By RJ Bardsley
That headline makes it sound like this post could be a hard hitting investigative piece about the inner workings of the Chanel and Calvin Klein fragrance brands. But that’s not exactly it. This weekend Dana and I went behind the scenes to the very foundation of the fragrance industry – we went to a rose farm: the Russian River Rose Farm. Yes – you read that right. Rose oil is one of the key ingredients of the majority of all fragrances, and it’s notoriously hard to make.
The idea for the visit came from my Mom, who has been an avid rose grower for years. But I had no idea how intense the process is for growing, harvesting and extracting the oil from these magnificent flowers. Roses are harvested early in the morning, before the oil can evaporate off of the flower petals. Harvesting is done by hand and it’s actually a lot easier – and less painful – than you might imagine. If you pinch right below a rose bud it will just pop off – no thorns, no blood. Even after you pick the flowers, you’ve got to be quick; to make rose oil, the flowers need to be distilled that same day. The distillation process, which we got to participate in as part of our tour, lasts about 60-105 minutes and is exactly the same process as distilling alcohol. The farm we visited actually uses a prohibition era copper still. The yield, as you might expect, is pretty slim. The five pounds of roses that we picked resulted in about five drops of rose oil. That makes the maple syrup extraction process look high yield (I recognize that only my Vermont/New Hampshire readers may get that last reference, but it stays). The world leader for rose oil production is Bulgaria. But like everything else in agriculture and industry, it’s done in California too.
As part of the tour we also learned a little about the fragrance industry. At the top of the fragrance ecosystem are scent experts called “Noses.” Noses have to memorize and be able to know thousands of basic scents – from organic scents like rose oils to synthetic scents that smell like everything from steel to fresh mown hay. There are only about 200 of these Noses in the world and there are two schools that train them – one in Paris and one in New York. While the job pays well (upwards of a million dollars a year) it comes with a somewhat restrictive lifestyle – Noses must stick to a bland diet (think plain oatmeal all the time) to maintain their keen sense of smell.
Below are some snapshots from our day on the rose farm.