Oof, this is a big one, dear readers. I have been tentatively putting this guide together for nearly 12 months and, after lots of tantrums and rewrites, I finally feel that it is ready to share. The notable thing about rose, and the reason for my drama, is the fact that it’s such a wide genre, with so many different interpretations and styles of just the one ingredient. In truth, I could put together a guide for each type of rose, covering the gourmand rose, or the oriental rose etc. in great depth. But that’s a level of detail that would take a lifetime to perfect and with tradition in mind, I have compiled a Guide to Rose that can be a starting point to the genre – an essential overview that highlights the very best of the many styles of rose.
Now, if you’re new to The Candy Perfume Boy’s Guide to series, here’s a little overview of what to expect. The series is an award winning olfactory guide to the popular notes found in many of the perfumes we love and wear. Each instalment takes a look at a singular note, its odour profile and the ‘must sniffs’ (i.e. the reference fragrances) that are essential members of that particular family. So far we’ve traversed the domains of; Tuberose, Orange Blossom, Lily, Jasmine, Lavender, Violet, Oud, Chocolate and Vanilla. Today, it’s time for rose, rose and nothing but rose.
Rose is a “woody perennial of the genus Rosa, within the family Rosaceae” ¹. There are hundreds of species of rose, and thousands of cultivars. As is the recurring theme of this post, the rose is a hugely diverse and prolific flower that grows in shrubs, or climbs in tall stems. The size, shape and colour of the flowers varies significantly, but they’re always eye-catching. They also grow pretty much anywhere – they certainly get about, those roses!
The rose is a complex beast. It is made up of a number of chemical compounds that give the flower its unmistakeable odour, including; (-)-cis-rose oxide (an intensely rosy odour), beta-damscenone (jammy, rich and rosy) and beta-ionone (the sweet earthy smell of violets). It also includes nerol (the hissy citrus aspects of rose), farnesol (a white floral-esque smell), linalool (a smell between lavender and bergamot), geraniol (the minty freshness of geraniums), eugenol (that clove-y smell of carnations) and (-)-citronellol (the fresher, more floral and cleaner aspects of rose), all of which contribute to its smell.
The funny thing is that, the oils extracted from roses don’t smell like the flower in nature and the effect of using these materials in perfume creates something very different from the real thing. Beautiful, but different. Headspace technology goes a long way to create the more photorealistic rose perfumes, but these varied materials have given birth to a veritable platter of fragrances that smell of rose, but not literally so. They are the building blocks of all rose fragrances and they make for a hugely diverse bunch of scents.
In this guide you will find The Candy Perfume Boy’s reference roses – those perfumes within the genre that simply must be smelled before one can consider themselves to be true rose nerd. These perfumes range from the more simplistic interpretations on the note to the complex and surprising, and even the downright delicious.
The reference perfumes that are an absolutely essential part of your rose education are as follows:
As our starting point, we head to a fragrance that feels effortlessly simple in its rendition of rose, but is actually technically quite impressive. As previously mentioned, most materials derived from roses don’t actually smell like roses on the bush, so it takes a lot of perfumery nouse to craft something that smells like a photocopy of roses in nature. For my straight-up rose, I could have picked the dewy fresh rose of tones of Paul Smith’s Rose, or even the masterfully calm À la Rose by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, but for me, the most perfect olfactory snapshot of roses can be found in Acqua di Parma’s Rosa Nobile.
Rosa Nobile is an effortlessly pretty rendition of pale pink and blush roses on the bush. It has a wonderfully dewy character that accents the sweet and citrus facets found in real roses. The whole thing has a shiny, gem-like feel that gives the impression of rose quartz, and despite its transparency, Rosa Nobile has quite a distinct presence, and decent longevity to boot. If you are new to rose, or you simply want something undemanding but beautiful, Rosa Nobile cannot be topped.
Rumour has it that Guerlain’s extraordinary Nahéma contains no real rose at all, and is instead, a rather masterful example of Jean-Paul Guerlain’s talent for perfumery. The illusion of rose here is in the form of a painstakingly pieced together oriental that presents rose alongside exotic resinous notes. It smells like warm rose petals and dry earth, with a touch of spice and green headiness to boot.
Nahéma is a rose that burns with a passionate fire. It has the strength of character possessed by all of the classic Guerlains, and it paints the image of a tempestuous woman who loves without fear and rages with all of the elements of the Earth. This is an epic perfume on a grand scale (of the kind one seldom finds in this modern age), and whilst you may not find it sharing space with Shalimar, Guerlain’s flagship fragrance, at every counter, Nahéma is certainly up there in terms of style, quality and beauty.
A list of great rose fragrances wouldn’t be a list of great rose fragrances without an entry for Paris. In fact, any list of great fragrances of any type would be remiss not to include Sophia Grojsman’s masterpiece from 1983. Inspired by the City of Lights, Paris is so much more than just a rose, it’s a floral bouquet of blush pink roses, purple violet and yellow mimosa, all in pastel shades, over a rich base of sandalwood.
