rose/not rose

Photo by Ryan McGinley

Baked into “smell theory” (for lack of a better phrase) is the idea of the salubrious. Salubrious smells make you get up and go. They make you feel like doing something great, but they also make you feel that all is right in the world. Crucially—in today’s vernacular—these smells give you life.

This concept isn’t just perfumery mumbo-jumbo. Smells, above all, contain information: they signal what to eat or not eat; when to run away, to be alert; or to be calm and to enjoy yourself. That perfumery would incorporate this information for the benefit of the wearer seems more than natural. To do anything less would be to miss a tremendous opportunity.

Which brings me to the rose. Depending on your orientation the Rose is either the apex of perfume or a staid and conventional smell. Perhaps best perpetuated by the rose soliflore (a perfume built around one material), many rose perfumes are indeed staid and conventional, appealing to a more demure demographic who crave a sense of order and gentle pleasure. As a result, so many younger and young-ish people associate rose with older women or even (very unfortunately) with “potpourri.” Our most associative of senses would tell us to run and/or roll our eyes.

In the early 2000s Mark Buxton upended perfume trajectory with Comme des Garçons 2, a rich and unusually transparent rose fragrance that, although undoubtedly an oriental, works in multiple genres and smells of a rose deconstructed and reconfigured. It was not only an important achievement, it still smells very, very good. It formed a blueprint for new, modern roses that reconstructed the flower into a semi-alien new whole. Since then, landmarks have included Lyric Man and Lyric Woman for Amouage, Galop d’Hermès by the great Christine Nagel, and countless variations on the red in black pairing of oud and rose, which the Arab world invented centuries ago as supreme cultural technology. 

These post-modern retellings of rose reveal a surprising new aspect of the beloved and reviled material, and prove that it’s real character is both bracing and comforting at once. These new roses smell salubrious.

My people come from the Arab mediterranean and this bright and hearty rose is the one that I know. Smelling it in the Muscat style for the first time I felt a sense of recognition. I was nostalgic for some thing I could not have known in life.

Still, I do know it…somehow. The fascinating question remains: how? Did I simply smell a great perfume and rightly so fall in love with it? Do I just like rose? Perhaps. But I prefer to believe that something mysterious is at work. Recognizing beauty when you smell it is one thing. Coming home is quite another.