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On the Scent: A Dozen+ Roses

By (July 1, 2010) 4 Comments

On a recent trip to Denver and its environs, I was treated to an elaborate dining experience (far more involved than a typical meal out) at a Moroccan restaurant, where between the many courses we were entertained by belly dancing and flaming tea ceremonies. At one point a server asked us to close our eyes and then splashed rosewater all over our faces. As we were walking home later, semi-drunk and overfull, our host shrieked, “I smell like my grandmother!”

Rose may be the ultimate perfume cliché, the smell that, however lovely in the natural world, no one really wants to smell like anymore. Once considered the essence of beauty and opulence, rose scents now seem both too girly and too “old lady,” too fussy and prim, too sweet, too overwhelming, too much like bath products or potpourri. According to the cultural barometer that is Google, roses symbolize joy, friendship, truth, purity, appreciation, admiration, devotion, desire. Rose perfumes, however, smell “fake,” “like plastic,” “like bathroom air freshener,” “like my grandma,” “like old lady perfume.” If you’re trying to convert a perfume skeptic or hater, a scent with “rose” in the name probably wouldn’t be your top choice.

Even perfume snobs, who love to love what everyone else hates, often turn their noses up at rose soliflores. A soliflore is, as the roots imply, a perfume designed to smell like a single type of flower (though this doesn’t mean it contains only one material). Of various star vehicles for rose, the great Luca Turin writes: “nicely done and somewhat dull”; “a little tiresome in the long term”; “competent but dull”; “uniformly dull, often borderline unpleasant”; “invariably becomes strident with time”; and finally “Who on earth would actually want to smell like this? Spray it on your Barbie doll.”

In some sense the soliflore is a naïve form of perfumery, one that tries to hold a mirror up to nature rather than creating something that didn’t before exist. The pleasure of smelling a soliflore is based in familiarity and recognition, not surprise, realization, or shock. Because they are representational rather than abstract, soliflores are inseparable from the associations that the flowers themselves trigger. And roses have a lot of old-fashioned, sentimental baggage to carry compared to, say, sexy night-blooming jasmine or tropical gardenia, so they’re even worse off in this format than other flowers.

Roses’ reputation problems aside, count me in the camp that finds soliflores boring. Tomatoes are possibly my favorite food, but I rarely want to eat a straight tomato. It needs at least salt and pepper; better yet, olive and oil and vinegar; better yet, basil and a soft cheese; better yet, lime juice, jalapeño, onion, and cilantro, maybe avocado, and a taco or some eggs to put it on; better yet, cook it down into a sauce with garlic and red pepper flakes; better yet, add wine or butter or cream. The smell of a single flower (or any given note, for that matter, like vanilla or lemon) is analogous to a single ingredient—most foods are better combined with others, for contrast and interest, than alone: people who don’t like raw tomatoes often like them in recipes.

My column this month is for rose lovers and haters alike. Even if you don’t want to smell like your grandmother or Barbie, there is a rose scent for you. These 15 scents—a small fraction of what’s available on the market—all feature the rose, more or less prominently. Many of the compositions below aren’t recognizably rosy at all, especially to the untrained nose. Others among them, of course, may cause you to cry out in the street.

Agent Provocateur

I love that the eponymous perfume of a lingerie chain has an old-fashioned “classy” feel, when you’d expect something kind of trashy or at least overtly sexy. Rather, Agent Provocateur feels mature but pretty demure. It has a similar structure to Diptyque’s L’Ombre dans L’Eau, but done in pastels—the pink half retains some of the tangy fruitiness of L’Ombre, but is more of a true rose, and instead of extreme green Agent Provocateur’s background is a pale, powdery chypre. Also like the Diptyque, this doesn’t change much over time, just gradually fades in strength. It has top notes of saffron and coriander, a heart of rose, jasmine, magnolia, ylang-ylang, and gardenia, and base notes of vetiver, amber, and musk. If this were lingerie it would be the retro lacy kind. A good match for high-waisted panties, worn under whatever you wear to work.

