A town house in the chic eighth arrondissement in Paris, just around the corner from the Elysée Palace, will house Le Grand Musée du Parfum, a new perfume museum.
“The project came naturally – France stands for good perfume,” said Sandra Armstrong, managing director of the museum. “We felt that a comprehensive museum, developed by historians, odor researchers, designers and perfumers was needed.” Paris already has a perfume museum, but it shows only the products of one fragrance manufacturer.
The new museum required two years of work and cost seven million euros (nearly $7.5 million). It was financed by 40 private families, an investment fund and a bank loan.
Le Grand Musée du Parfum is divided in three parts: In one of them, visitors can learn about the history of perfume, in another they get insight into the profession of a perfume designer and, finally, they can explore some 70 different fragrances. The exhibition is varied without being too overloaded.
Perfumes for the gods
“Here on the ground floor we explain the history of perfume,” says fragrance historian Elisabeth de Feydeau, who has contributed to the design of the museum. Among the facts that can be learned in the exhibition: Egyptians didn’t only use perfumes to seduce the opposite sex, the fragrant liquids were also sacrificed to the gods to obtain good favors from them as well.
The museum’s visitors can even taste the first historically documented perfume, Kyphi, which was invented in 1550 BC.
The historical section of the museum also discusses how perfumes were used as medicine, for example against the plague.
“This is where the cliché that the French don’t wash comes from,” the historian told DW. “In the 16th century, public baths were closed to avoid spreading epidemics, and people started washing with perfumed cloths instead.” In the 18th century, people returned to the habit of washing with water.
The history of perfume has always played an important role in France, explains de Feydeau. The country had already industrialized fragrance production around 1830 – much earlier than in most countries, where production remained artisanal for a long time.
Until 1960, the French perfume industry represented 70 percent of world production. Today, the French market share in the global fragrance business is about 25 percent.
Over 1,500 basic odors
Visitors can then explore on the first floor of the museum the complexity of perfumes, and how they affect people.
The “Garden of Smells” offers a bouquet of everyday odors
There are more than 1,500 different basic odors in the world. For example, a rose offers a bouquet of around 350 of them. Visitors can smell three of these fragrances through golden atomizers. A video then explains how odors enter into parts of the brain that trigger emotions even before one consciously perceives the fragrances. That’s why odors often bring up memories.
The next room is called the Garden of Smells. White artificial “flowers,” attached to white tubes coming out of the ground, have built-in sensors. Whenever someone approaches them, they emit a scent – for example, of cinnamon or wheat. The room aims to make visitors realize that they’re exposed to countless odors every day.
Perfumer – a complex profession
In the following section of the museum, fragrance designers talk about their work in videos. Perfumes are often inspired by a basic idea, a basic smell, says one of them. Other scents are added to create a round composition.
An installation of 25 small balls drops down from the ceiling. Each of these spheres releases a different scent when it is lifted. Then a voice reveals in five languages – French, English, Spanish, German and Italian – what the scent was, along with its meaning. A panel explains how the first step for perfumers is to be able to recognize many different fragrances.
“Our job is very complicated,” said Nicolas Beaulieu, perfume designer for the US fragrance manufacturer IFF, who also helped conceived that section of the museum. “Of course, visitors will not completely understand how a perfume is created, but they’ll at least understand how difficult this profession is.” Beaulieu finds his work fascinating, which is why he’s glad that there’s now a museum that reveals some aspects of it.