The Art of Perfume Course : Marie-Antoinette’s Travel Case

What would you pack if you had to flee for your life? If you were Marie-Antoinette, you would commission a case that would allow you to write, sew, picnic, and perfume yourself with ease. At the International Perfume Museum (Musée International de la Parfumerie) in Grasse, you can see the very item made to the queen’s specifications before she fled to Varennes in 1791. Legend has it that she was given away by the scent of her rich perfume, but if this travel case is any indication, the royal couple didn’t travel light.

After we visited Edmond Roudnitska’s house as part of my Art of Perfume course, we headed to Grasse. Once upon a time, Grasse used to grow the bulk of the flowers used in the fragrance industry, but today it plays a mainly symbolic role. Its environs produce the famous rose de mai, jasmine, lavender and tuberose, but the combination of high real estate value, steep labor costs and climatic change has affected aromatic agriculture in the region. Nevertheless, it’s a charming town located in one of the most beautiful areas of Provence. It also boasts the best perfume museum in the world.

The International Perfume Museum covers perfume history, manufacture and presentation. There are rooms full of artifacts from different periods, distillation equipment and beauty items related to scents and aromas.


Marie-Antoinette’s travel case is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable items in its collection. The queen commissioned two identical cases, one of which she sent as a gift to her sister, the Archduchess Marie-Christine in Brussels in 1791. (Recently, I write about the letters of Isabella von Parma sent to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine; well, that’s the same person, the older sister of Marie-Antoinette.)

The Museum also has a splendid collection of perfume bottles, which they present chronologically, along with a timeline of world events that prioritizes the developments in France, bien entendu.

A large part of the museum is devoted to the fragrant garden full of plants used in perfumery–patchouli, herbs, bitter orange trees, irises, and roses.

Photography by Anna Kozlova



  • spe: Somehow “fleeing for my life” isn’t concordant with commissioned luggage, picnics, and perfume. I must have a strong streak of practicality.

    The comment about climate change impacting Grasse is interesting. Where has that phenomenon improved aromatic agriculture in the world, do you think? April 21, 2017 at 9:35am Reply

    • Bela: It shows what an airhead she was. Neither she nor her hubby realised the seriousness of their situation. On the day of the Storming of the Bastille, Louis XVI wrote, ‘Nothing to write home about.’ In 18th-century French, of course. LOL! I dislike them as much as I do the Romanovs – for more or less the same reasons. They all deserved what they got in the end. April 21, 2017 at 10:32am Reply

      • MaryAnn Hardy: I find it puzzling that anyone could have a personal dislike for a historical figure. How can we know… really know what their world was like and from what forces their responses derived? I have the sense that Marie Antoinette who was raised to exist in a highly structured environment would have been very well-mannered. She and her husband knew NOTHING of any other kind of life. I’ve run into people who are as clueless about my way of life, and I have found myself to be “clueless” too when I am a stranger in a strange land. We think we know these people, these royalty, enough to “like or dislike” them, but it is actually impossible to know them. ALL we can know is what the authors’ biases were in the many places in literature where they are mentioned. I find Marie-Antoinette’s Travel Case lovely and fascinating. I think it’s marvelously thoughtful, perfect for a woman traveling by carriage, many kilometers away from running water, toilets, cafe’s or any modern roadside comforts. The peasant might have had a rude sack and pottery, but this traveling case is indeed fit for a queen. What a cruel thing to say, “They all deserved what they got.” I wouldn’t wish anyone to be murdered. April 21, 2017 at 4:55pm Reply

        • Victoria: In fact, Marie Christine, the older sister to whom Marie Antoinette sent a similar case, also had to flee in the aftershocks of the French Revolution (from Brussels in 1792), and she and her husband didn’t exactly travel light either. They packed their art collection, which we can admire today in Vienna’s Albertina. April 22, 2017 at 3:19am Reply

      • kayliz: These incredibly privileged few with their cushioned, decadent lives, their wilful ignorance of the hardship suffered by the masses, their insouciance at their role in sustaining that inequality, their maddening attutude that wealth and comfort is theirs by destiny…
        … any of this sound familiar? Do we too deserve to be murdered? April 21, 2017 at 8:49pm Reply

      • Victoria: Romantic, hagiographic accounts of both families that don’t mention their darker sides do irritate me, but their deaths, so sordid and cruel, aren’t deserved. Plus, the revolutions in both cases spilled blood not only of these out-of-touch royals, but thousands of innocent people, so it’s hard to speak of any historical justice. April 22, 2017 at 3:04am Reply

        • MaryAnn Hardy: Victoria, your comment about “historical justice” is what I was trying to say. We weren’t there, the first-hand accounts were written by those who saw things very differently from what we would see today. In my youth, I too would have lambasted the aristocracy (because I am NOT one of them), but in my dotage, I have seen carnage as well as great beauty, and I see the broader picture. What was done…was done. AND… in the museums and fine old palaces and cathedrals we can admire and be transported by the beauty created by the tradesmen who toiled for the wealthy elite, the artists who could live and create because they had patrons, the scientists who relied on them for support, the great schools that were built with money from the wealthy… it was a “system.” And it exists in another iteration now. I think that we can enjoy the beauty without guilt or bitterness. I do this by imagining the hands …the very hands that created the marvelous thing in front of me. Marie Antoinette’s Travel Case is lovely and the artisans who made it (them) were wonderful… but Marie A. commissioned the work. April 22, 2017 at 10:53am Reply

          • Victoria: The only thing I would add–we can draw conclusions on the historical personalities, especially given the rich resources we have available. And we can and should criticize the system that was based on exploitation and violence (now and then). And we should use history to draw lessons for our present. I enjoy the beauty behind objects and works of art, but I do want to be aware of their history and the circumstances in which they were produced. April 22, 2017 at 11:33am Reply

            • MaryAnn Hardy: Je suis d’accord! April 22, 2017 at 12:48pm Reply

      • Alicia: True, the king was ineffective, the queen was frivolous, and both were kind. They were guillotined, and so was a whole monastery of saintly Carmelite nuns, and so were thousands of persons in Paris, Lyon, notably in La Vandée, and throughout France. I lament all those unjust and useless deaths: the bloodbath of the Terror. Still, there is one death I don’t deplore, that of Maximilien Robespierre. April 23, 2017 at 2:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t think that there was any other place where the climate changes affected the growth of aromatics positively. It changes the whole microclimate, not just the weather, and many plants aren’t able to cope well. Lavender in France has been devastated by a particular type of parasite, which usually to be killed off during the cold winter. Now that the winters are milder, it flourishes. April 22, 2017 at 2:55am Reply

  • Gina: Do they know what fragrance she wore? April 21, 2017 at 9:49am Reply

    • Victoria: She had her own perfumer, and she especially enjoyed the scents of violet, orange blossom and tuberose according to “A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer.” It’s a book writter by Elisabeth de Feydeau. Do take a look at it, if you haven’t already. April 22, 2017 at 2:58am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, thank you for the fantastic photos! Although I probably will never get to Grasse nor the museum, I appreciate your pictorial. April 21, 2017 at 9:58am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m happy to share Anna’s photos. April 22, 2017 at 2:59am Reply

  • Bela: When l lived in the area the MIP didn’t exist, unfortunately. It sounds (and looks) more interesting than what was on offer then: the so-called Fragonard and Galimard factories. I say ‘so-called’ because they were fake, full of implements that hadn’t been in use for years. They were meant exclusively for tourists. April 21, 2017 at 10:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Grasse has gotten more and more commercial and touristy over the past ten years since I’ve been coming there on regular basis. But it’s still charming. The museum is excellent, and it gives a very good overview of materials, perfumes, method of production, history, etc. Another item I loved is a travel case commissioned for a Venetian lady. It’s decorated with the Ottoman tulips and inlaid with small mirrors. Just lovely. April 22, 2017 at 3:07am Reply

  • Toni: What wonderful photos of this great experience. Thank you for sharing this. When we had to leave our home because of an approaching fire, I packed quickly but
    couldn’t leave without my treasured bottle of vintage Lanvin Pretexte. I now have a plastic case ready to include my favorite perfumes if the occasion arises again. April 21, 2017 at 1:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you’ll never have to use it, Toni! April 22, 2017 at 3:07am Reply

  • Nick: Those intricately wrought amphorae and flacons are, in and of themselves, a whole kind of art. April 21, 2017 at 1:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Aren’t they! The colors are still so vivid. April 22, 2017 at 3:08am Reply

  • Aurora: This travel case is a discovery for me, thank you so much! It re-enforces my feeling of the total disconnection the French people experienced with its monarchy. Have you seen La Nuit de Varennes, Victoria? I saw it when it was released and loved it. Thanks also for the photos of Grasse Museum, I had no idea the collection was so extensive and a scent garden too! April 21, 2017 at 1:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t seen La Nuit de Varenne. I need to see if I can find a copy. Clearly, they either didn’t realize how serious the situation was or thought that they would have more time than they did. They did prepare in advance, though. April 22, 2017 at 3:10am Reply

  • Marilyn stanonis: MaryAnn Hardy, thank you for you kind and sensitive comments. I thoroughly agree with you. — Marilyn Stanonis April 21, 2017 at 8:01pm Reply

  • Carla: I visited Grasse before becoming interested in perfume, back when my only perfume kick was buying Flowerbomb while on assignment in Brussels before it was available in the US. I’d like to visit again now, I’m sure I’d love the museum. (Just like Paris as a perfume lover is a different Paris than before…Serge Lutens at the Palais Royal, etc.) April 22, 2017 at 11:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Can’t agree more with your comment on Paris! It becomes such a different city. April 22, 2017 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I’ve been,to Grasse a few times and have so far managed not to visit this museum. It sounds good, and much more interesting than the Fragonard things. Although I do admit having a weakness for Fragonard 😉

    The case made me think of a film that I’ve only seen a little bit of. It’s called La Nuit de Varennes and has a wonderful cast, including Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova.

