A fragrance without roses is almost as unthinkable as a love affair without kisses. Not only are roses the most romantic of flowers to look at: they’re an absolute cornerstone of perfumery – the most important flower of all, from the point of view of a nose: sometimes powdery, sometimes woody, musky, myrrh-y, clove-like, sometimes fruity, or just blowsily feminine – but always, intensely romantic. Roses are said to feature in at least 75% of modern feminine fragrances, and at least 10% of all men’s perfumes.
Today’s savvy perfumers, however, are far from the first to recognise the sheer sensual potential of this ‘Queen of Flowers’. In Classic myth, the rose was linked both with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus. When Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony to her boudoir, her bed was strewn with these aphrodisiac blooms and the floor hidden under a foot and a half of fresh-picked petals. Who could resist rolling around in that? Certainly no hot-blooded Roman, homesick for a city where rosewater bubbled through the fountains, awnings soaked in rose oil shielded VIPs in public amphitheatres from the baking sun, pillows and mattresses were stuffed with rosepetals (the better to propel the weary towards dreamland) and where rose garlands were the ultimate Roman must-have status symbol. The same flowers turned up in delicately-scented puddings, love potions and medicines. At one bacchanale, the Emperor Nero, clearly no tightwad, had silver pipes installed so guests could be spritzed with rosewater between courses.
The fragrant liquid which refreshed Roman guests and was flung up by fountains all around town, however, was rosewater – the water in which roses have been steeped, then discarded. In reality, rosewater is the poor relation of the ‘true’ rose scent, from the oil that’s so essential a component of the perfumes which today send our senses into a delicious spin.
Rose essential oil can come in the form of rose otto (also known as attar of roses), or rose aboslute. Rose otto’s extracted via steam distillation, while the more precious rose absolute, via solvent extraction, or CO2 extraction.
The roses most commonly used in perfumery are the Turkish rose, the Damask (or Damascene rose) and Rosa Centifolia (the ‘hundred-leafed rose’), which is grown around Grasse in the south of France, and generally considered to produce the highest quality rose absolute. (This rose is also known as Rose de Mai, because it generally blooms in the month of May, and – romantically – ‘the painter’s rose’, because it features in many works of the old masters.)
Around 70% of the rose oil in the world comes from Bulgaria; other significant producers are Turkey, Iran and Morocco, and precious, limited quantities from Grasse. The task of the rose-picker is to pick the dew-drenched blooms before 10 a.m. at the latest, when the sun evaporates their exquisite magic. So fast does the rose fade, in fact, that some farmers in Turkey and Bulgaria transport their own copper stills to the fields, heating them on the spot over wood fires to distill the precious Damask Rose oil, which separates from the water when heated in only the tiniest of quantities: 170 rose flowers are said to relinquish but a single drop.
Smell rose in:
Goutal Paris Rose Absolue
Maison Francis Kurkdjian À la rose
Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose
Chloé Eau de Parfum
Goutal Rose Pompon
Acqua di Parma Rosa Nobile
Tom Ford Café Rose
Floris A Rose For…
Floral Street Neon Rose
Jo Malone London Red Roses
Serge Lutens Sa Majeste La Rose
Yves Saint Laurent Paris