6/22/13

A Rose Is Not A Rose . . .



I don't consider myself a fragrance expert by any means, but I have considerable experience with rose perfumes, compositional and soliflore. Let me get this out of the way first: Lyric Man is, in my opinion, the finest rose composition on the current fragrance market - and it reads as a gentle rose soliflore for most of its time on skin. A review for Lyric is pending.

That said, rose soliflores are of particular interest to me, because finding the finest example of a true rose soliflore has not been as easy as I thought it would be. Three years ago I set about to find the ultimate rose perfume, a fragrance so photo-realistically convincing that it makes redundant everything else in its class. I expected to have to crawl through sewer after sewer of plasticky, synthetic rosewaters to find it. I wondered if I would have to traverse by camel the myriad of Middle-Eastern offerings in the Montale range, the Lutens line, and by Opeer. If you figure that the best rose soliflore is always the best encountered to date, with the next one always a potential game-changer, the entire notion of finding a true masterpiece becomes a death wish, a desire to embrace quicksand. Nevertheless, I dove in headfirst, and sampled quite a few prominent rose fragrances, most by niche brands. I went through about a dozen variations on the theme before finding a fragrance so unspeakably wonderful, so gorgeously simple and natural, that I wondered why I'd not read more about it before embarking on the journey. I believe that accepting a masterpiece as being a masterpiece in its genre requires objectivity. So with a nose untainted by preconceived ideas about price being correlative to quality, I sprayed each rose sample blind, only looking at its name after it had unfolded on my wrist.

Among the first were Malle's Une Rose and Jo Malone's Red Roses. Malle is widely considered today's premiere Parisian niche house, and his line is lauded by the likes of Turin, Burr, even Catherine Deneuve. When the first fragrance hit skin, it smelled dense and dark, almost cherry-like, with an off-putting earthy note that I can only describe as the odor of wet mushrooms. While lucid, the composition smelled synthetic, bordering on obnoxious. It was quite a surprise to find it was Une Rose, the famous "Angry Rose" by Édouard Fléchier. I expected it to be a cheaper product, like True Rose, or even Paris. But no, I was experiencing the super-luxe EDP by Malle. And it was just so-so, in both quality and overall effect. Disappointing really, because I had hoped Une Rose would knock my socks off. As I sat there sniffing my wrist, inhaling its fungus-like crimson fumes, one word kept popping into my head: overpriced . . .

Red Roses was better. I enjoyed its literalism, its citrusy-green zing, and its transparency in the drydown. My mind's eye could not conjure a purer rose. Yet something unfortunate happened the first, second, and third time I wore Red Roses - I got a headache. Something in the chemical composition was not right. I sensed that perhaps it was the interplay of rose materials with woody-citrus notes, but none of that really mattered, because the end result was always the same - Tylenol. I moved on.

I wore Czech & Speake's Rose and Dark Rose. The first was fine, but a bit too soapy, to the point where I pictured snow-skinned blondes in bubble baths whenever I wore it. Its smooth sweetness was pleasant but not worth the sticker shock. Dark Rose was a vast improvement, with lush spices and synthetic oud framing a darker, subtler rose. It was also a bit soapy, but smelled richer and less gender-specific. That's a big issue with rose soliflores, by the way - too many of them are deliberately feminine, incorporating violets, sweet berries, and soapy aroma chemicals, all in an effort to appeal to women who paint their toenails chartreuse and speak syncopated cockney American (read: fake Orange County accents). I don't mind that, but it's not really what rose soliflores should be doing. They ought to focus less on sex appeal and more on depth and realism. Violet ionones and Glade plug-in froot flavors aren't a death knell, but they certainly do not add depth, and unless they're culled from top-shelf synthetics, rarely add realism. Dark Rose had amiability and competence in spades, but ultimately I appreciated it for not giving me headaches more than for its quality.

Speaking of quality, my next stop was admittedly only half-blind. I knew I would apply Creed's Fleur de The Rose Bulgare, but had blindly squirted Annick Goutal's Rose Absolue on another wrist, and wondered if Creed could jump past the then-unnamed rose composition. I applied the Creed, sniffed, and waited five minutes. I then returned to the other wrist, sniffed Rose Absolue, and looked at its vial to identify it. Rose Absolue smelled of several natural rose oils mixed together. It was rich, smooth, but got rubbery in the drydown, a trait shared by perfumes that eschew headspace technology. It was definitely real rose oil, and smelled similar to headspace rose, but its raw characteristics eclipsed whatever romantic effect it might have achieved.