People always say that Paris feels dated now and that the time for such gigantic fragrances has passed. To those people, I respectfully say ‘pfft’. There’s always a time for a gigantic fragrance and there’s never not a time to rock a great big ‘80s floral, and Paris is one such floral. When smelling this legendary fragrance, I imagine a romantic stroll along the banks of the Seine on a warm summer day, handsome French man in tow (“My roses brings all the French boys to the yard”, if you will). The joy of life is captured within the juice inside Paris’ multi-faceted bottle, evoking the sparkle and the vibrancy of one of the world’s greatest cities. She’s a beaut’, there’s no denying it.
Due to its bountiful fragrance, rose isn’t just something found within the olfactory world, it’s also a culinary staple, especially in France and the Middle East. Anyone who has taken a trip to Ladurée will tell you that there’s nothing more pleasing to the palate than a spoonful of rose-flavoured cream wedged between two macaron shells, and anyone who disagrees is lying. I’m salivating at the thought of it, but then again, I do have a sweet tooth and a remarkable lack of self-control (a fact that’s a recipe for disaster in a French patisserie, but that’s another discussion for a different day).
A fragrance that perfectly captures the delicate tones of rose cream is Elie Saab’s Essence Nº1: Rose, and it does this with much more control than I could ever muster (not particularly difficult, I admit). Crafted by master Nose Francis Kurkdjian, Essence Nº1 is a delicious veil of rose and vanilla that surprisingly, doesn’t feel that edible. Instead, the sweet, jammy facets of the rose feel decidedly couture, almost as if Kurkdjian has crafted a beautiful silk gown cut in the most gorgeous shade of pink. This is candy crush couture at its very best.
It would be criminal to have a guide to rose without mentioning at least one cosmetic-esque rose scent, and why not stick to the best of ‘em, eh? For many years rose has been used to scent lipsticks and powders, meaning that many of us have memories of glamorous mothers throwing on their war paint in a cloud of rose, violet and iris. Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose is a scented time capsule of this memory.
Lipstick Rose does exactly what it says on the tin or, err, bottle. It smells like lipstick. It has a waxy rose note, supported by violet and iris powder to create a palpable cosmetic cloud that really conjures up the image of that age-old reference – the goodnight kiss from a mother glammed-up and ready for a night on the town. Interestingly though, Lipstick Rose also has an odd, immortelle-based richness that gives it an almost candied, curry-like feel that stops the presentation from being entirely literal and reminding one that this is a perfume, not a moment in time.
If I could eat Andy Tauer’s Une Rose Vermeille, I would. Rose is a reoccurring theme of Tauer’s work, but his use of it in this particular fragrance shows the versatility of, not only the ingredient, but also the Swiss perfumer’s talent. It also demonstrates just how gourmand a rose note can be, and whilst it teeters dangerously on the edge of sickly sweet, stomach-cramp territory, it never quite gets there, and to be honest, the thrill of the tightrope walk of potential indigestion is half the fun.
Une Rose Vermeille pairs a delightfully tart and ruby-red rose note with the sweetness of violet, the juiciness of raspberry and the burned-sugar tones of lavender. This delectable cocktail sits atop a base of vanilla and amber that is rich, plush, creamy, and utterly delicious. What I admire most about this composition is the fact that there is just enough sharpness, bitterness and generally inedible things to stop the whole thing from becoming a gluttonous festival of calories. Not that that would be awful, mind.
If Une Rose Vermeille and Essence Nº1: Rose represent the edible corner of the rose spectrum, Dior’s Oud Ispahan flies the flag for something entirely more drinkable. This is an exotic fragrance of two halves; one part rose water, and one part stinky, smoky oud. Rose and oud have forever been paired together, usually resulting in opulent compositions that are heavy and rich, like weighty tapestries. Oud Ispahan however, treads a very different path.
Oud Ispahan boasts a rose note that it transparent and watery. It is full of lightness and delicacy, bringing to mind a pale pink rose cordial. The oud is woody, smoky and leathery, with a sharpness and harshness that plays into the hands of the soft rose in a truly wonderful, and contrasting manner. The rose in Oud Ispahan is beautiful, but the oud is sinful, and together they speak of unspeakable nights in a wonderful and exotic palace. I’ll leave you and your imagination to fill in the gaps.
The fragrance archive that is Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle boasts three rose-based perfumes, all of which you will find in this guide. Une Rose is initially the most straightforward of Malle’s roses, but as with many creations that bear his name, and more importantly, the names of his perfumers, Une Rose has a rather surprising twist, of epic proportions.
Une Rose opens like the perfect rose. Hissy citrus, tart fruit nuances, sharp earth, a touch of green stems and that sweet dewiness that is unmistakeably ‘rose’. Just as one is starting to think that maybe this is the cleanest, most beautiful rose yet, the plot changes in a way that would make M. Knight Shyamalan weep with joy. In time, Une Rose starts to unfurl a funky animalic base full of rich, earthy and smoky tones. There’s a sourness to the composition that is, at once, repulsive and engaging, leading one to be unsure of whether to run towards it or safely in the opposite direction.
