The ancient Iranian city of Kashan is sometimes eclipsed by its more famous neighbour, Isfahan, but as I wander around Bagh-e Fin – a vast garden turned into an architectural jewel by the 16th-century Shah Abbas I – I fall under a spell that only Kashan could conjure, with its sandy beige Agha Bozorg mosque, winding streets and remarkable rose plantations. Indeed, roses are the main reason for my trip.
The rose that gives Kashan its fame is the dark pink rosa damascene – its local variant, Mohammadi rose, thrives in the soil surrounding the city. Rich in essence, it’s distilled into rosewater, a fragrant liquid used for food, skincare and pharmaceuticals. I visit Kashan in late autumn, some months too late to observe the distillation process, but I still get a chance to sample and compare different grades of rosewater. Some smell like buds crushed with lemon peel, while my favourite is raspberry-like, with a luscious note of honey and cloves. A shop owner also brings out a vial of pure rose oil and pours a few drops onto my handkerchief. The perfume blooms and fills the space, dazzling, vivid and so opulent that it feels like a tangible presence. “There are more than 50 roses in each drop,” mentions the distiller, and I imagine that I’m standing in a flurry of pink petals.
French perfumer Emilie Coppermann was inspired by the same blossoms when she created Kâshân Rose (€100 for 100ml EDT) for The Different Company. The gossamer lightness of its opening contrasts with the velvety drydown. The accord includes Kashani rose essence, among other ingredients that form the floral impression. As I wear it shortly after my return from Kashan, I also notice a touch of cardamom. Its spicy bite recalls the Iranian rosewater pudding charmingly named yakh dar behesht, or ice in paradise.
High-quality rosewater from Kashan is available outside Iran, but the local rose essence is only starting to be discovered by French perfumers. To find a similar lush and complex effect, I have to look for a combination of roses from different sources. One unexpected discovery turns out to be Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose (£110 for 50ml EDP), a fragrance that wraps floral notes over salty vetiver and dry amber. Perfumer Ralf Schwieger inflected the rose with violet, a marriage that makes it seem warmer and richer, similar to the roses of Kashan.
Iranian perfumers use roses in a wide range of compositions, from light colognes to spicy blends. “Rose has an incredible olfactive flexibility because it can give you airy, flowery or fresh effects,” explains French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, whose eponymous collection includes several fragrances with memorable roses. “You can tie rose to an oriental accord and it can become quite heavy and heady or it can fit in a fruity, crisp accord such as apple or pear.” Kurkdjian’s A la Rose (€160 for 70ml EDP) is a joyful tribute to the flower and it strikes a perfect balance, presenting at first the sparkling freshness of rose petals accented with bergamot and pear, and later becoming woody and musky. This essence forms the heart of Kurkdjian’s Lumière Noire, both the Pour Femme (€140 for 70ml EDP) and Pour Homme (€130 for 70ml EDT) versions. In both perfumes, the effect of rose unfolding against the mossy, spicy backdrop is sumptuous and beguiling.
Surrounded by all of these splendid roses, I think of the lines by famous Kashani poet Sohrab Sepehri. “Our job is not to discover the ‘secret’ of the red rose. Our job is, perhaps, to float in the charm of roses.” If so, that’s a task I’m happy to undertake.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog Boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher. To read more of her columns, click here.