Ah, the unmistakeable smell of rose perfume. You just have to picture a lush, pink Damask rose, and it evokes the scent immediately in your mind.
It’s no secret, and no surprise, that the rose has been one of humankind’s favourite scents throughout recorded history. The flower, and its fragrance, has been the subject of myriad poems, songs, paintings, and stories. It is acknowledged as the perfect symbol of romance, passion, faithfulness, and – of course – love.
Find out what it is about the scent of rose that keeps us forever under its spell, and what perfumes you can try to experience the many shades of its captivating aroma.
A little historical background on rose perfume
We have been swooning over the intoxicating scent of rose for centuries. Cleopatra famously covered her floor knee-deep in roses to seduce Marc Anthony, and one Ancient Roman emperor was so infatuated with it that he “had silver pipes installed so that his dinner guests could be spritzed with rosewater.” How romantic!
Wild roses originally grew in the northern hemisphere, probably beginning in Asia. It’s believed that they came into existence about 60 to 70 million years ago; rose fossils have been found in Colorado that date back some 35 million years.
The first people to actually cultivate the flower were probably the Chinese, around 500 BC. Other early civilisations also cherished the fragrant rose, including the Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicans, all of whom have sung the blossom’s praises in their literature.
In the 10th century AD, a Persian polymath named Avicenna discovered how to effectively distil essential oils from roses, opening up a whole new range of ways that rose could be enjoyed. From that point onward, the world was a much more rose-perfumed place.
At one point during the 17th century, the flower was so highly valued that roses or rose water were considered as legal tender, used in payment or barter. The flower also captured the imagination of Empress Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon, was so into roses that she had about 250 varieties in her famous rose gardens, many of them new hybrids of her own.
Roses, especially in perfume, continued to soar in popularity right into the 19th century, when the rose itself was known as the queen of flowers, and its fragrance the queen of perfumes. Victorians loved rose perfume, and Queen Victoria even claimed the Bulgarian rose as her signature scent. The rose is still England’s emblem and can even be found on the Crown Jewels.
Fast-forward to the modern day, and rose perfume still continues to capture the world’s imagination. It has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years as one of the most popular fragrance trends, and among perfume aficionados, rose perfumes are still enjoying a place in the spotlight through 2018 and beyond.
Roses in perfume
Because of its perennial popularity, the soft, refreshing scent of rose is of course one of the most important ingredients in fragrance.
Surprisingly (or not, if you are like us and tend to sniff everything that comes your way), of the thousands of varieties of rose that exist, only two are used for the vast majority of rose perfume production:
Damask Rose (Rosa Damascena)
The majority of rose perfumes are based on the majestic, pink-hued Rosa Damascena, which is mainly produced in Bulgaria, Turkey, and India. It is widely recognized as the queen of roses, and produces the finest petals for making scents. The odor is often described as rich, intense, warm, with some balsamic, slightly spicy undertones.
Rose de Mai (Rosa Centifolia)
Also known as the Provence rose or cabbage rose, this flower is mostly cultivated in France and Morocco. In France, it is grown in Grasse, undoubtedly the old world capital of perfume, since 1650. It is slightly less common than the Damask rose, but also dearly loved by the perfume world. This variety offers a tenacious odor that has been described as a rich, voluptuous, true rose scent with undertones of honey and green. But it is pricey: The price of 1 kg absolute of rose de mai is about 16.000 Euros.
A word on synthetics
Considering the star status that rose has in the perfume world, you can imagine how much demand there is for its essential oils as ingredients. But, as you’ll see below, it’s not a cheap or easy process to get that precious natural scent into a bottle.
So, in addition to natural rose ingredients, the perfume industry relies heavily on synthetic ingredients. These are not derived from natural aromatic raw materials, but most often the starting point for these synthetic chemicals is petroleum.
It’s simply a matter of scale. As Thomas Fontaine once said in Nez (a magazine for the perfume professionals), “As soon as your perfume reaches more than 100 ton of concentrate yearly, then natural ingredients simply cannot catch up.” On top of this, synthetic ingredients are many times cheaper than their natural counterparts.
In other words, if a perfume company expects its product to becomes hyper-popular and sell to the masses, it will likely have to use synthetic ingredients to be able to meet the demand.
The alternative is to remain small-scale and exclusive, and in most cases, more expensive. This is where natural perfumery and commercial perfumery often choose separate ways.