Creed FdTRB (long discontinued) was a bright, citrusy-green rose. This was a tea rose composition, intended to read as a composition, and not the literal scent of headspace tea rose. Why Creed opted to incorporate tea notes with ordinary Bulgarian rose oil is beyond me. They could have easily incorporated tea rose essences and been truer to the name. At any rate, it smelled really good, for about two hours. Then the lemon-tea note outpaced the rose, and the fragrance grew sour and a little unbalanced. It never devolved into dreck, but it did little to elevate itself to its pricepoint.

I gave Hammam Bouquet a try, just to sidetrack. Hammam is not a rose soliflore, but at least its rose note is universally loved by dandies the world over. Sadly, I couldn't figure out why. Hammam Bouquet, while pleasant and well crafted, is made of materials far too cheap to warrant paying anything past twenty bucks an ounce. I moved on.

Next was something that smelled a lot like hairspray at first, and then powdered into a violet, tuberose, and rose bouquet that smelled unapologetically synthetic. I glanced at the vial: Paris by YSL. Big, sexy, eighties. It made sense, but not on me. And also, isn't Paris cloned to death already? Whenever I walk through Sephora I smell at least five or ten new perfumes that resemble Paris' overripe bellow.

My girlfriend at the time owned a fugly little bottle of something called Harajuku Lovers Baby, which she blithely mentioned smelled "kinda like roses." She was half right. The stuff smelled like baby powder. And oh yeah, it was rose-flavored baby powder. Disturbing that anyone should own it, and perhaps fitting that she did.

I gave Guerlain's Rose Barbare a few days of my time. It was truly surreal, a rich, honeyed rose with all its crisp greens smoothed over by a resinous amber. As with all the Guerlains I've tried, I kept waiting for the moment of enlightenment, of total understanding, the exact second when all the blogosphere love for Guerlain makes complete and total sense to me. Every Guerlain I've tried thus far has been really good but relatively staid, with only moderately high-quality synthetics, and Rose Barbare was no exception, although it certainly is an excellent soliflore, and far better than Une Rose. If given a choice between Red Roses and Rose Barbare, I'd opt for the latter and wouldn't look back. But in this instance, given that it wasn't bending spoons, I continued to look forward.

The next sample opened with a harsh blast of naked alcohol. Fifteen seconds into it, a thin and blatantly synthetic rose note appeared. It smelled affably fresh and soapy for the remainder of its two-hour lifespan. It was True Rose by Woods of Windsor, and while nice, was utterly forgettable. I recall thinking that I'd sooner splurge on the Creed than drop a few dollars on True Rose, and that was after twelve hours of wishing Fleur de The Rose Bulgare smelled like tea roses instead of synthetic green tea and liquer-like rose oil.

L'Artisan Parfumeur's Drole de Rose was the second-to-last blind test. Keep in mind that most of these samples were sent to me by a generous basenoter who recommended that I give them due process without focusing on branding. Drole de Rose was unexpectedly sweet and prim, like an olfactory elucidation of schoolgirl crush. It had blush in its cheeks, looked outrageously pink in tonality, and felt harangued by the same ionone issue of its congeners. Why the need to make everything so over-the-top girly? Why not let the fresh rose note step out of the fray and dominate the arrangement? Why not strip all the other crap out?

"Why not try this last one," I told myself, feeling a little glad that I'd forgotten which sample was which. This was the largest one, which suggested it was one of the cheapest in the bag. Its frosted plastic canister was capped in blue, and for some reason was hard to open. I yanked the cap off and it flew across the room, never to be found again. I spritzed. I waited a few seconds. I inhaled. And I smiled.

This was good. I mean, really, really good. There was a hint of bergamot, and the lightest touch of green (galbanum, perhaps). Then came a rich, full-throated blood rose, headspace-style. It was an accord so deep and multifaceted that at various times it smelled vaguely of cut stems, baby rose buds, lemons, raspberries, strawberry jam, and green tea. It was a rose reconstruction of the grandest variety, a tea rose. It was indeed none other than Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop.

I re-applied Tea Rose. At times it gave me a headache. Sometimes there were no ill effects at all. Every time I tried it, I was astonished by its richness, and how deftly it avoided smelling synthetic, makeup-powdery, and crass. Googling Tea Rose lead to a shock - this stuff is dirt-cheap. It's often available at two dollars an ounce, and sometimes less. I figured Tea Rose was inexpensive, but hadn't banked on it being THAT cheap! How is this possible? What gives?

What gives is that a rose is not a rose after all. Not all roses are created equal. Some are better than others. But this one is so good that it defies words. Its quality is breathtaking. Its materials are inexpensive, but dead-on. Damascenones and Damascones, or perhaps just the weaving of various inones with muguet aldehydes and subtle green-tea analogs form a structure so concise and beautiful, so direct and realistic, that I couldn't believe the sample-giver had not mislabeled the vial. Surely this was Creed's tea rose? I got itchy about it, and bought a bottle of tea rose. I kept in mind that the slight rubberiness in Tea Rose's drydown might be a leading indicator that its quality is genuinely lower than the Creed's, but I purchased anyway.