    By the way I noticed a lot of tiny new lavandin plants on the plateau de Valensole and thought of your comments about this bug that is affecting lavender plants. Mind you, at least this winter it’s been cold enough, I guess. April 22, 2017 at 4:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Aurora mentioned this film earlier in the comments, so I need to find a copy. The cast does seem splendid.

      I do too. Fragonard is commercial and touristy, but it’s still a fun place to visit time to time. Besides perfume, they carry very nice linens. April 23, 2017 at 4:01am Reply

      • Austenfan: I read a review of it last night which wasn’t altogether complimentary, but it was very positive of Mastroianni as an old and rather disillusioned Casanova. Just imagine that Pierrot face in that role.

        I went to the tiny lavender museum in Digne, it was interesting. Lavender was one of the few things that guaranteed some sort of steady income. I had always wondered what people used to live on in that area. It is stunning but the climate is harsh.
        They explained the difference between lavandin and lavender quite clearly (you have as well).

        I got some real lavender oil in the Drôme. It’s almost a perfume in itself.

        And ditto on the linens, and the soap boxes. April 23, 2017 at 3:41pm Reply

        • Victoria: I admit that I’m not that much of a fan of Marie-Antoinette as a historical personage, so I haven’t seen many films about her specifically. Sophia Coppola’s version was pretty and romantic, a bit too much so. But I’d watch this movie just for Mastroianni. April 26, 2017 at 1:04pm Reply

          • Austenfan: This is a great review!


            I don’t think I have ever seen any film about MA bar bits of this one. April 26, 2017 at 2:22pm Reply

            • Victoria: I love this bit:
              “The way Mastroianni projects Casanova’s weariness, wisdom and infinite sadness is very touching. His performance deserves a footnote in film history as a variant of the Casanova he might have given us in “Fellini Casanova” (1977), if Fellini had not at the last moment decided to cast Donald Sutherland instead of Mastroianni.” April 27, 2017 at 7:18am Reply

              • Austenfan: Precisely!
                He was such an excellent actor and so good at conveying the ambivalence of his characters. April 27, 2017 at 7:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, and lavandin didn’t have the same issue, or at least, not to the same extent. April 23, 2017 at 4:02am Reply

  • Marlene: Thank you,Victoria for such a wonderful piece. I was not aware that Grasse is not the perfume center that it once was. Interesting history about Marie Antoinette. I still have a beautiful doll that I begged for as a girl. I named her for the French queen. She still looks regal with her platinum finger curls and teal colored gown and parasol. She sounds like a thoughtful person in giving her sister such a lovely gift. Thanks for your all your attention to detail. April 23, 2017 at 12:12am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it has changed a lot, but it still has an important symbolic role.
      The only reason Marie-Antoinette sent that case to her sister is because she was preparing for her departure and didn’t want to rouse suspicions by order a travel case for herself. In fact, she didn’t have a particularly good relationship with Marie Christine, and it wasn’t a gift in a conventional sense. April 23, 2017 at 3:59am Reply

      • SilverMoon: Victoria, thank you for a wonderful post. Enjoyed the photos and fascinated by the details (especially the strategic gift order). April 23, 2017 at 2:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: She was clearly planning ahead. April 26, 2017 at 1:01pm Reply

  • Lydia: I hope to see the International Perfume Museum someday. Those beautiful vintage bottles and labels! I have to admit to prefering them to most modern ones.

    Perhaps someday museums will simulate the authentic fragrances of history for visitors as well as showing the artifacts. I dream of a day when the Osmothèque archive does something like this.

    Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Les Adieux à la Reine are my favorite films portraying the queen. What I like about them is that they have these quiet, meditative moments separate from the pagentry of history, a reminder of the solitudes all people carry with them.

    Les Adieux à la Reine is an interesting look at the world of the servants at Versailles, a reminder that behind all the show of royalty was a network of human beings experiencing rivalry and hope and loss and friendship. (I found that more interesting than speculation about the queen’s relationship to the Duchess of Polignac.)
    I’d love to see La Nuit de Varennes someday. April 23, 2017 at 1:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: One of the best museums I visited was National Museum of History in Taipei. They not only presented various art works along with the chronology of events all over the world, but they also had a fragrant exhibit to illustrate the use of scented tobacco. It was such a memorable experience. April 26, 2017 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Qwendy: Late to the party as always …. what a great conversation! I loved La Nuit de Varennes and saw it more than once …. I like the fictional meeting between historical figured theme …. it looks like one might catch it here …. I am going to try it when I am back an a computer April 25, 2017 at 4:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for the link, Wendy! April 26, 2017 at 1:41pm Reply

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