A complex process to get the perfect rose perfume
As mentioned, both natural and synthetic rose ingredients are commonly used to evoke the many subtle shades of rose that feature in the perfume world, but let’s focus on the “good stuff” for now: the natural rose essence that is so precious to perfumers.
How does it actually get from flower blossom… to perfume bottle?
First of all, the basics: fragrances are created by mixing a carrier, such as denatured alcohol, with concentrated fragrance oils. The production of natural fragrance oils, or essential oils is complex, and depending on the processes used (e.g. how they’re obtained and how they’re combined), you end up with different results.
Here is an overview of the extraction techniques most commonly used on roses, each with its specific results and properties.
Also known as attar of rose, this waxy, translucent substance is the result of steam distillation of the rose petals. It takes about 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make a single pound of rose otto.
The end product is a material that is yellowish-white, or whitish translucent solid when cold with a rich, deep rose odor that is quite tenacious. Rose otto is a prized ingredient for fragrances, despite its extremely high cost.
Usually, rose otto is made from the petals of Damask roses, though other rose varieties may also be used.
Rose absolute is the result of a solvent (e.g. hexane) extraction process of rose petals. A solid, waxy material called concrete is produced. This stuff is then mixed with alcohol, and the waxy by-product removed, to create the end product – a reddish-orange or yellow-brown viscous liquid with a rich, deep rose scent to it.
It is the most widely used version of natural rose essence in perfumery because of its potency, tenacity, and relative cost effectiveness compared to rose otto. An average yield is around seven pounds of absolute from 10,000 pounds of rose petals.
The Rose de Mai species typically yields over 50 per cent more absolute than Damask rose, so it’s more often used in making absolutes.
Rose Organic Extract
Similar to rose absolutes, organic rose extract – sometimes called by its French name, extrait – is derived using a solvent extraction process, but the difference is that only benign solvents are used. The resulting essence is typically softer and less intense than conventional rose absolute made with hexane, and can be certified as an organic product. The color of the extrait is greenish, and the cost falls somewhere in between rose otto and rose absolute.
Rose CO2 Extract
Rose oil can also be extracted using CO2, which is a newer method of extracting flavors and aromas. It’s expensive to do, but reportedly yields the truest version of the original flower’s original fragrance, and so you get a superior product. Aside from the cost, the reason why this process is seldom used has to do with the locations of CO2 plants, which are often not next to the fields, as opposed to the more conventional methods.
Of course, for any of the above extraction techniques, many different factors can affect the yield and the composition of the essential oil that is produced. Anything from environmental conditions and soil composition (the terroir) where the roses are gown, to the storage conditions and quality of extraction equipment can affect the quality, and the price, of the essences.
Just like with wine, the ‘terroir’ of the roses is a determining factor for the final products.
What’s in a rose?
Amazingly, although there are more than 300 chemical compounds (1) that could be responsible for the makeup of the scent of a rose, only a handful of those account for 90 per cent of what we smell.
The exact quantities of each component are different for each rose species, and even within a single species, depending on factors such as where it was grown, and even when it was harvested.
Moreover, the different types of essences, such as rose mottos and rose absolutes, are different in their chemical construction, which accounts for their different impressions on the nose.
Meanwhile, just because a certain component may only be present in miniscule amounts, doesn’t mean it’s not important to the overall scent. With modern scientific techniques like GCMS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) and headspace analysis, scientists can actually break down not only the exact components of any rose essence, but also what influences the odors.
In one study, for example, the otto from a Bulgarian damask rose, was determined to have as its main components:
- l-citronellol up to 45%
- geraniol up to 25%,
- nerol up to 9%
And an absolute had as main components:
- phenyl ethanol over 60%,
- l-citronellol only about 10-12%
- geraniol about 5-7%
These analyses found that compounds such as linalool, nerol, and B-damascone might contribute substantially to the specific character of a given rose’s scent, even though they may be present in tiny doses compared to other compounds.
- l-citronellol: warm, vibrant rose smell
- geraniol: sharper rose smell
- nerol: harsher, fresh rose scent
- phenyl ethanol: soft, petal-like rosy character
When you consider the vast complexity of the scent of roses, and the number of variables at play, it’s no wonder that synthetic rose fragrances can never seem to perfectly mimic the natural ones
Rose perfume is good for you: Roses & aromatherapy
One reason why humans so obsessed with this particular flower’s scent is because it might just be the key to happiness. In aromatherapy, the rose is favored for its uplifting, calming, and aphrodisiac effects, and is even used to treat stress and depression.
