The Taste With Vir: A rose by any other name: Why Indians shy away from the great rose perfumes
If I tried to sell you a fragrance called ‘Rose’, my guess is that you would be reluctant to buy it. Indians like roses but we associate the scent with sherbet or rosewater. In India, unlike the West, rose is what perfumers would call a gourmand smell or one that reminds us of food. And so, we are reluctant to put it on our bodies.
It isn’t just the gourmand element. There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when everyone loved vanilla perfumes even though they smelled like ice-cream. And people still wear Angel which is credited with popularising the cotton candy smell of ethyl maltol (a fragrance synthetic) and whose success led to a rash of chocolate perfumes.
It is also, I think, that at some deep, subliminal level, Indians regard rose as too desi a smell. We do not associate it with expensive perfume and are reluctant to spend money on something that seems so ordinary and downmarket, almost as though it was a bottle of cheap rosewater.
Certainly, it is true that rose is one of the building blocks of traditional Indian perfumery. The Indian perfume tradition is largely centred around sandalwood to which oil of rose is often added. These days, alas, real sandalwood is in short supply and there isn’t much interest in rose oil either. In the town of Kannauj, where the great rose distillers are based, demand has slipped to a perilous low.
Plus, there is the one factor that nobody talks about. Rose oil is not anything like sandalwood oil in cost but it is nevertheless expensive and time-consuming to distill. So a lot of synthetic oil —available at low cost – gets used instead.
Synthetics get a bad rap from the general public though perfumery would die without them. But while I am all for synthetics that add new smells to a perfumer’s repertoire, I will concede that synthetics that try and mimic the smell of natural ingredients can be terrible. The distinctive smell of a rose comes from a combination of many molecules, each of which adds a subtle layer of fragrance.
But a synthetic substitute usually uses only a few, early identifiable molecules to mimic the smell. So yes, you can tell that the scent of rose is involved but you get none of the finesse and subtlety that the smell of a real rose would have.
It matters less and less these days because we are beginning to forget the smell of a real rose anyway. The next time somebody sends you a bunch of roses, try and smell them. More often than not, you will not smell anything.
There is a reason for this. Roses developed their smell to attract bees to pollinate their flowers. But most roses you are likely to smell these days are cultivated, So there is no need to attract bees. Instead, rose breeders look for hardiness: it takes a while for roses to reach the shops and cultivators want flowers that look good for longer. The smell is regarded as being of little consequence.
So, few of us remember the full-bodied aroma of a wild rose. Like vanilla (or truffle, these days) we only know the smell from products that are frequently flavoured with synthetics.
So, whenever an Indian perfumer tells you how his rose oil was distilled, be a little sceptical. Perhaps he is telling the truth. Or perhaps he counts on the fact that you have no idea what a wild rose should smell like.
Western perfumers face the same ‘roses-with-no-smell’ problem. Contrary to what we think, the use of roses is not restricted to Indian ittars. They are one of the building blocks of Western perfumery. There would be no Chanel No.5, for instance, without roses.
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Roses that smell good are so important to French perfumery that Chanel controls something like 90 per cent of the rose gardens around Grasse in the South of France. The growers are contracted to sell only to Chanel.
I went, a few years ago, to the village of Pegomas near Grasse for the annual rose harvest and watched as they distilled the oil. The whole process was supervised by Olivier Polge, Chanel’s master perfumer who had to approve the roses that went into Chanel No 5. Traditional French perfumers are like wine makers: the quality of the raw materials is everything.
Among Western perfumers, the rose is regarded as a particular challenge. They love its smell but they recognise that it is a difficult ingredient. Put too much and the fragrance will smell only of roses. Put too little and you will wonder what the point of the exercise is.
Some of the great Western perfumes have always had roses skilfully integrated into their hearts. In the days when the house of Yves Saint-Laurent made good perfumes, such fragrances as Paris (created in 1983 with roses, violets and hyacinths at its centre) became instant classics. In 1990, Lancome launched Tresor which combined rose with peach and vanilla. At the top end of the market, Annick Goutal, an early entrant in the niche segment, launched Rose Absolute in 1984 combining different breeds of roses.
Later, alas, rose fell out of favour as the fashion for light perfumes took over and perfumers experimented with less heavy ingredients.
Then, in the early years of this century, the Arab market began to explode. Once the Middle East became a significant market, most Western companies began to make heavier fragrances that smelled of Oud and other Arab ingredients. By some co-incidence, scientists created synthetic oud-like molecules at around the same time leading to the launch of such fragrances as M7, the first successful mass-market scent to use an oud-style accord. (The house of Yves Saint Laurent was briefly run by Tom Ford whose baby M7 was. Since launching his own line, Ford has pushed many heavy and Arab-style fragrances.)
Rose has ridden back into popularity on the back of Oud. Most niche houses will now make at least one rose fragrance. Diptyque has Eau Rose; the always high-quality DS & Durga make a salty rose fragrance called Rose Atlantic; Francis Kurkdjian, a perfumer as much at home with mass market scents and niche perfumery created A La Rose in 2014. And Frederic Malle launched Une Rose in 2000.
The challenge with rose scents now is how to make them different. This has led perfumers to look for distinctive rose breeds and varieties. The classic rose for perfumery is the Damask rose, named for Damascus and originally grown in the Middle East. The Crusaders took it back to Europe and made it a popular flower in such countries as England. Hence the War of the Roses, for instance. (It is not clear how far back the Indian rose tradition goes; our ancient texts seem much more obsessed with the lotus.)
Because of obvious reasons, it is hard to grow roses in Syria these days so the largest supplier of perfumery roses is now Bulgaria (where they cultivate a version of the Damask Rose) though perfumery roses are grown all over the world (including India).
A good perfumer will now try and find a rose within the Damask tradition that has a distinctive smell. Some years ago when Dom Perignon launched a Rose vintage in Istanbul, the Guerlain perfumer, Thierry Wasser, was on hand to show off the house’s latest rose fragrance. (Dom Perignon and Guerlain are both owned by LVMH.)
I thought that the link between pink champagne and rose perfume was a little farfetched but there was no denying the beauty of Wasser’s fragrance. Guerlain had launched Rose Barbare in 2005 with Turkish roses and patchouli so Wasser had to top that. He did it by locating a special rose in Iran (though the rose of Isfahan is usually a garden rose not a perfumery rose) that had a subtly different smell from the standard Damask rose. His fragrance Rose de Nacree is still popular in France and the Middle East (it is very expensive) but hard to get elsewhere.
Now, you get many rose fragrances, some of which are not very good. Some, on the other hand, are excellent. Christine Nagel, who succeeded Jean Claude Ellena at Hermes, has created two subtle rose scents. One of them, Myrrhe Eglantine, twists the Arab tradition by using myrrh, the Biblical desert resin, rather than oud, and merging it with rose. (Earlier Ellena had created Rose Ikebana for Hermes; a perfume so delicate that you had to struggle to smell the rose.) And the great Hermes mass market success is her Galop which places rose between leather and a pear-like smell.
Indians don’t like most of these. Nor do we buy anything called ‘Rose’. But consider Portrait of A Lady, created by Dominique Ropion, one of the world’s greatest perfumers in 2010. It is essentially a rose fragrance with lots of spices. My wife wears it sometimes and every time she does, she gets stopped by women who want to know what she is wearing. It is the one fragrance that is guaranteed to make heads turn in India.
And why is that!
Well, because it is a rose scent.
We love rose. It is an Indian smell. We just don’t like admitting it. As far as we are concerned, a rose by any other name smells a lot sweeter!
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