A rose is a rose is a rose… but how does it smell?

By Galina Shyndriayeva as part of the Perfume Series

Questions of words and the meanings they convey are critical for poetry and literature, but they are just as important in the poetry of the senses. While chemical knowledge seems to have little to do with poetic concerns, European chemistry at the turn of the twentieth century, around the time of Gertrude Stein’s famous pronunciation that “a rose is a rose is a rose”, called into question what a rose really was.

The preoccupation of many organic chemists at the time was to analyze and identify discrete compounds which were responsible for a specific function in the organic matter, such as providing the sensation of a grassy scent. For example, lavender essential oil was analyzed into components which were responsible for the lavender scent. Some of these compounds could sometimes be isolated from materials cheaper than lavender oil and used as an ingredient in perfumes to impart some smidgen of lavender scent.

Evaluating otto of rose at Kazanlik, Bulgaria, major exporter of roses, ca. 1906. From William Le Queux, An observer in the Near East (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Roses proved to have a particularly thorny (of course) scent to analyze. Chemists, mainly in France and Germany, published many articles claiming to have thoroughly identified the key components of rose oil (known as rose otto, the product of two sequential distillation steps), such as the alcohols citronellol, geraniol, rhodinol and others. But what was rhodinol to one group of chemists was not recognized as rhodinol to another; the second group claimed rhodinol was just an unrefined mixture of other components and judged the first group of chemists for sloppy technique. This situation was due to the delicate and laborious procedures of chemical analysis of the time. Adding to the complexity was the fact that oil from even the same cultivar of rose but grown in different conditions (altitude, rainfall, temperature, etc.) could contain different quantities of compounds. Setting a standard to demarcate a pure rose oil according to its constituents was therefore a matter of contention; what could be a rose in Germany was not a rose in France.

Yet the problem of identifying a rose oil as rose oil was not limited to satisfactorily labelling its components in a way agreed to by all the chemists. Profits from manufacturing rose oil could of course be stretched by adulterating the oil and a chemical understanding of the oil helped to choose more sophisticated adulterants. Verifying by chemical analysis whether the oil one just bought was genuine was as laborious a process. For example, a common adulterant was palmarosa oil, the major component of which was the alcohol geraniol, which was not only also present in rose oil, but varied in quantity depending on cultivation conditions. All these sophistication efforts ensured that the skilled ‘nose’, rather than chemical tests, would often remain the most trusted arbiter of a real rose.1

Rosa x damascena, principal Bulgarian hybrid for use in perfumes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Lucia Condac / CC BY 3.0.

What about the perfumers? One option was just to identify a favorite, trusted supplier of roses and buy otto of rose, with all its complex mixtures of compounds still somewhat mysterious, only from them. A cheaper option was to replicate the rose scent without using roses at all, possible by the 1920s with a greater range of compounds being manufactured commercially. One recipe gives 80% geraniol and small proportions of other compounds, such as citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol. Perfumers could use this product, manufactured by a German fragrance and essential oil supplier called Schimmel, or use something similar but add a little ‘real rose’ to ground the imitation.2 This imitation option called into question what skills were more important for a talented perfumer – to replicate a rose scent skillfully using lesser ingredients, or to properly identify a high quality ‘real’ rose oil? A British perfumer for Yardley, William Poucher, for example, was evidently proud of his skills in both these activities, but what he boasted of most in his book was his ability to identify correctly the origins of different rose oils only by scent: “To the trained specialists, however, the merest graduation of odour is appreciable, and an expert florist will name the variety of rose even in the dark” (italics original).3 And these deliberations do not even take into question which perfume the consumer would identify as a rose scent!

The scent of a rose then was highly malleable, due to both intentional as well as fraudulent artistry, as well as to the difficulty of identifying its components, and defining it was a contentious process.


1. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999): 564-566.

2. Michael Palairet, “Primary production in a market for luxury: the rose-oil trade of Bulgaria, 1771-1941,” Journal of European Economic History 28, 3 (1999), 569.

3. William A. Poucher, Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps: With especial reference to synthetics, vol. 2 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1932), 206.