Yves de Chiris: Scented Heir to Chiris French Perfume Dynasty

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Yves de Chiris: Scented Heir to Chiris French Perfume Dynasty
Grasse, about 1900. Vintage French post card. Tucked off a road behind a tall laurel hedge and surrounded by sunflower fields in July, Yves de Chiris enjoys a life enhanced with richly textured memories. Born in 1937, Yves is the epitome of style: immensely affable, cultivated, erudite and debonair. He was educated in French lycées and English prep schools. Yves is the fifth generation of the Chiris dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather, Antoine Chiris, in 1768. I had no idea whom we were going to meet that sunny summer’s day. I’d heard anecdotally the story of my husband’s family’s visit many years ago to a perfume factory in Grasse, and about the young perfumer there who had dated his sister a few years before. Now, I was seated at an umbrella-shaded table in the courtyard of a stone farmhouse in the tiny village of Endoufielle, across from one of the most charming men I’d ever met, being served pink Champagne and sumptuous hors d’oeuvres. Over a lunch that lasted more than four hours my husband and I were regaled with stories of a family empire that stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the distant reaches of China, and would remain the preeminent force in the perfume industry for more than two centuries. Antoine Chiris grew up in the Provençal village of Grasse, surrounded by the scents of rose, mimosa, violet, tuberose, orange blossom and jasmine. The mild climate of the region spurred the economic development of perfumery into a flourishing industry. At the beginning of the 18th century, Antoine was sent to Paris by his father to open a shop. While other merchants sold a little bit of everything from charcuterie to chocolates, Antoine had the foresight to sell only perfume. He frequented Parisian society and became part of the entourage of Louis XV. By chance he was introduced to the directors of France’s equivalent of The East India Trading Company, La Compagnie des Indes. His imagination was sparked by conversations of exotic spices and essences that were being gathered in distant lands and with shrewd business acumen, Antoine realized their potential market. Antique Chiris parfum bottles in traveling case, circa 1885. Returning to Grasse shortly thereafter, he commissioned the manufacture of 10 stills, each one 12 times the standard size, and bought all of the flower production from the surrounding countryside. He created the Antoine Chiris Company, and overnight became the major fragrance supplier to all the courts and court perfumers of Europe. By the end of the 19th century, the Chiris family owned between 600 and 800 hectares of flower plantations in and around Grasse. With an eye to the future, Antoine and his son, Anselme, traveled the world continuously in search of raw materials that were more exotic and intense in odor and taste than the current fashion. Eventually, they decided it was no longer efficient to buy essential oils from distant lands, and began developing their own flower plantations all over the world.  Tired of a lifetime of travel, Anselme passed the family business to his son, Léon. After he became Senator of the Alpes-Maritimes, he further solidified the future direction of the company by building an extraordinary network of relationships with German, American, English and French companies. He hosted Queen Victoria at his villa and became friends with Sadi Carnot, future President of the French Republic. The children of the Chiris and Carnot families intermarried and they participated in all of the French colonial expansions of the time—Algeria, Central Africa, the Congo, the Comoro Archipelago, Madagascar and Indochina. Queen Victoria visits Grasse in 1891. Vintage French post card. What made the Chiris colonial dynasty uniquely different were their radical socialist attitudes. They redistributed part of their earnings to the countries where they were doing business, and focused on social programs. They installed electricity, built businesses, schools, houses and hospitals. Under their guidance, doctors and nurses treated people for free and salaries were paid to pregnant women. Retirement homes were created for their workers and, in fact, The Antoine Chiris Company opened the first retirement home for old pensioners in Grasse. “There is a wonderful statue of my great-grandfather in Grasse, of which I am very proud,” Yves said. “It’s a bronze bust set on a pillar and next to it is an old peasant woman. She is holding a little girl by the hand and pointing at the bust. I believe it shows the appreciation of the people of Grasse for what he did.” Many historic events conspired around this time to further ensure the company’s viability. The Industrial Revolution created profound changes in the perfume industry, among them the invention of the process of reproducing natural scents in the form of aroma chemicals. Showing business savvy once again, the Chiris Company bought the patents for this invention which allowed them to treat a far greater quantity of flowers for less money. Single-handedly, the company democratized the perfume industry. Up to this point in time, perfume was reserved exclusively for the aristocracy; now it could be purchased by anyone. “Contemporary perfume would not exist without aroma chemicals,” Yves explained to us. “If we had to use nature’s products for everything that we perfume today, we would have defoliated the planet years ago. Violets, for example, have to be harvested by hand. Over a million blossoms are needed to make one ounce of pure perfume!” At the beginning of the 20th century, Yves’ grandfather, George,…
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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.