On a recent pilgrimage to Grasse, the historic center of perfume plant cultivation, I found myself harvesting roses with fourth generation farmers. Well, more accurately, they were harvesting. I mostly watched their fingers. With a deft sweep under open petals, and a gentle half-pinch, half-snap with the thumb, the farmers seemed to be playing floral castanets as they rhythmically plucked rose after rose. While piling the mid-morning collection in the barn, the matron of the farm lamented that due to a combination of high labor costs, low demand for natural rose products, and pressure from the city council, they were being forced to sell their rose field to real estate developers.
"Breathe it all in," she instructed. "Breathe it in with your eyes, your nose, your hands, next year it will be all gone." I buried my hands into piles of pink Rose Centifolia, absorbing the warmth from the sun still radiating from their sweet petals, and felt a surge of gratitude and humility for the sheer beauty of the scent I was enveloped in. And vowed to remember. As I left the farm I quickly scribbled in my notebook: remember the roses.
I found the notes from my trip a few days ago and laughed. How can I ever forget that voluptuous scent? Maybe the sharp amber scent of Cistus growing wild throughout Provence or the herbaceous sweetness of Broom, but not Rose. "Rose is a rose is a rose..." as Gertrude Stein reminds. It's a thing we assume we all know. But with rose cultivation in Grasse dwindling and with news of yet another low yield crop of rose due to climate change in Bulgaria, can we be so sure?
Actually, current olfactory research shows us we can't. When asked to select the 'real' rose scent between natural rose oil distilled from actual roses grown in dirt and a synthetic rose fragrance created by chemists in a lab, the average person will almost invariably choose the synthetic version. What's called a 'rose' note by fragrance marketers has become more familiar to modern perfume consumers than the musty wet honeyed scent of natural rose in its ever changing variations. Today it seems, rose is NOT a rose is a rose. And very few people outside the fragrance industry know, much less, seem to care.
But why don't we know this? Over the last century, perfumery has transitioned from its 4,000 year old history of relying solely on natural raw material usage to an almost entirely man-made, synthetic chemical palette. The reasons for this shift -- advances in fragrance chemistry, industrialization, economies of scale --are complex. But from its beginning, the shift has been shadowed in vaguery and false claims about 'naturalness'.
What the aromatic supplier adulterating a natural botanical oil to increase profits, or the perfume house putting in one drop of natural oil then extending it with less expensive aromatic chemicals share, is that both have little problem marketing their products as 'natural'. Many fragrance enthusiasts are surprised to learn that flowers like lily of the valley and lilac yield no natural oils--the rigors of distillation or alcohol extraction are simply too harsh for delicate blossoms to withstand. Likewise, omnipresent fruit smells like green apple, cherry, or berry only find their birthplaces in labs. We are surprised because we have been buying products we were led to believe were actual scents from these botanicals all of our lives. It's only logical that if a perfume is called 'pomegranate,' that it has pomegranate or some other red fruit in it, is it? Clearly people want natural fragrances, or at least like to think their fragrances are natural.
Which gets into why we don't care. While I would love to place blame entirely on the fragrance industry for their marketing of aromatic confusion, both producers and consumers play their part in the century old deception If we were to learn that natural rose oil is $16,000/kilo and artificial rose "fragrance" oil is $60/kilo, how often would we be buying real rose scents?
Added to the cost differential is the tenacity difference between natural and synthetic--something akin to the longevity of fresh cut vs. plastic flowers. Since fragrance chemistry developed a method of artificially intensifying odors, we have come to expect a single blast of fragrance to last and last until our own noses grow immune yet it still screams our sexiness across a room. And we want this persistent odor without spending a king's ransom. Natural fragrance requires attentive re-application as if evolves and fades on the skin in a few hours.
And when we realize the pure essences from nature are truly limited and in short supply, how willingly are we to be at the whims of nature to get it? Since synthetic aromatic chemicals can be mass-replicated, even copyright protected, producers give us our expected scent of "rose" safe from the uncertainties brought about by not only climate changes but also harvests, distillations, the livelihoods and political realities of people dedicated to those processes.
So, beyond a few white lies about what the perfumes really are and the possible toxic effects their pthlates and other petroleum compounds might have on our bodies and environment, most of us are ignorantly blissful with our fragrant fantasies of nature as a controlled substance. At least those of us that give their share of billions of dollars a year for synthetically fragranced products.
But I wouldn't have begun repeating Stein's words like a mantra if I was one of them. Her poem challenges us to question what we take for granted we know and to re-connect on a deeper level to its essence. In this case, the essence of a rose. There are over 300 natural chemical constituents in a natural rose oil. It is complex and full of mystery; some of its constituents not only have no discernible smell, they are unidentifiable by scientists. In an artificially synthesized rose fragrance, this mysterious bouquet is reduced down to only a handful of manipulated key scent constituents.
I think we all are learning that when our focus on nature is how to control and manipulate it for our needs, the consequences are often not so perfumed. But they are also not as rich either. Nature is limited, dynamic and uncontrollable and therein lies its beauty and its value. When we lose touch with that essential truth, we lose touch with our own essence and the beauty of our own lives. And we in turn are reduced down to, well, manipulated consumers. Maybe we can't reverse the consequences of our detachment from nature, but it might help to remember that "rose is a rose is a rose" while there are still roses left to forget.