Workers pose as they pick “Centifolia” roses for perfumery Christian Dior.

May roses are blooming in Grasse, the birthplace of French perfumes, but out in the fields, some of those who pick them face a problem this year. “Working with a mask and not smelling,” the flowers, “is pretty frustrating,” horticulturist Carole Biancalana acknowledges. Owner of the Domaine de Manon which works with the Dior fashion house, she nonetheless told her seasonal workers they must wear a mask owing to the risk of catching the coronavirus. Biancalana can still tick off a list of adjectives to describe the “complex, multiple and varied” scent of the centifolia rose, a fragile variety that cannot even stand by itself in a vase. “It is somewhere between honey, spicy, fruity, lychee, it is a perfume all by itself,” she sighs.

After two months of confinement marked by resounding silence broken only by buzzing bees, the gathering of rose petals began over a week ago and continues depending on the weather, under extra sanitary precautions. “Normally, everyone grabs a smock, we help each other out and go down the rows facing each other, we chat and it’s nice,” Biancalana says. This year, each worker has a separate row, starting at 9:00am and stopping before 1:00pm when the sun gets too hot. The rose’s temperature and chemistry are paramount criteria in the gathering process. “We are ‘timed’. The rose has odour molecules that work at certain hours,” explains Vincent Rossi, who at 26 is one of the youngest workers.   Biancalana adds that they must also demonstrate “rapidity, dexterity and delicacy: you must pluck without breaking buds that will flower in the coming days.” 

‘Break its neck’ 

Working by hand, “the goal is to not touch the heart of the rose. You take it just below the peduncle, and hop, break its neck,” Vincent explains. Each worker has a personalized burlap bag to contain the risk of contamination, and only one person drives to a collection site where the pink petals tumble into extraction vats. Biancalana inherited the three hectares (more than seven acres) cultivated by her family and rents another plot under a local plan to foster perfume plants. In 2018, Grasse was included on a Unesco heritage list owing to its decades of know-how in the perfume sector. But budding horticulturists have trouble finding land in this coveted sector of France’s Cote d’Azur where housing is also at a premium.

Steep entry fee 

“It costs at least 30 euros a square meter,” Biancalana notes, or well over $100,000 an acre. “It is hard to make a profit, given all the other investments required,” she says. Her solution was a partnership with the Dior house that ensures a guaranteed revenue in exchange for respecting a set of specifications established by the luxury brand. “Acquiring land is basically out of the question,” confirms Morgane Russo, an intern who is mulling setting up shop on her own after working abroad as an agricultural engineer. Russo’s arms bear scratch marks, not from rose bushes but from bitter orange trees that have just been picked around the nearby town of Vallauris. Flowers from those tree are used to produce neroli, a natural fixing agent in perfumes.

France’s confinement, which lasted eight weeks, made things harder there too, said Guillaume Gillet, head of the local Nerolium cooperative that works with Chanel. Pickers were wary of coming to work in the region, he said. As is the case with those who grow roses, the prices paid for the orange flowers are secret, and everyone wants to increase production. “This year we exceeded five tonnes, up from four last year,” Gillet confided. That is far from what the region provided a century earlier, when annual production was around 1,800-2,000 tons. As for centifolia roses, yearly output is roughly 100 times less than a century ago.—AFP