Tissues of Provence
Provencal fabrics are used to create tablecloths, napkins, bags, but also all sorts of garments: shawls, scarves, fashion accessories, bags, and plenty of other gifts.
You will see them in the markets and town shops: motifs of lavender and olive set in the deep blues, reds and yellows of Provence, reflecting the bright lights and colours of the landscape.
In the 17th century, the tissues came from the West Indies to the port of Marseille, before the silk industry took off in Provence (mostly around Nîmes).
The motifs you will most often see in Provençal fabrics are inspired from the creations of artisans that date back more than two hundred years.
Provencal pottery is adorned with many of the same bright and colourful patterns as its fabrics, its tradition steeped in history. Clay has been used in Provence to make pottery since pre-Roman times. Romans used pottery for many purposes, mainly for the storage and shipping of olive oil, wines, grain, and other items.
In the 17th century, the techniques for enamelling and firing came to Provence via Italy, and enabled artisans to perfect their crafts. One of these styles is called "Faïence" from the town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie; this special type of pottery has its own distinct style and pattern, and is internationally renowned.
The small town of Saint-Quentin-La-Poterie has a 600 year-old tradition of pottery thanks to excellent quality of clay in its soil. In modern times the town has become a centre for pottery, its streets lined with artisans and museums, attracting artists who feature ceramics of many different styles.
Santons are small figurines, made of clay, always hand-painted. They range in size, varying anywhere from 4cm miniatures to much taller and clothed dolls, sometimes exceeding 50cm in height. Santons are used to depict the nativity scene (crèche) at Christmas.
But this is a Provençal nativity scene, told in the always colourful Provençal manner. Here the traditional Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus are accompanied by dozens of Provençal characters: the olive and lavender pickers set beside the three Wise Men, carrying gifts of their own, while the shepherd holds his hat firmly on his head to avoid it being blown away by the Mistral. Pastel, Provençal towns are often included in the scene, while up on the hills, twisted branches of thyme are used to depict olive trees, under which goats scramble their front legs up the trunk to get at the lower branches.
There are many famous “santonniers” (figurine makers) in Provence, all using their distinct moulds and painting styles for their figurines. You can find santons all year in tourist shops, and especially Christmas time in special markets devoted to the art of the santon. The Santonniers are always willing to chat with you, to talk about their craft but also the stories behind each character.
Savon de Marseille
Olive oil based soap has been made in the South of France for more than a thousand years. Since 1688, French law dictates that only soaps produced by following the traditional methods, and containing only the purest ingredients, can be called “Savon de Marseille”. It is always 100% vegetable-based.
The process of soap making takes two weeks: a delicate mixture of olive oils, vegetable oils, ash from sea plants, and salt water from the Mediterranean Sea are heated for ten days in antique cauldrons. It is hardened before cut into cubes and set out to dry in the Mistral winds.
Traditionally, the soap is either green or white. The white soap is made with palm oil, the green with at least 50% olive oil. Today they come in all shapes and sizes, scented naturally with one of many perfumes: lavender, orange, cinnamon, coffee, etc.
Because of its purity the soap is recommended for sensitive skin and known throughout the world for its moisturizing properties and its ability to treat dry skin and other skin ailments.
The Perfumes of Grasse
Grasse is a small town set just behind the Côte d’Azur. The town of Grasse had many tanneries in centuries past, a tradition of leather-making dating back to the 13th century. It was in the 16th century that perfumed gloves became fashionable, and the town provided them. Though the leather-making industry began to fade, the perfume industry continued to flourish, and today Grasse is a world capital of perfume.
The mild climate and constant sun in Grasse is favourable to even the most delicate flowers, giving the local perfumers numerous scents to choose from.
By the 17th century, perfumers and apothecaries began to settle in Grasse, and in 1729, the perfumers were recognized by official statutes.
You can take guided tours of the town’s main “parfumeries”. There you will learn more about the history of perfume making in the town, and get an up close look at how perfume was made over the centuries – and how it’s made today.