I’m drunk on roses. I’m flailing my arms around, making snow angels in the rose petals, and I’m laughing uncontrollably. The experience of sinking into a mass of soft pink petals is an exhilarating sensation, but it’s the scent that thrills me. The fragrance is clinging to my hair, my clothes, my skin. It clings to the rough cement walls in this garage filled with sacks of rose blossoms ready to be processed into essence, and it’s so rich and heady, it feels like a tangible presence. The aroma–linden honey, grated lemon zest, and warm raspberry–will follow me around for days, and even now, as I’m writing with a bowl of dried petals by my side, I can still smell the Provençal sun on them.
How many steps does it take for a flower to become perfume? I’m in Grasse, a town on the French Riviera, to get a glimpse into the intricate process of harvesting roses for the rose de mai essence. Painters express their vision with colors, but for perfumers and perfume lovers alike, the ideas acquire meaning with aromatics, so the art of making the essence is what we are to discover.
Grasse got its moniker as the perfume capital of the world for its fields of flowers that once spread out like a colorful quilt around the region. Jasmine, tuberose, lavender, and rose thrive in the valley lying between the sea and the Riviera’s Maritime Alps. Over the past few decades, the fields of Grasse have shrunken dramatically due to real estate development and increasing labor costs, but rose de mai, as rosa centifolia is called in French for its May blooming season, still remains one of the region’s hallmarks. The essence it provides is an irreplaceable ingredient in iconic fragrances like Chanel No. 5 and Jean Patou Joy.
Chanel partners with the Mul family to secure its rose and jasmine essences, but there are also other producers in the region. The grower whose fields I’m visiting is one of the small farmers based in Grasse, and he knows more about growing roses than anyone I’ve met. He describes the soil conditions, the varieties and the general state of business, and it’s clear that he loves his work, despite its challenges. If you’re familiar with ornamental roses and their luxurious blossoms, the modest look of rose de mai will take you by surprise. It’s the perfume of the crinkly, soft flowers that will dazzle you.
The bushes are pruned back sharply both to make it easier for pickers and to increase the yield. 60,000 roses are needed to produce one ounce of rose absolute, but if the pruning is not done correctly, the yield can plummet by as much as 20%. This is a significant difference, especially since rose de mai contains less essential oil than the other variety used in perfumery, rosa damascena.
As you stand among the neat green hedges dappled with vivid pink, it’s tempting to imagine that picking roses is a romantic job. The colors, scents, textures! Except that the May sun turns blistering as soon as midday approaches, and the monotony of snipping the blossoms one by one soon wears you down, as does the heavy sack holding the flowers. Each picker can collect up to 6 kg of roses per hour, but my fingers are starting to smart from the rough stems, and I’ve barely collected enough to make a pot of rose jam.
The ladies picking the flowers are from the Roma clan appropriately called “La Fleur” (The Flower), and they’re realistic and unsentimental about their work. Although they grumble about the low pay vis-a-vis the high price of the essence, their wages give them financial independence and security. “We feed our children on roses,” jokes a tall, heavyset brunette in a baseball cap and sleeveless black t-shirt.
When the sacs are emptied into a weighing room in a technicolor flurry of petals, you get close to being inside The Roses of Heliogabalus painting. Most small farmers in Grasse don’t process their own flowers on site, and before roses are shipped off to the extraction facilities, they are spread out on the floor and left to breathe. A touch of rot or too many wilting petals will ruin the essence, and occasionally the pink carpet is raked and tossed in the air. I can’t resist and jump in, tossing flowers with my hands. The scent of a million roses is intoxicating. I feel something close to absolute happiness.
Eventually, the roses will be loaded back in burlap sacs and transferred to the processing facility. To maximize the yield of essence and to preserve the characteristic fresh nuance of rose de mai, it’s turned into absolute, rather than hydro-distilled into rose oil. This means that the petals are bathed in an organic solvent, usually hexane, and the resulting extract is then vacuum distilled. The solvent is removed (it can be reused again), while a concrète remains behind. It looks like solidified honey, and it smells good enough to make my mouth water.
If you think that this is a lot of work for a drop of perfume, just wait. Concrète is only the intermediate step before rose petals can make their way into Annick Goutal Rose Splendide or Diptyque Eau Rose. It now has to be processed with ethanol (alcohol) to separate the liquid substances from the plant waxes. The blend is chilled, and then the solid parts are skimmed off. One more step to filter, and finally, one more distillation step to separate alcohol from the essence, and you have rose de mai absolute. No wonder this is one of the most expensive materials in the perfumer’s palette.
Rose absolute is the color of Baltic amber, with a green overtone, and it smells thicker, warmer and heavier than freshly picked blossoms. Its complexity is spellbinding, and as I take a whiff off a scented blotter, I can smell it all–the gauzy petals, the dusty rose leaves, the hot soil, the wild rosemary, and even a salty hint of the Mediterranean sea.
Extra: The video about the rose harvest in Turkey. It also explains the difference between rose oil and rose absolute.
Denyse of Grain de Musc was my accomplice on this rose adventure, and I’m sure you will read her account soon.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin