Strolling the boulevards of Paris, tourists these days are following their noses to a decidedly French institution, the perfume museum.

Or to one of the new super-size perfumeries that have sprung up across the city like wildflowers. The Sephora perfumery opened its doors to fragrance-lovers in France in 1993 and has since expanded to 54 boutiques.At center stage at the Sephora store on the Avenue des Champs Elysees, one can watch the "nose" at the "organ," the master perfumer with a super-sensitive smeller at work at a semi-circular display of hundreds of bottles of essences.

Perfume, you see, is not just a product to be bought and sold, it's something to be studied.

"The idea of Sephora was to help the customers see the olfactory world and to know exactly what perfume is," says Pascale Le Marechal, Sephora's spokesman. "We help to develop a culture around the perfume."

The perfume organ is considered the starting point of any first-time visit.

"You are able to smell the perfumes of life here," Le Marechal says. "We let you smell the scents of coffee, tea, chalk, flowers. Little by little, we find the scents of our childhood."

The organ at Perfumer Fragonard's contains 1,000 fragrances and the nose can detect 300 to 400 at the same time. The average person can distinguish only six to eight.

Serge Kalouguine, one of the world's 200 or so noses, has been working for Fragonard's factory in Grasse, France, for more than 30 years.

"Perfume is very important for us because it is part of our patrimony," Kalouguine says. "It represents the country."

To learn more about the creation and history of fragrances, one of Fragonard's two perfume museums in Paris is the place to start.

Guides explain Fragonard's distillation method: Flower petals are placed in a distillation machine, steam passes through the flowers to capture the scent, and a vapor is produced. The cooled vapor liquefies and trickles out of a spigot at the bottom of the machine.

To make a perfume, 20 percent of the essence is used; an eau de toilette takes 15 percent essence, and a cologne is made up of 6 percent. Flower water and alcohol finish the composition.

Five to 6 tons of flower petals are used to make just 2 pounds of essence.