Azzi Glasser, perfume designer on the Rose de Mai
GB Tell me why you chose this.
AG The Rose de Mai is one of my favourite flowers in the world. It’s such a beautiful flower to look at because it doesn’t really look like a traditional rose. It’s a cross between a peony and a rose when you look at it and each one is completely different. Sometimes flowers like tulips can all look very similar but there’s something about the Rose de Mai that makes each one individual. If I’m in the fields for a long time I’ll try to find one that looks exactly the same as another – I used to do that with shades of green leaves as a child, looking for something that might be there but seemingly impossible to find. It just has this depth, like no other rose. It only comes out for about two weeks of the year in the South of France, in May and because of that it’s one of the most expensive rose oils, if not one of the most expensive essential oils in the world. The whole process of extracting the oil is a beautiful experience because it’s treated like royalty. The process is quite ancient but precise. First the flowers are picked in a certain way, petal by petal, then they are tossed in the air for a period of time so they’re aired, before being cooked in a kind of pressure cooker, which is where the steam distillation takes place. In the end the extraction is solid like a wax, the ‘absolute’ usually pink in colour. The aroma is so deep and intoxicating, there’s nothing like it.
GB Do you think nature is the highest form of beauty?
AG Nature is the answer to our creation so it has so much to offer in every way. For me it’s like security in life. The word beauty wouldn’t give it justice.
GB How do you think sight and smell interact with one another?
AG Sight is the primary sense for most people – although not for me, of course. The sense of smell is based from the subconscious and almost ignored by people. Everyone smells things and they think about it but they’re not always aware that they are thinking about it. Smell can be more powerful than sight. It can tell you things that sight can’t, like smelling a fire before you see it, or smelling bad milk, which still looks perfect.
GB So if something smells gorgeous, do you think that alters our perception of it, so we might find it more visually appealing?
AG The individual aesthetic of an object can blind your sense of smell if you’re not in touch with it. Most of us have no training from school or parents in how to understand our sense of smell. It has to come from yourself. A person can look fantastic with the right clothes and hair or makeup, but if they don’t choose the right fragrance to match their personality, then it can be quite off-putting to others. The scent of a person is a really powerful weapon and affects how we think and feel about people. You won’t want to be with a partner forever if you’ve never liked their smell. I do a lot of bespoke business for people and mainly Hollywood actors because they’re generally very in touch with their subconscious, which is why they’re acting, so we can relate through these fantasy worlds. They would rather wear no perfume rather than get it wrong. And then if someone does smell great, you’re immediately attracted to them, regardless of their beauty. There’s that instinct thing. I can smell if someone’s washed their hair that day, or maybe not washed it for two weeks! I can smell the shower gel they’ve used. My brain will start dissecting the molecules in front of me. Scent molecules are such a big part of life, they are everywhere.
GB Does Rose de Mai have any particular associations for you?
AG When I was seven months pregnant with my first child I was directing an editorial shoot for the Independent Magazine. My husband’s a photographer and we were doing a shoot about the making of Joy. One of the main characters in Joy is Rose de Mai. Patou owns their own Rose de Mai fields in the South of France and when we went there their entire crop had gone by the time we arrived. They told us it had gone yesterday. Well, we couldn’t wait for another year. I started frantically calling around and one of my contacts said that there might be one more field high up in Rémy. We drove up the mountain and just over it saw this huge field of Rose de Mai in full bloom and the scent was incredible and the sight was beautiful. When I’m pregnant my sense of smell is so strong, it’s like there are two people smelling – in fact there probably are. The fields were so mesmerizing that it has become one of those unforgettable memories.
GB Does it smell very different in the fields from the essential oil you get in the end?
AG Yes, the aroma is very different. The extract oil is so concentrated and rich and deep. What’s wonderful is that this one flower can produce this incredible smell. It could so easily be ignored or not realised. When the oil is extracted at the end, it’s locked in a safe because it’s worth €500,000 per kilo.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
AG If I chose one word it would be originality – something that’s different that gives you more than you see, so that it becomes something else through the way it makes you feel.