If there was any rose on this list that I was going to admire, but wouldn’t wear, then Une Rose is that very fragrance. It’s a wonderful piece of work that showcases the rose from bud to stem, and beyond, travelling further into the fertile soil that is its foundation. Une Rose is absolutely remarkable, one just needs to enjoy a bit of dirt to reap its full array of benefits.
It’s also important to recognise those fragrances that contain rose, but don’t necessarily focus on it. Tokyo Spring Blossom (formerly known as ‘Urara’s Tokyo Café‘) by the wonderful 4160 Tuesdays (a house based on the philosophy that we have but 4160 Tuesdays if we live to the age of 80, so we better not waste them) does this very well. The interplay here is between the sweet ionones of violet and the jammy vibes of rose and raspberry jam. This results in an easy, breezy fragrance that brings a wonderful sense of calm.
I wear Urara’s Tokyo Café to bed most nights. It brings a sense of comfort that is quite beautiful. I liken it to the sense one gets when greeting an old friend, or snuggling up with a beloved cat (of which I have two). This fragrance evokes the idea of blossom on the breeze – an image that is pleasing to just about every person on the planet. Not to mention the fact that nobody does fruit notes quite like 4160 Tuesdays’ perfumer Sarah McCartney, and Urara’s Tokyo Café is easily one of her most fascinating compositions.
As far as olfactory debuts go, the initial crop of fragrances from Papillon Artisan Perfumes are unrivalled. They display classic signatures with modern twists, boasting quality and artistry without a single gimmick in site. They are, all three of them, sniff worthy (all were shortlisted for Best New Independent Fragrance at this year’s Fragrance Foundation Awards, which is quite an achievement) but it is Tobacco Rose that stands out as the most beguiling, or should I say, ‘badass’.
Tobacco Rose is very much a rose fragrance, but it’s also so much more. It has a variety of masterful inflections; a touch of minty geranium here, a dab of beeswax there, in addition to sharp strips of cold metal, that bolster the rose, strengthening its many nuances and ultimately making for an exciting new presentation of the flower. It has an earthy darkness to it that makes it feel like it could be the rose of choice for anyone likely to straddle a motorcycle or just generally kick a good degree of butt. Bad ass bitches, basically. You owe it to yourself to smell this, especially if you are an unconventional rebel.
Neela Vermeire’s Mohur is a strange rose. Where many rose fragrances focus on the flower’s fruity, jammy or cosmetic facets, Mohur creates a sculpture out of earth and minerals, and presents a rose that is warm and spicy with a strong, carrot-like nature. This may sound odd, and it is, but the truth is that Mohur is beautiful in a contemplative way, bearing a fragile rose made from luxurious burgundy velvet.
The delicacy of the composition is rivalled by its complexity. Mohur is vegetal, dusty, plush and cardamom-spiced, all in one gorgeous presentation of rose. I’d also say that Mohur has a romantic, old-age feel to it, perhaps due to the contrast of strength and fragility that feels very old school. What brings the composition straight into the modern era however, is that offbeat, carrot-like nuance – an oddity that pushes the boundaries ever so gently and says that unusual beauty reigns supreme.
We end our tour of the rose garden with the greatest rose of them all. Before we get to that, a little note on the hyperbole I’m about to use. Yes, I do believe that Dominique Ropion’s Portrait of a Lady is the greatest rose fragrance of them all, and no, you cannot convince me otherwise. Yes, the next paragraph or two is going to contain a lot of me fawning over this fragrance, and yes, you do have to deal with it. OK, with that out of the way, let’s crack on…
Where was I? Oh right, yes, Portrait of a Lady is the greatest rose fragrance of them all. It contains the rubiest red rose, in great quantities, and pairs it with sharp raspberry to pull out its juicier, more tart nuances. Underneath all of that is a great deal of patchouli and wood, which brings out the rose’s earthier facets, but also has the effect of sending the whole thing whooshing up into the atmosphere, like a tall building rising out of the ground. In fact, that’s a perfect way to describe this fragrance – it’s a skyscraper of a rose that, once smelled, is impossible to forget, and why would you want to forget something this extraordinary?
Join the Discussion
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What are your reference rose fragrances?
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¹ via Wikipedia. Image 1 via animalisbeautiful.blogspot.com [edited]. Image 2 via 4players.de. Image 3 via sephora.com. Image 4 via guerlain.com. Image 5 via aromatta.com. Image 6 via basenotes.net. Image 7 via liberty.co.uk. Image 8, 11 & 13 via fragrantica.com. Image 9 via perfumemaster.org. Image 10 via mecca.com.au. Image 12 via papillonperfumery.co.uk. Image 14 via akafkaesquelife.blogspot.com.