An exploration of the multi-faceted rose in perfumery
There is perhaps no flower or ingredient in perfumery that is more important than the rose. In some scents, it is the key centrepiece in the heart – the essence of feminity. In others, it is the fragrance’s invisible aura. I recall the first time I smelled rose absolute oil and I was immediately filled with joy and love, as my encounters with rose were limited to culinary experiences. I had just started my perfumery training at that time and rose was one of the first few ingredients that intrigued me with its multi-faceted note.
On my journey with the scent, I discovered that roses cultivated for use in perfumery breathes a different space compared to those used for cut flowers during Valentine’s Day, as well as those grown in large-scale nurseries for retail purposes. While rose cultivators constantly experimented with new hybrids, the variety of roses used to make perfumes today have surprisingly not differed much since antiquity. Today, the perfume industry mainly uses two types of roses for creation: The honey-scented, spiced Rosa damascena and the sparkling, delicate Rosa centifolia, which is also known as Rose de Mai in Grasse, because of its blossoming season in May. The damascena variety, originating from the Middle East and now grown largely in Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran, accounts for more than 90% of the world’s production of rose oil, while the more delicate centifolia contributes to the remaining portion. To put things in perspective, the latter’s essence is what makes Chanel No.5 special and iconic.
The two types of rose provide a palette of colours for me to paint my vision. From a creamy rose to a transparent crystalline rose, the variations in their fragrances are as imaginative as the mind can be. It is the clever play of the nuances in rose that give rise to a dramatic range of rose perfumes.
Take for example the legendary Paris, which is Sophia Grojsman’s iconic perfume for Yves Saint Laurent. It is a bombastic rose-violet combination composed in 1983, paralleling the superlative fashion and music of its time. Paris makes its presence known by radiating profusely in all corners; but on skin, it blooms like a surrealist rose garden blossoming at its peak. If that sounds too loud for you, a realistic painting of a rose like Annick Goutal’s Rose Absolue is an excellent depiction of something more pure. The other rose-driven scent in the same range is Rose Splendide, which sparkles more beautifully. It is reminiscent of English tea roses with overtones of leafy green notes, all while lingering delicately on the skin.
On days when my home garden is filled with fragrance, I realise nothing beats the smell of natural rose and I start looking for an artful yet simple depiction of it. This minimalist treatment of rose can be smelled in Hermès’ Rose Ikebana, where the floral note is lightened and sheered by a combination of grapefruit and tea tones, resulting in an almost transparent effect.
Once the familiar, perfected rose theme has been explored widely in modern perfumery, it takes creativity and courage to create something new and daring to surprise – or even shock. This brings to mind Serge Lutens’ Rose de Nuit, a rose-chypre composition. Its beauty lies in its portrayal of a fresh translucent floral melting into a crepuscular scent. What you would expect in a rose, the sweetness, floralcy, and powderiness is twisted in an unsuspected dark and contrasting direction.
When I am not studying, interpreting, or working with the scent, I take the time to actually stop and smell the roses and indulge in a bit of introspection. It is on rare occasions like this that a particular line from “It Felt Love” by Persian poet Hafiz comes to mind: “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty?” For without the rose, the world would perhaps smell a little less romantic.