When Gertrude Stein wrote “a rose is a rose is a rose,” she probably wasn’t thinking about perfume.
When it comes to fragrances, rose is a coveted ingredient that is able to shape-shift; there is no one true rose scent. Instead, the flower, which mythologically bloomed from Aphrodite’s tears over her lover Apollo, plays extremely well with other ingredients, allowing a perfumer to use it as a kind of lush canvas upon which to dream up a new olfactory memory.
Depending on the perfumer’s vision, rose can smell fresh or feral, peppery or syrupy, whisper light or as dank as a mossy cave. It can soften up a woodsy composition or add a voluptuous undernote to an otherwise chemical scent.
Yet despite its heroic position in the perfumer’s tool kit, rose has backslid in recent years as a star ingredient (with the exception of some popular designer fragrances, like Stella McCartney’s signature powdery bonbon or the over-honeyed party spritz that is Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb).
Most contemporary rose scents in the mainstream market are aimed at young women, who presumably want to smell like an inoffensive, dewy bouquet. Such fragrances often come in pink and violet bottles, tied up with grosgrain ribbon or with waxy, rose-shaped caps. (See Dolce & Gabbana’s latest offering, Rosa Excelsa.)
But independent perfumers are now bringing back the rose in all its glory, liberating it from the delicate bottles and coquettish reputation to prove that giant, heady rose can be a powerhouse on men and women alike.
Rose — the scent of passion, of love, of dulcet longing — is the new unisex.
That perfume, at least outside of department stores and Sephora aisles, is becoming more androgynous is not news.
And perfumers who refuse to categorize their fragrances in terms of gender are not trailblazers, but as vintage as they come. According to Mandy Aftel, a custom perfumer and historian, men have embraced floral scents since Roman times.
“Back then, they put rose water on doves and had them fly around,” she said. “Roman men loved wearing rose, and the men I work with today still love it.”
Recently, Aftel ran a class for Apple’s design team, and, she said, “It was all men.”
“I cannot tell you how many of them picked florals for their custom perfumes. Once you smell a truly beautiful, buttery, velvety rose, it is impossible to resist it.”
This season, independent perfumers like Roja Dove, Andy Tauer and Christopher Chong have all released new, rose-forward scents designed to appeal equally to men and women. These are powerful, statement roses, using the most exquisite flowers from Turkey and Syria, and they smell intoxicating on nearly everyone (or so perfumers claim).
One of the heady new fragrances is Rose by Roja Dove, a British master perfumer whom GQ magazine recently named “the pornographer of perfume” for his extremely sensitive nose and penchant for carnal, musky odors.
“I wanted to make something that could make someone feel abandon,” Dove said. “Roses can sometimes smell very thin, and that was of no interest to me. I put pepper and a little touch of nutmeg in this composition, to give it a vibrancy, and a touch of freshness with bergamot and geranium.”
Dove is not surprised that people of all types have gravitated toward his roses.
“The whole thing of gender in a raw material is stereotyping that is Victorian,” he said. (Speaking of Victorian, Dove is known to wear velvet smoking jackets and large, diamond-encrusted rings in the shapes of wild animals.)
“A man’s skin fundamentally smells very different to a woman’s,” he said. “It’s not as soft, more overtly sexual, more earthy. It will transform the rose, make the rose smell more masculine. An identical rose on a woman’s skin will smell more feminine.”
Dove added that the most surprising and modern roses “speak of a fantastic androgyny.”
“We are starting to see a generation that is self-assured enough that they will wear any fragrance that they feel smells right,” he said. “They don’t need to be told it is for women or men.”
Chong, the creative director of the Amouage fragrance house, based in Oman, says that for his new scent, Opus X, a rose-heavy perfume inspired by “The Red Violin” (it truly does smell as if someone waxed a string instrument in sylvan varnish), the Amouage team used Centifolia rose, rather than the more traditional Egyptian roses, in combination with a hybrid rose that’s half natural and half synthetic.
“There is a dry and metallic rose accord that alludes to classicism, but is also seductive, which makes it suitable for the modern man and woman,” Chong said.
Geza Schoen, a German perfumer and the creator of the cult-popular Escentric Molecules line, recently released two rose-heavy, unisex scents as part of his experimental Beautiful Mind series.
“When we think of roses, we need to consider the origin of the flower,” Schoen said. “The rose in times past was a symbol of power, and so of the traditional idea of man. History repeats itself, and the rose is the man’s flower once again.”
Not all perfumers are so adamant on returning rose to the realm of man, but many do express the desire to strip it of gender connotations and let the flower speak on its own. Some newer rose scents with this kind of crossover appeal include A la rose from Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Bitter Rose, Broken Spear from the Brooklyn indie house Hylnds, and Tobacco Rose from the rule-breaking British perfumer Liz Moores of Papillon Artisan Perfumes.
Aftel says that the reason rose has come to represent a new androgyny is its very versatility. Because there is no one true rose, it is a scent that allows consumers to play, to experiment and to highlight their individual aesthetic.
“Roses can sidle up to anything” she said. “They can be sophisticated; they can be sinuous. They can smell like candy or dirt, but they are never boring.”