A Dream of Fragrance

Cells of a rose petal

This September the New York Times "Style Magazine" published an article about French rose hybridizer, Fabien Ducher, descendant of the world-renown French family of rose hybridizers, the Pernet-Duchers. For the past six years, Ducher has collaborated with an also well-known perfumer, (known as a “nose” or nez in French) Francis Kurkdjian, in creating a fully-new hybrid perpetual rose for the perfume industry.

Coincidentally, I’d also just finished a chapter in “The Pageant of the Rose,” written by Jean Gordon in 1952, on a short history of rose fragrance. After reading Ms. Gordon’s short historical account, I concluded (maybe unfairly) that what Ducher and Kurkdjian are attempting to accomplish, looking back at historical precedent in the very complex process of fragrance manufacturing, seemed fairly daunting, if not quixotic. They have -- so far, they claim -- successfully hybridized a new fragrance rose based on the many rose cuttings Ducher had been collecting from all around the world. These rose cuttings were chosen on the basis of their genetic relationship to the two rose hybrids currently in use in the perfume industry – the Rosa damascena hybrid perpetual and the centifolia rose, Rose de Mai.

The world of fragrance and perfume has always been mysterious to me – especially how the oil and other rose components are expertly drawn out of something as ephemeral as a petal, and endure over time. The fragrance cells in the rose are mostly concentrated in the bottom petals, and contain oil-secreting glands. Depending on the extraction method, just the oil can be expressed, or the oil and other plant compounds, like waxes and pigment. Different roses have different fragrance qualities that botanists over time have made an effort to categorize, as well – for example: damask, tea, fruit, musk, spice and violet. A few, very early botanists like Pliny and Theophrastus speculated that the soil in which roses grew had an effect on fragrance properties, too – what is termed terroir, or the idea that the soil lends a signature affect to the fragrance and other qualities of a plant. Collection of those precious petals needs to occur before the sun’s warmth dissipates the moisture and oil into the air.

In the Near East (Persia, or modern day Iran), Greece and Rome, Rosa centifolia (the very heavily-petaled “Cabbage” rose) and the Damask rose were the dominant, early sources of rose fragrance extraction, and various technologies and extraction methods were used to acquire the precious scent. Rosa damascena was and is grown by most households in Iran. During the time of Solon (the "founder" of the democratic republic in Athens) in 7th C. BC Greece, rose cultivation superseded the cultivation of food crops, it was so desirable. In Greece, the very earliest extraction methods produced a tincture of rose which was accomplished by steeping the rose petals in liquids, like wine, or oil and then extracting the fragrance compounds using salt, drawing out the alcohol and water, leaving the solids and oils behind.

Using a plant-based binder, the dried petals of roses were also fabricated into incense which was utilized in all areas of daily life, as well as in ritual. The word perfume (meaning, "through smoke") was based on the concept of burning incense. At the end of his life, the Prophet Mohammed was believed to have transcended through a veil of rose fragrance to become the fragrance. During Hajj, or Holy Week of the Muslim New Year, rose incense is burned by pilgrims to honor the Prophet. To this day, roses are cultivated in farms in Taif, the oasis where Mohammed was born, near Mecca.

It was also in the Middle East, around the period of the European Dark Ages, that a new technology, steam distillation, was invented. Oil has a higher boiling point than water, but is carried into solution when water becomes steam – the water eventually evaporates leaving the distillate behind. This is the first distillation, the essential oil. Distilled waters had come into use for a variety of medicinal purposes, yet the Persians were smitten, emotionally and romantically, by distilled rose oil.

Roughly around 500 years later, a Persian legend speaks of fragrant oils dispersed on an artificial waterway at a palace during a marriage ceremony. The mother of the bride dedicated this oil to her future son-in-law – it was called itr (also known as a'thr, otto, or attar) and it means fragrant in Arabic. Attar is rose oil, but it is distilled twice to increase the concentration of fragrance.

Chemical extraction methods using the solvents hexane and ethyl alcohol, and supercritical CO2 extraction are used to produce concretes and absolutes, highly-concentrated rose products that are used in the perfume industry. Concretes are solid at room temperature and are composed of waxes and non-aromatic compounds from the rose petal. Ethyl alcohol is then used to separate the oil from the waxy substances and residual hexane to produce an absolute from the concrete. In CO2 extraction, CO2 is pressurized until it reaches a “supercritical” state – it is neither a gas nor a liquid. This process, depending on the degree of pressure used, will deliver either a select or total absolute.

Needless to say, concretes and absolutes are very expensive because they are highly-concentrated and refined. I did a search of prices on the open market and found that there are absolutes that cost anywhere from $500-$600 for 4 ounces, with Bulgarian-sourced and Rose de Mai (grown only in the South of France) absolutes being at the higher end. Bulgaria bases its entire economy on rose oil production.

According to Jean Gordon, the roses used primarily (at the time she wrote her book) in the perfume industry were Rose de Mai, and the hybrid damask perpetuals, Ulrich Brunner (Antoinne Levet, hybridizer), Louis Van Houtte (Francois La Charme, hybridizer) and Marie Van Houtte (Jean-Claude Ducher). So, we’ll have to wait a while to see what the new rose, “Nevarte” will bring the perfumers of Paris. It certainly has a fine pedigree.

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