The Queen of blooms, an ancient representative of love and beauty. In Greek mythology, the sea foam falling from Aphrodite’s body as she is born from the waves turns to white roses, a sign of her innocence and purity. When she must heal her wounded lover Adonis, she sheds her blood onto a white rose, turning it’s petals crimson with her passion and desire. After the wedding of Eros and Psyche, Zeus instructs his children the Hours and the Graces to set everything aglow with roses, spreading the blooms throughout the whole of Ancient Greece and carrying all the power of the gods.
Of the thousands of myths surrounding the rose, the story I find particularly beautiful is about the Roman goddess Flora, queen of the spring and protector of flowers. When one of her beloved Nymphs dies, she begs the other gods to help turn her into a beautiful flower. Apollo gives her life, Bacchus bestows nectar, Pomona gives her fruit, Vertumnus creates for her a beautiful perfume and Flora crowns her with petals. The rose becomes the united effort of multiple gods, making it the most magically powerful bloom of all.
Personally I have lots of memories surrounding roses. I’ve spoken about it before but my grandmother used to wear a rose scent, I don’t know what it was but that particular perfume is trapped forever inside a still frame of her dressing table, jewellery boxes overflowing with pearls and paste gems, golden cased lipsticks and my granddads old war medals.
In the city where my grandmother lived there was a garden on the seafront filled with roses. During late summer we would go and wander through the rows of carefully tended bushes, surrounded by high walls to protect the delicate blooms from the sea breezes. It’s the colours that I remember here. White, yellow, peach, pink and red, all glowing against a backdrop of azure sky. I can also remember an intense urge to pick the flowers from the earth and gather them into a huge bunch to take home. I was severely scolded for trying.
Another memory from my childhood is of the Cotswold Perfumery, in Bourton-on-the-Water close to where I grew up. It’s a beautiful place, limestone cottages with a wide stream running through the centre of the village. The perfumery makes very classic fragrances, as well as running courses in perfume making. As a child I was mesmerised by the shop, all the twinkling glass bottles and the wonderful smelling perfumes within. For a couple of pounds you could buy samples of the perfume, except instead of packaging them in the traditional test vials they were artfully encased in perfect, minuscule bottles, complete with a tiny label and a lovely box patterned like watered silk. I’m sure you can imagine that for a little girl in love with perfume and also firmly insistent that fairies were real, owning a bottle like this was about as wonderful as you could get. I had a rose perfume, I think it was called ‘Rosa’. I used to put a tiny dab on before I went to bed in the hope that the flower fairies would visit me during the night. We went for a lovely walk around Bourton on Boxing Day and although the perfumery was closed for the holidays, peering through the window was enough to bring the smell of that perfume back into my nose.
A more recent memory, one that still makes me feel tingly with happiness, are the roses that grew around the door of the house we lived in (pictured above) when our daughter was born. It was November and having been in hospital for nearly two weeks, I came home to find a single pale yellow rose blooming just at head height, perfect in every way. The scent of that rose was so delicate and fresh after so many days inside stuffy hospital rooms that it felt like a gift from nature. I don’t know the variety of rose it was, it had a soft citrus character that I found extraordinarily beautiful. I have yet to find that exquisite delicacy in a perfume and I wonder if I ever will, sometimes things are only beautiful when they are growing in nature.
The only time I’ve actually chosen a rose fragrance for myself was in my early twenties. I was a teenager in the nineties when scent was all about clean, watery and unisex. I spent much of my teenage years covered in ‘Tommy Girl’, Davidoff ‘Cool Water’, Issy Miyake ‘L’eau d’Issey’ and ‘CK One’. I also had some Elizabeth Arden ‘Sunflowers’ and Clinique ‘Happy’. You can see a theme developing there. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to tire of the citrus- water- white musk triangle and go in search of true florals and more gourmand fragrances. The first perfume I bought that broke my previous perfume rules was ‘Stella’ from Stella McCartney. I really don’t like this perfume anymore but it seemed so chic and classy at the time, a very feminine floral like a sheer tumble of pink and purple petals. It’s the only rose perfume I’ve owned since my tiny bottle of ‘Rosa’. I cannot seem to find the right fit somehow and it’s not through a lack of trying. I am incredibly fussy when it comes to this particular note in perfume, even more so than my beloved orange, to the point where I’ve pretty much dismissed everything I’ve come across so far. I believe my expectations to be rather too high.
