In the past twenty years rose has gone from a universally loved fragrance to one that is not favored in this country. It is an interesting trend as rose is one of the oldest flowers. They grow in many regions around the world and even can thrive in inhospitable conditions. Rose is one of the oldest flower components found in attars (solid perfumes) and perfumes.
Rose is still used to adorn the hair of both men and women around the world. It is one of the best loved fragrances in Arab countries for both men and women. In this country, rose was used in perfume for both men and women, and in high end fine fragrances, it still is but perhaps in differencing quantities. It seems a mystery for a universally loved aroma to suddenly become so disliked in the last 20 years. But I think I have solved this mystery.
Rose absolute is what natural perfumer’s use. It differs from distilled rose essential oil (often referred to as rose otto) in the distillation process and the aroma. Having sampled the aroma of many rose absolutes and rose ottos, the rose absolute has a definite aroma truer to what we know as a rosy smell.
There are many nuances to rose absolute. It is a complex substance with over 50 components, many at less than 1 %. But there are three that make up over 50% of rose absolutes components. The lightest volatile component geraniol, has a geranium rosy aroma. The medium volatile component is phenyl ethyl alcohol. This smells like a rose flower on a warm summer day. This familiar fragrance yields to the base note of citronellol (not to be confused with citronella, the bug repellant) which is a green, rosy note. To some it can also smell citrusy while to others it can smell musty.
With such a complex absolute that blends with almost anything, why don’t people like it and what do they associated it with? It is an ageist comment, but what I have heard is that rose is an “old lady” scent. No one (no matter their age) wants to smell like an old lady. Many people’s grandmothers wore a rose scented product. If it was a positive associated then they may enjoy the scent, but rose’s popularity still descends. More likely the problem with rose is that many synthetic brands use those three aroma molecules with little nuance, and the effect can smell like cleaning solution blended with fade rose. As a synthetic, the middle note also has a slightly off bready/ yeasty note, that I do not care for in a rose blend. So there lies the solution: synthetics worn by mean grandmothers.
Rose absolute has some hidden treasures that you will not find in the synthetics. Many of the 1% components of rose absolute have a woody aroma. In aggregate these can add up to over 10% of the absolute. That woody aroma sort of lurks and is a lovely one to play with especially as several of these woody fragrance molecules are known for their wonderful harmonizing quality in blends. Enhancing those components by choosing other oils or tinctures with these harmonizing molecules rounds out a blend and brings out beauty of the aroma. This what I enjoy about natural perfumery. Selecting the correct rose absolute to blend with another oil such sandalwood makes both botanicals sing a melodious tune. A bonus is that sandalwood is a gentle fixative that lends longevity to a blend and helps to stabilize the performance of a perfume.
Our sense of smell is more complex than our sense of taste. It is the sense that is directly connected to the brain and evokes memories and can build new ones. My private clients who have expressed dislike of rose have come to find it a beautiful addition to their blends. My point is that if don’t experience rose absolute, then it is entirely possible that you are shortchanging your aroma world.