Days later I got my bottle. I sprayed. I smiled and chuckled - Tea Rose it was, and this time without the rubbery drydown! Turns out the rubber was from the plastic sample vial adversely reacting to the aroma chemicals. Housed in glass, Tea Rose stays fresh and crisp to the end. It really is a dry, green, straightfoward soliflore. It's a knockout.

There are still other roses to pick. I have yet to try Rose Opulente, Sa Majeste La Rose, Lipstick Rose (not looking forward to that one, but I must maintain neutrality), Black Oud, and Knowing. Until then, I maintain that Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop is the most convincing rose soliflore (proper) that I've encountered, and I continue to enjoy every drop of it.









6 comments:

  1. Wow--what a bonanza! Thanks so much!

    I have a few suggestions for you to try, but only if you're game for a rose in context. If you want only rose, then these won't qualify:

    Creed Fleurs de Bulgarie
    Keiko Mecheri Attar de Rose
    Keiko Mecheri Mogador

    The first two contain ambergris. The third was composed by Calice Becker and is quite fresh and open.

    Have you tried Serge Lutens Sa Majesté La Rose? I have not, but it might be worth investigating, since you are being pretty exhaustive in your quest. ;-)

    What about Guerlain Chamade and Nahéma? Those two you definitely need to test...

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    1. I have been meaning to try Fleurs de Bulgarie for a while, as I believe it is unofficially discontinued. There's ambergris in The Rose Bulgare also, and maybe I'm just cranky about synthetic ambergris having to be in EVERY major Creed fragrance, despite liking that note . . . I don't think it does rose compositions any favors. Rose frags in my experience totter dangerously close to becoming bitter/sour as they dry down, and ambergris just adds to that imo.

      I will be exploring Keiko Mecheri. Grenats is high on my list. I will give Mogador a sniff also. Sa Majeste La Rose (and Rose de Nuit) have not yet been tried. I'll aim for Her Majesty because I understand it is a rather "big" soliflore. Soliflores are preferred here.

      Chamade and Nahema are also on the list. However with Nahema I'm wary. I understand it is a total reconstruction in the fullest sense of the term - no real rose materials, just one enormous olfactory illusion. That's fine, albeit unnecessary . . . but I'll reserve judgment.

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  2. I agree that Tea Rose is one of the best. The only others that have come close for me are Evelyn by Crabtree & Evelyn (I think it has been renamed Evelyn Rose and I have no idea if the current formulation is as good) and another discontinued one from Fresh called Bulgarian Rose.

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    1. I've heard of Evelyn. Not sure if I tried that one. I feel like I keep forgetting one rose, and maybe that was it. But I'll keep an eye out for it.

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  3. I greatly enjoyed your romp through the roses (as opposed to a 'tiptoe through the tulips', not that there are many tulip scents to tiptoe through). I love your mention of Paris's 'overripe bellow'. Didn't Luca Turin call it a 'foghorn rose'? ;-)

    Nahema smelt of sucking powdered iron girders to me, which is of course how a good rose material can come off, but still.

    I would recommend Sa Majeste, if you don't mind the civet sting in the tail - at least there was one there the last time I tried it (which was ages ago).

    I have never tried the Tea Rose scent you liked so much - we don't have it over here, but I fondly recall that extinct Creed one.

    I am not sure I can think of any more rose behemoths - or scents memorable enough to provoke a Road to Damascenone experience. (Sorry, that was bad!)

    Oh, L'Ombre dans l'Eau is quite a realistic green rose, and Guerlain's Rose Barbare is a honeyed green rose. Not mad keen on either but I just toss them out there.

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    1. Road to Damascenone! Good one!!!

      I'm definitely all in for Sa Majeste now. I've been getting a good feeling about MPG, and though I haven't tried any yet, I'm looking to make Sa Majeste my first. I may even blind buy it.

      If you do happen across Tea Rose try it, but if you've tried Rose Barbare, then you've basically tried Tea Rose with honey. There aren't any significant differences between them aside from that slightly sweet, ambery aspect in Guerlain's. Tea Rose is just as rich, smooth, and green, for a fraction of the price ($8 for 4 ounces here in the USA). The same nose did Pleasures for Lauder twenty years after Tea Rose.

      I'm skeptical about Nahema, and am not itching to try it, but I do want to try it. I think Katie Puckrik said it's "complex" and "adult." That could be good or bad, depending on your view.

      L'Ombre dans L'Eau has been on my radar for a while, too. Thanks for those suggestions. BTW, I've ammended my post to include my experience with Rose Barbare, which was reviewed a couple years ago on From Pyrgos.

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