Over the past 12 months, perfumers have rediscovered rose notes. That’s evident in the dozens of limited “rose” editions that have arrived on store counters. But it is a surprising trend since rose essence was considered “dated” by fragrance houses as little as three years ago. Handled incorrectly, rose can be overpowering and smell like your grandmother’s perfume, something that perfumers want to avoid when courting a new generation of consumer.
French fashion house Chloé has perfected the rose scent thanks to the light hand of master perfumer Michel Almairac. The journey begins in Turkey where the most fragrant and highest quality damask roses are grown. (It’s interesting to know that of the 5,000 varieties of roses in the world, only two are used in perfumery.) Mr. Almairac sources his roses in fields outside of Parta, a town known as the “city of roses.” The fields and factory belong to the Robertet, a family perfume company established in 1850 and renowned for the quality of its raw materials. It is the climate that allows the family to harvest these exquisite roses – it is mountainous with cool nights and warm, sunny days. Hydro distillation and extraction techniques enable the firm to create three distinct types of rose extract: essence, absolute and rose water. You’ll often find these names on fragrance packaging. Each of the three is used in one of the perfumes of Chloé’s signature line. It is rose water that emphasizes the freshness and lightness of the l’eau de chloé fragrance.
Harvesting rose flowers is a backbreaking and detailed process, taking place from mid-May to mid-June only. At sunrise, farm workers scour the fields in search of the freshest flowers still covered with dew. Methodically, they give a sharp tug on the base of the roses so the petals remain intact. They then place the flowers in big bags tied to their belts. Each bag contains about twenty kilos of roses. These bags, once full, are transported by the farm workers in vans, scooters or even muleback to the Robertet factory.
About 60 tons of rose petals arrive each day at the factory where they are carefully spread on the ground as soon as they are received. Workers with pitchforks toss them into the air in order to guarantee perfect ventilation. There is a danger that the flowers could ferment and lose their olfactive components.
The flowers used to produce rose essence are dumped into large vats, which are then filled with 600 litres of water. Each vat holds 500 kg of roses which are distilled to obtain essential oil and rose water used for the perfumes. L’eau de Chloé, in fact, contains 22% rose water and rose essential oil, a very high concentration for a fragrance.
Creating rose absolute requires a different process. Rose petals are placed in alembics (vats) to which a special solvent is added. This is used for the extraction. After a few hours of washing and the evaporation of the solvent, the mixture turns into a very fragrant concentrate. It is mixed with alcohol, refreshed, filtered and concentrated to become rose absolute.
Once complete, the rose essence, absolute and rose water are sent from Turkey to Grasse, France, where the Chloé fragrances are created. Patchouli and citrus notes are added to the rose water to give l’eau de Chloe its freshness and sophistication. In l’eau de toilette, rose essence is mixed with notes of freesia, sandalwood, and iris to produce a deliciously mischievous fragrance. Essences of magnolia and peony, amber and cedarwood are combined with the iconic flower to create l’eau de parfum.
This process is difficult enough considering climate change, economic instability and shrinking supply. But there is a new threat to perfumers today: developers. The rich, fertile land where roses grow best in Turkey and in France is being bought up by large developers who are turning the land into condominiums, housing complexes and business parks. This is happening at such an alarming rate, that fragrance houses are scrambling to secure reliable sources. These perfume brands are competing for fewer and fewer harvests. Chanel for example, has started buying up suppliers to ensure ingredients for their fragrances. One hectare of farmland will produce between three and five tons of roses during a good harvest season. But that can shrink depending on the amount of rain and sun in a growing season. With 1 kg of rose essence costing about $10,000, the stakes are high.