A mountain of roses

Room full of roses

The roses are spread out to air before processing.

We’re standing in a hot, white room, the concrete floor covered in pink roses. Men wearing overalls and t-shirts are spreading more blossoms on top from large burlap sacks. The air is thick with the smell of Rosa damascena, the aroma of which seems particularly honeyed and slightly damp here, as these petals have just been picked and it has been raining more than usual.

We’re near the mountain village of Senir, in Turkey, checking this year’s rose harvest. I’m traveling with Agnes, our essential oils buyer, Alina, our quality controller, Chris, who is shooting footage for Lush TV and other films, Bibi, a freelance journalist and Greg, her cameraman. Our hosts, Hassan and Özgür have just taken our group to the rose fields and we’ve walked around the rows of roses, had a go at picking them and took lots of pictures.

Rose pickers

Rose pickers hard at work.

As the petals open, it’s important to gather as many of the full blooms as early as possible so that the scent doesn’t evaporate. Rose pickers start their work early and if you turn up on the field at 10am you might miss your chance to see them in action (as we did on our first attempt!).

By the time we reached the second field, we found these local rose pickers hard at work.

Each bloom is nipped right at its base by hand and placed in a sack tied to the waist. I spent ten minutes picking and didn’t manage much but my hands were already scratched by thorns and my fingers were sticky and stained a dark pink colour. The hands of a seasoned rose picker look like they’ve been clawed by cats.

A bloom ready to be picked

A bloom ready to be picked.

The figures involved in rose growing and processing are mind-boggling. A very good picker can pick approximately fourty kilos a day. It takes four tonnes of roses to produce just one kilo of rose oil and one tonne to produce one kilo of rose absolute. Rose oil is produced by distillation and rose absolute is the final product of rose concrete manufacture. Sebat, our supplier in Turkey, is the world’s largest producer of rose concrete.

A local farmer bringing in roses

A local farmer brings in his roses at the factory.

Rose production is very important for this region. There are a few rose produce manufacturers in the area but Sebat is the most prominent. They also manufacture distillation equipment and other machinery and host eco tourism tours at the factory. Sebat is known by everyone and they buy roses from several local farmers. During our stay we saw roses being brought in by every means possible, from a small trailer to a full truckload.

Rose harvest festival in full swing

Rose harvest festival in full swing. Lots of singing, dancing and smoking!

During the 5-7 week rose harvest season, rose picking is a family business and everyone gets involved. At the end of it, Sebat hosts a festival to thank the villagers. We were invited to this year’s event and despite a freak hailstorm collapsing the stage and delaying proceedings by several hours, it was a fun night out listening to local performers. The best part was seeing how there didn’t seem to be a generation gap – all ages from toddler to teenager and dad to granddad were cheering and dancing to the same tunes. The audience filled a football field and it didn’t take long before the space in front of the stage was populated by revelers.

The school funded by Sebat and two of its largest clients

The school funded by Sebat and two of its largest clients, one of whom is Lush.

In the previous years, Lush, Sebat and another one of their larger clients have funded a local school and continue to improve its facilities to this day. Özgür explained that one of the students who was paid a bursary by Sebat has now returned back as a kindergarden teacher, bringing her higher education back to the village.

When at the factory, we were able to follow what happened to the roses from the moment they were brought in. First they are weighed and spread in a large room to air out. They have to be taken out of the sacks or they would ferment.

Rose oil still

Rose oil still.

They are processed quickly into either rose oil or rose concrete. The rose still is filled with petals and boiling water – but it takes two rounds of distillation to get enough of the essential oil out of the water. Rose oil is water soluble and even after the second distillation, the water is highly perfumed with its scent and bottled as rose water.

Rose concrete is manufactured using a complex process of washing and rinsing which demands several different types of specialist equipment. The majority of the factory floor was filled with these contraptions. On the plus side, this method is able to extract almost everything out of the rose and when you see the final oils the effect is obvious – rose oil is almost clear with a pale yellowish-green hue and rose absolute is dark pink and almost syrupy in texture.

Pia trying to memorise the scent

Pia trying to memorise the scent of the rose in the field.

Although the scent of the rose in bloom on the field isn’t the same as either of these products, I learned that rose absolute captures it best. There are over 300 chemicals in rose absolute, some of which are still unknown to science. Many of them may contribute to the complex aroma so although there are many good (and some pretty nasty!) synthetic rose blends on the market, none come close to the real thing. This trip has made me really fall in love with the rose and the materials produced from it. I’m hoping to get the opportunity to do something in the lab with them as soon as possible! Then again, Lush and Gorilla Perfume already use rose oil and absolute rather lavishly. For example, the rose-based perfume Simon Constantine created for his daughter Imogen Rose, captures the sweet, rich tones perfectly.

Özgür introduced us to pure, fresh rose water on our first night in Turkey as we were trying to adjust to the humid heat that hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. The 3-hour coach trip from Antalya to our hotel in Isparta was punctuated by splashes of rose water on our faces and hands and a box of Lokum (Turkish delight) being passed around the passengers.

Rose jam.

Rose jam.

During our stay, we got to eat rose jam which is a beautiful local confection and goes well with strong Turkish çhai. As we were leaving the factory on our last day,  Özgür nipped around to the stills and drew us all a bottle of rose water each to take away. I’ve been using copious amounts of mine since then, on my face, neck and even my hair. As it’s unpreserved, it will eventually go off so I might as well be generous with it! This is not a bad thing, though I am now prematurely forlorn for the moment that it will run out and the smell of fresh roses on the Turkish field will fade to a distant memory. I suppose as a trainee perfumer, I ought to work hard not to let that happen and try to memorise the subtle nuances as much as possible.

This trip has really opened up my perspective of what that bottle in the lab with a label “Sebat” actually means; how it affects an entire community and how beautiful the material is. I guess the only downside is that now I want to visit other suppliers too! I met the guy who produces our Indian jasmine absolute on this trip and he invited me over… it would be rude to turn him down, now wouldn’t it?

Pia

If you want to see many more snapshots from this trip, head on over to the Gorilla Perfume Facebook page and check out the rose harvest photo album there.