The Rose de Mai

rosa centifolia
A field of roses!  The Rosa Centifolia in full bloom, a delicate pink rose with light roundish leaves and fine prickles.  A demure small-petaled variety, also known as Rose de Mai, that is particular to Grasse and whose fragrance is clear and sweet with notes of pale honey and heady green earth.   (One of the students asked of our guide if this was indeed Centifolia and he rolled his eyes, and said, ‘This is not a question; of course it is Centifolia!’)
   We drove about 15 minutes to get there, to the Valley of Siagne, near a village called Pegomas.  The farm also produces absolutes of Mimosa, Jasmine and Orris.

Our tour began in the extraction area, where burlap bags full of fresh roses from the fields outside were being emptied into the giant extractors.  These distillers are bags of rosescylindrical, about 10feet across and 6feet deep, and are filled with five thick layers of flowers separated by metal grates.  Once full, the heavy lid is swung closed on the top, latched into place, and then under pressure, hexane, a highly volatile solvent, is pumped in to wash the roses of their essence.  apres extractionThe process takes only about 10 minutes, after which the hexane, now impregnated with all the soluble plant waxes, and oils from the roses is pumped off.  Next, hot steam floods the tank and is distilled off the remaining flower mass to extract the last of the hexane so that no toxic residues end up in the environment.  The spent roses are composted.  The hexane is separated and distilled out and is reused for consecutive extractions. 

The initial raw product that results, once the hexane has been removed,  is the rose concrete- a dark coloured dense wax, rich with fragrance. This is then washed with pure ethyl alcohol to separate the plant waxes from the precious absolute.  One more step follows;  because modern perfumery requires a colourless product, the rose absolute is then purified of its pigments with activated charcoal. The final yield is only about 600grams of absolute per 400kg of flowers.

Rose oil and/or absolute is a precious and irreplaceable ingredient in the fine perfume industry.  The chemistry of this flower’s oil is so complex and intricate that it is impossible to reconstitute it completely, even  in the lab. Rose is used in most fine perfume formulations because of the fine, beautiful and natural notes that it will give to the body of a fragrance.  Chanel uses the extracts produced here for in the formulation of its trend-setting perfume- Chanel 5.  They source the oil exclusively here, so as to have as much control as possible of the consistent quality of the oil.  Italian rose picker

We went out to the fields next, to see the plants themselves, and, as it turned out, to meet some of the workers (who were all from the south of Italy and North Africa).  The day was hot and bright,  it was about 11:30 in the morning and they were already half way through harvesting the field.  Everyday the blossoms are picked, loaded into the jute sacks, piled on a trailer behind a tractor, hauled back to the processing plant, weighed and the extraction done immediately thereafter.   

There were 17 of us from the school on the tour, including 6 from another team who have been studying cosmetic formulation. Throughout the experience, in the production area and out in the fields, I couldn’t help but notice the great sense of joy and good spirits that pervaded all of us,  including the workers and our accompanying teachers.  The magic of the rose, the sweet warmth of the heart, was everywhere that day.  It was a fantastic lovely experience for all of us….


by: Sappho

If Zeus chose us a King of the flowers in his mirth,

He would call to the rose, and would royally crown it;

For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,

Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!

For the rose, ho, the rose! is the eye of the flowers,

Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair,

Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers

On pale lovers that sit in the glow unaware.

Ho, the rose breathes of love! ho, the rose lifts the cup

To the red lips of Cypris invoked for a guest!

Ho, the rose having curled its sweet leaves for the world

Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,

As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west.

(English translation, by Mrs Browning, of ‘the song of the rose’ reprinted from Greek Poets in English Verse. Ed. William Hyde Appleton
Cambridge.  The
Riverside Press, 1893)

the season of the roses

The end of a long week……whew!  I had a big exam on Thursday, the most serious so far. We were tested on 20 raw materials that were chosen randomly from the 150 or so synthetics that we have learned.  Obviously this meant that we had to know all the materials intimately. I did well, although found it hard to have missed a few.  Like I have said before, the sense of smell is very fickle and what we can smell and identify one day, is completely elusive to the memory and the olfactory system the next.   I continue to be fascinated with the development of my capabilities.  I smelled pure grapefruit oil the other day (we normally only work with 10% dilutions to protect the nose and to access a greater profile of the material) and it was so deeply complex and rich like no other pamplemousse I have ever smelled, that I could not identify it at first. What I could do was pick out individual components of the oil, like nootkatone and terpenes.  I am having to relearn each material regularly because my sense of smell continues to heighten. The real difficulty now is having my memory keep up with my nose!