Knowing (Estee Lauder)

Knowing is a more saturated version of Agent Provocateur, a rose chypre done in jewel tones instead of pastels. (Or perhaps I should say Agent Provocateur is Knowing for beginners.) It has the mark of an ‘80s chypre, like Paloma Picasso, the combination of bergamot and oakmoss creating an impression of twangy richness that resides somewhere between cosmetics and food; it’s an accord that really smells like nothing other than perfume. That said, this isn’t nearly as dated as I expected it to be—or as strong, for that matter. For the first few minutes, Knowing’s juicy, fruity rose smells a bit medicinal, like cherry cough drops. Mercifully that moment passes and you’re left with a swirl of magenta and fuzzy green. Like David Yurman, a so-called “modern chypre,” it maintains a vaguely sour edge, but it grows sweeter and woodier as it dries down. Real chypres can have an “acquired taste” feel these days, and accordingly Knowing avoids the prissy, childish qualities of rose. It also has more development than the basically linear Agent Provocateur.

Tea Rose (The Perfumer’s Workshop)

Tea Rose is a straight-up photorealistic rose soliflore—it’s intended to smell like rose and nothing else, and it delivers. Spraying this big, bright, rather ridiculous perfume always makes me smile. It’s exactly like thrusting your face into a bouquet of freshly cut roses (somehow, white and pink to my nose, not red). On the plus side, Tea Rose is cheap, strong, and long-lasting. On the minus, I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t feel silly wearing this in public, though I can think of people I don’t. Having found a big bottle for under $10, I like having it as a reference, to wear as a kind of comfort scent around the house, and to layer with other perfumes—usually dry or bitter scents like a chypre or a leather that I might want to sweeten up or make more “feminine.” While we’re being economical, this could probably double as a room spray.

American Beauty (DSH)

This is one of several rose scents offered by DSH, an independent perfume house headed by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. American Beauty has an off-puttingly sharp but fleeting top note—like citrus-scented rubbing alcohol—then within seconds it becomes what you’d expect from the name, a pretty, fresh rose, clean and slightly fruity. The effect reminds me of layering Tea Rose over cK Be, a supremely clean fougère based around white musk. But the rose here is softer, and the musk is apparently an illusion, as the official notes don’t include it. According to the DSH website, the top notes of American Beauty are bergamot, cassis bud, palma rose, and rosewood; the middle is a blend of rose absolutes plus orris, or iris root; and the base is ciste absolute, patchouli, sandalwood, and balsam. It may be the sandalwood that gives American Beauty a white-washed, laundry-day feel. Whatever that note is, it’s a bit strident, stronger on some wears than others. Internet lore has it that American Beauty gets darker in the far drydown, but dabbing from a sample vial, both on skin and on paper, I never made it that far. (Spray applications generally have a longer lifespan.) Not my thing and, given the price, I’d probably recommend this for rose fanatics only.

Mahjoun (DSH)

There’s a rose in here? You could have fooled me. Another from DSH, Mahjoun is an exotic gourmand—it smells like dried figs and dates and walnuts drenched in honey, dense and spicy and almost too sweet, but you forgive the sweetness since it smells so natural. There’s no cotton candy or corn syrup in here. I’m not overly fond of the kind of Middle Eastern sweet this seems designed to evoke—they always make my mouth itch—but smelling this luscious, honeyed confection on my arm is a delight. It has nice sillage, and the woods, resins, and incense become more apparent as it dries down. The perfumer’s lengthy list of notes includes almond, cardamom, cherry blossom, lavender, lemon, orange, Bulgarian rose, fig, hazelnut, honey, nutmeg, orange blossom, sugar date, amber, cedar, cinnamon, clove, frankincense, sandalwood, and myrrh. Rich and distinctive and high-quality throughout, this has the feel of a cult favorite, but strictly for dessert lovers.

Angel La Rose (Thierry Mugler)

The original Angel, as I mentioned in my last column, is a polarizing gourmand with a huge patchouli note plus berry and floral notes. I expected this version to be even more over the top, but surprisingly, the beginning is somewhat more subdued. The fruitiness is gone or at least way dialed back, and the rose is not immediately apparent. The impression is mostly an herbaceous, almost minty patchouli with a sweet, vaguely chocolaty background and a hint of a cumin-y spice note peeking through, all working to make the thing feel more masculine than Angel—not that many men would be comfortable wearing this. (If you do, I like the cut of your jib.) It feels closer in spirit to Thierry Mugler’s A*Men. I like both Angel and A*Men, so the only real issue is truth in advertising, and redundancy. In other words, the world seemed fine without it.