I have a bottle of expensive Turkish rose essential oil that I use very sparingly in my bath water. I’ve tried it directly on my skin and incredibly as it warms it turns woodier and drier until the moist petal quality that I love completely disappears. I smell like pot pourri after an hour which is not what I was aiming for.
I’ve been on this rose quest for a while now. I’ve worked my way through quite a few of the best known scents that sounded appealing to me and so far I have not found what I’m looking for. Admittedly I have probably only scratched the surface and I’m sure people would have hundreds of recommendations. I believe that for me, the vision of a rose that I hold in my head doesn’t ever quite fit the perfumes I have thus far tried.
I also feel a clear divide between rose as perfume and rose as confection. I adore Turkish delight and rose scented cream chocolates and there is always a bottle of rose water in my kitchen cupboard. ‘Une Rose Vermeille’ from Andy Tauer is a light, frothy, rose, lemon, vanilla and raspberry delight that I would feel proud to place on the table in a cut glass dish but somehow cannot quite handle when it’s on my skin. I have some odd prejudices when it comes to gourmand perfumes. Only certain ‘foody’ notes seem acceptable for me to wear on my skin and unfortunately sweet rose is not one of them. So you can imagine that rules out a fair few fragrances.
Frederick Malle ‘Lipstick Rose’ is far too powerful for my rather delicate sensitivities. My skin turns it completely to powder, to the point where I actually feel as if I am inhaling the fine dust from a lady’s glided compact. For all the love out there for this perfume I just cannot make it work for me. The same is true for ‘Une Rose’, a perfume I was sure I would adore as it draws the lightness of rose into the shadows with an earthy truffle note. Although I found wearing this perfume an interesting experience, the earthiness was not somehow dark enough for me, the truffle note turning musty and smudged on my skin, dirtying the rose petals with road dust rather than the loamy earth that I was hoping for. Again, I know I am in a minority here, ‘Une Rose’ is much praised. It is simply not what I’m looking for.
‘Imogen Rose’ from Gorilla Perfume is a lovely, very simple rose and vanilla scent that, when worn in very small doses, is pleasant and reminiscent of baby soft skin. However as with all Gorilla scents it is easy to overdose and the result is an almost visible cloud of pink that is dry and too sweet for me. Lush also make a shower gel called ‘Rose Jam’ that I adore, maybe because, like the bath oil, I leave the majority of the scent behind me in the bathroom, only a whisper stays on my skin. Lush turned ‘Rose Jam’ into a limited edition perfume that my friend The Silver Fox loves, but he mentions a ‘hot plastic’ quality that I just know I won’t like. Are you beginning to understand how fussy I am about rose perfume now?
The closest I get to really enjoying a rose perfume is when I wear Serge Lutens ‘Sa Majeste la Rose’. It’s not quite right but it’s nearly there. ‘Sa Majeste’ has a lovely, dewy opening like delicate pink petals collecting water droplets. It becomes more honeyed and dry, with a very subtle woodiness that gives the green and pink some depth. It is rather sweet but not in a jammy way, there are very gentle wafts of clove that don’t encroach on the soft rose centre. ‘Sa Majeste la Rose’ is extremely pretty, beautifully made and in many respects is a perfect rose fragrance. Alas I find it a little too airy and a little on the sweet side for my ridiculously critical tastes.
I think I want a rose with a dark heart. A rose that exposes her delicate skin in leather fetish wear. But I don’t want a cheapened rose, one who will give up all her secrets willingly. If I could find something that balances the purity and freshness of perfectly furled petals with a deeper, more lush undertone of decadence and debauchery then I would be overjoyed. A rose perfume that isn’t too sweet, isn’t too dry, isn’t too powdery yet isn’t too light. A rose that carries all the power of the ancient gods. A perfume with petals as a costume but perhaps a harder, darker secret hidden within. That’s not asking for too much is it?
There are rumours that Vero Kern’s next perfume is focused around roses. If she can’t make rose into something beautifully twisted then I don’t know who can. While we all wait with baited breath for that launch, any suggestions for rose perfumes that you think I might like would be greatly appreciated…. I’ll try not to be too hard to please…..