By Dobrina Zhekova on August 25, 2020, on DEPARTURES
There is a reason it’s more expensive than gold.
“Bulgarian Rose Oil is one of the most precious essential oils in the world due to its unique rich chemical composition and deep multi-layered fragrance,” says Kuen Rameson, founder of Gloss Moderne, the Southern California-based clean luxury beauty brand.
While researching essential oils, Rameson came across Bulgarian Rose Oil and “fell in love with the sensorial experience.” She was so impressed with its fragrance and skincare benefits that she decided to work on an entire line of beauty products formulated with it slated to launch this September.
Gloss Moderne is only one of many luxury companies such as Elizabeth Arden, Channel, Bulgari, Estée Lauder, and Christian Dior that infuse their products with what is known as “the queen of essential oils.” So how did this thorny shrub make its way from the fields of a small Balkan country to our beauty drawers?
Legend has it that during one of the last Crusades, French knights who were passing through the Balkan Peninsula on their way from Syria, brought with them the fragrant Damask rose (or Rosa Damascena). Thanks to the mild climate—warmer winters and cooler summers— and sandy soils of the Kazanlak region in Bulgaria—now known as “the Rose Valley”— this oil-bearing plant found a perfect home there. Historic documents show that the local population started cultivating and distilling Rosa Damascena in the 17th century while Bulgaria was still under Ottoman rule.
“During this period, the lands with the most fertile soils were usually given to the Ottomans to grow crops such as wheat, corn, and barley, so Bulgarians had to get creative, and they started cultivating this plant [the Damask Rose] in the sandy, unfruitful soils,” explained Radoslav Petkov, the deputy director of the Rose Museum in Kazanlak.
Fast forward four centuries later, and the small Balkan country that is roughly the same size as New York State and has a population of seven million, is now the largest producer of Rosa Damascena oil in the world.
Bulgarian Rose Oil also commands the highest prices on the market. In 2019, a kilogram or about 35 ounces of rose oil was worth between $8,200 and $9,400, which made it more expensive than gold. The reason for that is its quality, a lot of which is due to the way it is harvested and distilled, as well as the sheer amount of rose blooms needed for the production of oil—a kilogram requires about three tones of rose blooms.
In many ways, the way rose oil is extracted hasn’t really changed in centuries. The blooms are still harvested exclusively by hand very early in the morning—from 5 am until no later than 9 AM or 10 AM.
“To get the most in terms of quantity and quality out of the blossoms, they have to be picked while the morning dew is still covering their petals. Once the sun rises and the rose blooms open up, the dew evaporates in the atmosphere, and with it goes some of the oil,” adds Petkov.
For maximum results, distillation also has to occur as soon as the roses are harvested and several products result from it: rose water—widely used in the cosmetics as well as the food industries; rose concrete—orange wax-like material with a fragrant rose smell; rose absolute—extracted from rose concrete using a solvent; and rose oil—the most precious of all four that has over 280 compounds impossible to replicate artificially. All of these four byproducts are then used in fragrances, skincare, and aromatherapy products.
“I find that Bulgarian rose has a more refined lychee top note for the essential oil, even a touch dewier,” said Christophe Laudamiel, the Master Perfumer of DreamAir creative studios in New York City. “For the absolute extract, it has a background that is more apricot, almost passion fruit on top and less woody or less fermented I shall say, than some other roses. A rose absolute gives a richness and opulence without being sweet nor cloying, without invading the fragrance, unless you really want to invade the fragrance with large proportions which can be sexy, too.”
And while synthetic compounds are extremely popular in perfume-making nowadays, the smell of a natural ingredient such as Bulgarian Rose Oil is always preferred by perfumers.
“When you create a perfume, you want to tell a story. Usually, you add it [Bulgarian Rose Oil] because you want to do a floral perfume, like a rose perfume […] So when you do this composition, you would have some rose-like elements [already in it] but adding natural perfume, it just gives another dimension and also quality,” says Nathalie Feisthauer, a Paris-based Master Perfumer. She explains that because of its high price, it’s not always possible to use a lot of Bulgarian Rose Oil in commercial fragrances.
Similar to its diverse olfactory qualities, its skincare benefits are equally impressive. The Rosa Damascena essential oil has natural anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. It is known to help soothe red or irritated skin and is appropriate to use on sensitive skin. In some anti-aging products, it is used to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.