Citizen Queen (Juliette Has a Gun)

I’m not sure what to make of Citizen Queen—this is one of those scents that’s barely there right after you spray it. The top notes remind me vaguely of root beer, Play-Doh, and the in-vogue and (to my nose) toxic-smelling material oud. It conjures at one moment those crumbly Italian anise cookies that aren’t sweet enough, at another the sheen of spilled gasoline. I have to search for the rose. It’s as though they left some of the notes out, which would suggest that I’m anosmic to something, but the listed notes are aldehydes, leather, Bulgarian rose, iris, amber, “immortal flowers” (immortelle), and labdanum—not the kind of notes people are usually anosmic to. Most people can’t smell every type of musk, because musk particles are very large, right on the edge of perceptible smells. Citizen Queen must be bolstered by some musk I don’t sense; it may also make use of synthetic woody ambers, which some people are more sensitive to. But aside from the missing rose, the notes mostly account for what I’m smelling—the leather is registering as rubbery and volatile; iris can have a bread-like smell; and the generally sweet and warm notes of amber, labdanum, and immortelle (which smells like maple syrup) account for the rest. The overall impression, however, is not warm but pale and chemical. The longer it sits on skin, the more it smells like an imitation of the far drydown of a glancing spritz of L’Heure Bleue. Juliette Has a Gun is an “edgy” outfit that specializes in rose, but I wouldn’t categorize this as a rose (or a chypre, which they also inexplicably claim), and I find it more frustrating than intriguing.

Par Amour (Clarins)

This isn’t the pale, powdery dried rose of Agent Provocateur, nor is it the photorealistic live rose of Tea Rose. I think of Par Amour as a tasty rose—it has a savory, edible character that reminds me of Donna Karan Gold, a lily scent and one of my favorites. In Gold, the complex, almost meaty lily slowly melds into amber for a sweet and salty effect, like the Vietnamese caramel sauce used on fish. In Par Amour, the woody background (sandalwood and benzoin) supplies the umami effect, almost cooking the rose—this is to Tea Rose what tomato sauce is to the fresh fruit. The box comes with a tiny sealed envelope; a little booklet inside asks you to write to Clarins to “share your feelings about love and how this fragrance makes you feel.” Supposedly they will be “happy to personally respond.” I wonder how they’d respond if I said this fragrance makes me hungry? Marketed as a feminine, but good for men too.

Parfum Sacre (Caron)

Parfum Sacre is a dense, winter-appropriate scent, combining the cooked rose of Par Amour with peppery spices and powdery incense. The initial puff is quite strong, semi-savory like a big whiff of the spice cabinet, dried herbs and all. It also has that telltale “vintage” smell—basically, the opposite of “fresh”—and I was surprised to learn it was released in 1990. I attribute that to the aldehydes, which are supposed to make perfumes feel “fizzy” or “sparkling,” giving them “lift.” But I don’t perceive them that way. On the contrary, to me they make a perfume feel heavier, the way humid air feels heavier, creating the impression of a palpable cloud of scent. At first, through this powder cloud, Parfum Sacre kind of smells like a cross between potpourri and stuffing, but after 15 minutes or so it starts to calm down, eventually settling into something pleasantly sweet, warm, and softly spicy. A cozy rose to save for sweater weather.

Alahine (Teo Cabanel)

My first reaction to Alahine was “Wow!” and then “Yum.” The first spritz is a big burst of aldehydes, citrus, spices, and woods with a slightly animalic quality similar to several woody numbers in the Sonoma Scent Studio line (e.g., Champagne de Bois). Then a candied rose begins to show through. The orangey heart has some of the honeyed richness of Mahjoun, but Alahine is more floral-oriental than straight-up gourmand. Another winter rose, and an especially delicious one. Be warned, however, that something in here is a touch raunchy at times—it could be indolic white flowers, an animalic musk, the sometimes piss-like honey note or a combination of all three. Indoles, which occur naturally in jasmine and orange blossom, can smell mildly fecal or quite literally like sex. Accordingly, Alahine may be too much for the delicate-minded.

Rose d’Homme (Les Parfums de Rosine)

Rose of Man definitely gives off man signals. The top is a bracing bergamot with base notes of patchouli, leather, and vetiver showing through, a professional, briefcase-type scent with just enough earthy, animalic edge to make it interesting. The rose is the pale rose of Agent Provocateur but seen from thirty paces. Rose d’Homme seems to change subtly but frequently, from medicinal to dry and peppery to quietly floral. Too quiet, in fact, for me to enjoy wearing personally, but nicely done—I passed this one on to the homme of the house.

