there’s a faint but pervasive fragrance in the air, which could be rose or could be lavender but is most likely an atmospheric amalgam of those and all the other delicious perfume ingredients they extract.

Though it’s the machines, if you like, that symbolise the factory’s beating heart – glass alembics, ice-encrusted condensers, basic-looking but baffling computer consoles – for me the most exciting part was the sealed, chilled storeroom where the extracts themselves are kept, in stainless-steel containers, some the size of Thermos flasks, others in small steel drums.

Stored in alphabetical order, as far as we could ascertain (Bernard was no surer than I was), they’re ranged on shelf after shelf, with a perfume-poem of names: Basil Oil Grand Vert, Blackcurrant Bud Absolute Burgundy, Castoreum Absolute, Cinnamon Essential, Galbanum Resinoid, Hay Absolute, Labdanum Resinoid, Narcisse Absolute French, Orange Bigarade Oil, Orris Concrete, Osmanthus Absolute, Rose Ultimate Extract, Vetiver Heart – the shelves go on and on.

But for me the most fascinating aspect of their work, as a plant-grower and earth-digger myself, is the fact that IFF-LMR is as much about agriculture as it is about perfumery – Bernard Toulemonde is a professional agronomist, and he and his staff spend much of their time in fields around the world, from France to Madagascar, Egypt to Haiti, working with local farmers to grow the healthiest, most productive crops of fragrant plants that can then be processed and refined back at the factory, or in their larger processing plant in Spain. That, to me, is the essence of perfume: a magical blend of nature and science – something we watched as raw rough lavender oil was distilled into the clearest, most delicately perfumed liquid.

Sadly, though understandably, photography is not allowed, or I’d have been able to share them with you, but you can see a few on their website here. One day I hope to return to see some of their ingredients being grown and harvested.

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