Ayurvedic treatment also use rose as a balancing ingredient, which in turn “enhances positive emotions, and intensifies the experience of happiness and bliss.”
While we absolutely love the smell of rose, we were curious as to whether there was scientific evidence to back up the claims about its many positive qualities. Turns out, there most certainly is!
Scientific research (2) has shown that roses are jam-packed with beneficial effects – they can literally improve your health!
Their therapeutic and medicinal qualities are reported to include, among other things, these properties:
- anti-diabetic and
On top of all this, rose is typically non-toxic, non-irritant and non-sensitizing, making it suitable for many people – even those who might have sensitivities to other plant oils or medicines. It is truly a remarkable flower.
Rose perfumes to buy or try
Rose is one of the most widely used and definitely beloved ingredients in perfume.
The natural ingredients are used widely, mostly in higher-priced rose perfumes, typically in floral, oriental and chypre fragrances. By the way, here is more info if you want to know more why some perfumes are so expensive.
The classic combination for a rose perfume is rose with jasmine. These two floral ingredients blend extremely well together.
Rose is very widely used and other frequent and successful blends are: amber, bergamot, cassie, cedarwood, chamomile, clary sage, geranium, lavender, mimosa, orange flower, palmarosa, patchouli, sandalwood and ylang ylang.
The rose de mai absolute is used extensively in floral bases (read more on fragrance families here), chypres, Oriental bases, etc , also generally to round off the sharp corners or rough corners in synthetic compositions. (Arkander)
Natural rose scented perfumes
If you’re on the hunt for a simple, natural rose fragrance, we’ve compiled the best of the best just for you.
ROSE After all our studies of rose, we felt that we should make our own rose scented perfume. And we decided to keep it 100% rose. For the purists. Made only with botanical ingredients, this single-flower scent is a full-bodied perfume on its own. Discover it!
Perfumer: Splash of Scent | Cost: USD 68
Indie rose scented perfumes
When you’re looking for something a little bit different, these uniquely rosey perfumes should be on your list.
LIPSTICK ROSE A powdery rose perfume, this fabulous floral fragrance blends a romantic concoction of rose, violet, musk, vanilla, and grapefruit to create a lovely, zesty accent.
Perfumer: Frederic Malle | Cost: USD 192
EAU ROSE This delicate infusion is inspired by the charm and romance of a rose bouquet. Featuring notes from the petals, green leaves and thorns, this scent is composed of the entire rose flower.
Perfumer: Diptyque | Cost: 98 USD
Commercial and designer rose scented perfumes
For those who prefer the more classic scents and designer fragrances, we’ve put together our favorite commercial and popular rose fragrances for you.
ROSES DE CHLOE Tender and refreshing in equal measure, this rose perfume is one of Chloe’s signature scents. Notes of white musk and amber join damascena rose to create a fresh floral fragrance.
Perfumer: Chloe | Cost: USD 95
OMBRE ROSE Originally launched in 1981, this powdery, woody floral fragrance is a beautifully traditional rose perfume. We love the classic combo of geranium, sandalwood, iris, musk and vanilla.
Perfumer: Jean-Charles Brousseau | Cost Euro 45
VIVA LA JUICY ROSE This sparkling floral fragrance was made just for party girls! Light-hearted and completely lush, this perfume pops with fizzy citrus, jasmine dew and rose blossom.
Perfumer: Juicy Couture | Cost: USD 98
ROSE JAM There is a lot to love about Lush, and this fragrance is lovely. Packed with fresh rose, and refreshing lemon, this rose fragrance will have you feeling floral all day.
Perfumer: Lush | Cost: no longer available 🙁
GOUTTE DE ROSE A contemporary floral, Goutte de Rose embodies the unforgettable fragrance of a freshly-picked garden rose. It’s a perfect rose perfume for spring and summertime.
Perfumer: Eau de Cartier | Cost: no longer available 🙁
ROSE ORIGINELLE A sensual blend of floral freshness, this rose perfume from L’Occitane opens with rose petal top notes, complete with a woody trail of musk and sandalwood to create an addictive finish.
Perfumer: L’Occitane | Cost: USD 59
(1) Haas Monika, Quick Reference Guide for 114 Important Essential Oils, 2004/2012, p. 93
(2) For some interesting reading check this scientific research demonstrating the beneficial effects of roses
So… What is your favorite perfume?
And if there is anything else you’d like to know about rose perfume, let me know in the comments!!