Rossy de Palma (Etat Libre D’Orange)

Like Juliette Has a Gun, this house fancies itself as edgy. Is this an edgy rose? I don’t know about that, but it’s a good one. The crisp green opening of geranium leaf and lemony rose has me sticking my nose into my arm over and over again; it feels snappy and shiny. Over time it gets slightly sweeter, but continues to smell gleamy and green and squeaky clean without resorting to soapy or laundry musk notes, and the crispness keeps it unisex. Listed notes include ginger, black pepper, bergamot, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, benzoin, incense, cacao, and patchouli. Those last two are a surprise—on my skin this does not have a choco-chouli element, a la the Angel line, at all; it’s rather high-pitched to the end. Rossy de Palma is named after a Spanish actress with the kind of nose that stops traffic, if my boyfriend is driving the car.

Tocade (Rochas)

If Tea Rose wasn’t girly enough for you, this may be just the ticket—Tocade is a frilly pink rose with vanilla syrup glugged all over it for good measure. Even the juice is pink. Out of perverse curiosity, I tested this against Pink Sugar, every tween’s favorite, of which I have a sample for “reference.” Although the top notes of Pink Sugar are burnt and chemical, they’re not a million miles apart. Then I tried them both against Hanae Mori—again, same ballpark, but in comparison HM smelled much richer, the difference between straight melted sugar and caramel sauce made with butter and cream. I can’t explain why Tocade is such a hit with perfume lovers, except that most everyone likes vanilla, and it was composed by the famed Maurice Roucel. I normally love Roucel’s ambery, musky gourmands, and this apparently has a complex formula (with additional notes including bergamot, geranium, magnolia, orris, amber, and cedar). But all I smell is pink vanilla, and vanilla-heavy fragrances always feel too easy to me. On the plus side, it’s no pricier than Pink Sugar. (I prefer Roucel’s unfortunately much-less-affordable Broadway Nite, a rosier sweetened rose that really feels neon.) To be clear, it’s not that Tocade doesn’t smell nice; I just find it a little embarrassing. Also, it turns soapy after a while, and reminds me specifically of liquid Ivory soap, which my mother used to wash delicates. At this stage I sort of miss the pink vanilla.

Vintage Rose (Sonoma Scent Studio)

Vintage Rose is surprisingly similar to Moschino Couture!, a pomegranate floral layered over a sheer oriental base. Not surprisingly, given this line’s overall quality, Vintage Rose is richer and more classic, and the base materials have more presence. This is the first of the bunch to smell truly red, with a deep, plush rose note bolstered by a pretty plum. These together have a sweet/tart effect up top that approximates Couture’s pomegranate. The base is Laurie Erickson’s signature: beautifully warm, ambered woods (here made up of amber, labdanum absolute, sandalwood, cedar, vetiver, and tonka bean). I’ve always liked Couture as a fun, cheap thing, but there’s no denying that it’s just fun and cheap. Vintage Rose on the other hand feels more expensive than it is. A glamorous, sexy, long-lasting rose.

Saks Fifth Avenue en Rose (Bond No. 9)

Roses and fruit seem to play well together, as seen in Rossy de Palma with citrus and in Vintage Rose with plum. Saks en Rose (sold exclusively at said store) takes another route, topping its rose with a supremely creamy fruit accord somewhere between coconut and peach. What’s impressive about this is that it puts one in mind of piña coladas, while still managing to smell fancy/expensive. Oddly, this effect is apparently the result of lantana leaves (a relative of verbena) and a date note working some kind of magic on the tuberose in the heart, which is at least as present as the rose. (Tuberose is not a kind of rose but a tropical flower that can smell creamy and heady or poisonous and cold, depending on which facets are played up in a perfume.) Tuberose is much more my style than rose, and I find this very pretty and very much like an updated, classed up Carolina Herrera—an almost obnoxiously loud peachy tuberose-jasmine perfume from the ‘80s that I have a serious soft spot for, but rarely feel I can get away with. Saks en Rose will probably be too sweet for some, but I find its style of sweetness more appealing than that of Tocade.

The Winners

Best for Day: Rossy de Palma (Runner-up: Saks Fifth Avenue en Rose)

Best for Night, AKA Most Va-Va-Va-Voom: Tie between Alahine and Vintage Rose

Most Realistic: Tea Rose

Least Recognizably Rosy: Mahjoun (Really a tie with Citizen Queen, but I can’t recommend CZ)

Best pour Hommes: Rose d’Homme, Rossy de Palma, and Par Amour

Best Non-Existent: You know what smells really good? My little bag containing samples of Alahine, Citizen Queen, Knowing, Rossy de Palma, Cartier So Pretty, and Tocade. Clearly what the world needs now is a green rose chypre with citrus and cassis top notes and an amber, leather, and vanilla base.

Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewPuerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.