We are now delving more deeply in to the realm of formulation and accords.  This is really what I came here for.  Accords form the basis of perfumery construction.  There are two schools of thought actually.  One that sees the perfume being created with individual components/single raw materials and the other, using blocks of scent to form a solid and interesting structure.  These blocks are called accords.   Creating accords, or harmonic chords of scent, if you will, is very difficult and requires many many trials to find the magical combination where the materials lose their separate identity and become one. The alchemical aspect of this is fantastic.  These combinations can be as simple as two ingredients or they can be composed of many.  Max encourages us to create with no more than 3-5 materials. The accords such as a green accord, or a floral accord, or a citrus accord are then used as individual ingredients in the formulation of the perfume.

This week we were given a formula for a basic lily of the valley accord. Max also showed us how this accord could be changed slightly and a few more materials added to create a lilac accord.  He said that all flowers hold a bit of each other in themselves, so you can make any flower out of almost the same ingredients, just in different proportions.  Rose, jasmine and neroli can form the basic building blocks for every other flower because they are so incredibly complex in their composition.  We will gain a much greater understanding of the raw materials using them in formulation. 

Monday, 13th of May

Another week!  How time is flying by!  We continue our work with Max; today learning carnation and hyacinth accords.  I spoke with him during the break and he confided that the most important foundation for a perfumer to build upon is an intimate knowledge of the naturals.  To create accords with only these perfect, raw, perfumes-unto-themselves materials is to be proficient in this amazing art.  He said, ‘Look, I have been very successful as a perfumer, (Prada etc), and I come from Grasse, so I know the naturals and it is because of this that I can do what I do’.   The Grasse societies pride themselves on their roots that are based not only on fine perfumery, but fine perfumery using rose and jasmine, mimosa and broom, etc. -the materials that have been grown in the area for many many years.     The jasmine that is grown here is of the utmost beauty.  It is fine and buttery and honey sweet.  As well, the Centifolia rose- exquisite!  Actually, this weekend is the annual Rose festival.  The theme this year is the soul of Russia, with events happening all weekend.  The same weekend is the Fete du Narcisse, and enroute through the mountains to get there, is some sort of Chevre festival with goat races!  I cannot miss that!

In the meantime, this Wednesday, we are going to tour the Chanel rose fields, where Rose oil and absolute are produced exclusively for the house of Chanel perfumes.  Very romantic…!


the French Police

Today dawned clear and sunny beautiful once again, and after a bit of a sleep-in, I headed out with two big bags of recycling to where I had parked last night.  (Rebecca and I drove in the Mini to Nice hier soir for dinner and got home quite late.)   Where I had left the car was a new spot, nearer to my apartment and one that I hoped could be my regular space.  As I crested the stairs, however, my car was nowhere to be seen.

This is a bit of a long story- one that involves trekking in the blazing hot sun,  receiving directions from various people and optimistically hoping that I had some idea what they were telling me, and therefore much walking searching in vain for the place where my car might be impounded, blisters, many ounces of sweat, and one tiny outburst of tears.  The story also includes some very nice people, like the girl who pulled over in her car after giving me directions several blocks earlier to the police station that was up at the top of the hill I had just walked down, and driving me there.  Then there is the receptionist at the detachment  (national police, not city) who made an exception for me in regard to the papers I needed, saying,’ Un exception, parce que vous etes vous.’  Then instead of having to take the bus and probably walk a long way, two young police officers drove me the 8km or so in their cruiser to the impound where my car had been towed. Then to my horror, the papers I needed were not in my car, so they had to drive me back to Grasse!  I retrieved the documents from my apartment, went back to the station and they kindly drove me once again to the impound where I paid 100euros and retrieved the little beast!  The whole experience took about 4 hours, was conducted entirely in French, and left me just a bit shaky, although impressed.  The graciousness of the police was astounding really, and I am eternally grateful for their rescue! I wonder if it is appropriate to send them flowers?

The area where I had parked is a normal parking lot, but there was some random ceremony this morning (it is a holiday) and, according to the man at the impound, 7 cars had been towed from the same place.  Moral: just because other people are parked there, doesn’t mean you should too…