When Gertrude tucked that waltzing line—“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”—into a 1913 poem, she knew she had landed on something universal. She recycled the phrase again and again, tapping into the flower’s sense of beauty, ubiquity, and foreverness. “Civilization begins with a rose,” she later wrote, establishing it as a matriarch of sorts; ditto the genesis of fragrance. But for all the ancient trivia—Romans scented doves’ wings with rosewater like animated Febreze; Cleopatra used rose petals to lure Mark Antony in a proto–honeymoon suite gesture—the prevailing association is not millennia old but two generations. The rose belongs to grandma.
Courteney Cox brings this up in a Zoom conversation about Homecourt, her line of home-care products that showcases the work of master perfumers. Steeped Rose is one of four scents delivered via room mist, dish soap, and counter spray (like her Friends character, Monica, Cox is a fingerprint freak). Neither powdery nor sweet, it doesn’t register as “what you would imagine a grandmother’s house to smell like,” she says, praising the fragrance’s dimensionality. “It’s the stem, it’s the leaves, it’s the petals—everything that you think real roses smell like.”
Whence comes this musty reputation? One thinks of potpourri in cut-crystal bowls and soaps shaped into rosettes, too pretty to use. A 1935 photograph of a future Elizabeth II, wearing a frilly dress and ankle socks with a rose bouquet, captures the vintage pomp. Harold McGee, the wizard behind Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells, notes that damascenone, a molecule found in the prized damask rose, is “one of the dominant aromas in cooked apples”—a cross-wiring, maybe, between grandma’s perfume and pie. But David Moltz, the Brooklyn-based nose of D.S. & Durga, shrugs off the anti-granny stance as a kind of posturing, a learned distaste. His Salt Marsh Rose candle—“pretty symphonic,” Moltz says of its “swampy, mossy” notes—is an example of what he means when arguing for a “modern-restraint usage of classic, beautiful perfume materials. To throw the baby out with the bathwater makes no sense.”
Judging by the proliferation of next-gen roses, it’s a growing opinion. Boy Smells’ Rosalita candle draws on saffron and cedar for an earthy riff. Raving Rose, from Dries Van Noten’s debut fragrance range, goes rogue with a double dash of pepper (black, pink)—a rose scent that would give you a metaphorical “kick in the face,” says the designer of his original brief to perfumers. Tom Ford looked to his Los Angeles rose garden—planted in a color gradient, with his least favorite, red, at the back—for a trio of scents, including Rose d’Amalfi with its marzipan-like note of heliotrope. Meanwhile, perfumer Olivier Polge teased out the “fresh, citrusy, slightly metallic” qualities of Rosa damascena for Paris-Paris, this month’s latest entry in Les Eaux de Chanel. Polge doesn’t have any hang-ups with rose; since his father worked as Chanel’s nose for 37 years, the grandmothers in Polge’s family simply wore the fashion house’s perfumes.
For actor Michelle Pfeiffer, who runs the clean fragrance brand Henry Rose, her dad’s Old Spice is an olfactive muse. But the new Sheep’s Clothing is a musky departure, with a “dusting of pink peppercorn on top of the naive rose.” If it should trigger a whiff of nostalgia, all the better, says Sable Yong, cohost of the perfume podcast Smell Ya Later: “Our digital age is moving so quickly.” A proverbial slowdown is in order.
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