“This bottle contains 60,000 rose blossoms,” said legendary perfumer Sophia Grojsman while holding a thimble-sized vial filled with rose absolute. I had just started my perfumery training, and rose was one of the ingredients that most intrigued me. Grojsman – herself in love with roses and the creator of rose fragrances such as Yves Saint Laurent Paris (£50 for 50ml EDP), Lancôme Trésor (£52 for 50ml EDP) and Calvin Klein Eternity (£25 for 50ml EDP) – understood my passion and encouraged me to explore all facets of this complex note.
Thanks to her, several years later I find myself harvesting roses in Grasse, a town on the French Riviera and the perfume capital of the world. The climate here is uniquely suited for growing scented plants, and while over the years many flower fields have fallen into the hands of developers, roses are still an important crop. Perfumers use two types of rose, the honey-scented Rosa damascena and the delicate Rosa centifolia. Rose de mai, as Rosa centifolia is called in French because of its May blooming season, is what Grasse is renowned for, and its essence makes all the difference for iconic fragrances such as Chanel No 5 (£92 for 7.5ml EDP) and Jean Patou Joy (£95 for 50ml EDT).
After several days of being surrounded by roses, I return home to Brussels. The city is overcast and rainy, and all I have to remind me of sunny Provence is the handful of dried roses, still richly scented, in my suitcase. I begin to experience rose-withdrawal symptoms, an affliction I need to address with perfume. My scent shelf contains plenty of beautiful roses, but my quest is for the airy, fresh and citrusy blend that smells of summer and champagne. That’s my idea of rose de mai.
Annick Goutal’s Rose Splendide (£71 for 100ml EDT) is one of my favorite choices for its sparkle. It smells like sun-warmed tea roses with a twist of green leaves, and it lingers delicately but persistently on the skin. Another pretty rose is Eau Rose (£65 for 100ml EDC) from the French house of Diptyque. It is as shimmering and bright as Rose Splendide, but the heavier dose of musk in the drydown gives a velvety, creamy finish.
But nothing truly compares to the scent of freshly picked flowers, and I quickly abandon my idea of finding an exact replica in a perfume bottle. Instead, I look for glimpses of rose de mai in my favourite perfumes. Jean Patou 1000 (£64 for 50ml EDP) hides the silky rose petals under a rich tapestry of spices, amber and woods. Blanc de Courrèges (€62 for 50ml EDT) braids roses into powdery iris and patchouli. Narciso Rodriguez For Her (£77 for 100ml EDP) sets them in transparent layers of musk. My days start and finish on a rose note.
Then one morning I douse myself in Paris, Grojsman’s perfume for Yves Saint Laurent. The secret of Paris is that it is not a classical rose at all. It is a rose mosaic composed of violet petals, flecks of cedarwood and sweet musk. It has intricate layers and accords, and on the skin it blooms into an impressionist rose garden, filled with sun, soft breezes and distant sea murmurs. I’ve found my Provence fantasy, after all.