Aromatic, mystical, and elusive, the rose exudes an essence that has captivated the hearts and minds of artists, poets, and perfumers since ancient times.
It is said that Cleopatra welcomed Marc Antony to her private quarters with fresh rose petals. Revered 11th century Arab physician Ibn Sina was one of the first scientists to emphasize the therapeutic effect of the scent on the heart and brain. He wrote, “Because of its exquisite fragrance, the rose addresses the soul.” While there are hundreds of species of rose and thousands of hybrids, few compare to the Rosa Damascena Trigintipetala – better known as the Taif Rose. Every spring, the Saudi Arabian city of Taif blooms with vistas of florid crimsons and vibrant pinks. The season is short-lived, lasting only a month from March to April. During harvest, the addictive fragrance permeates through the fresh, mountain air.
It remains a mystery how the rose arrived in Saudi Arabia. With distinct similarities to the Bulgarian and Damascene varieties, some say it was brought by Ottoman Turks, who once ruled vast areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Blessed with a mild climate, the highland haven of Taif is a refuge from the heat of nearby cities Mecca and Jeddah, making it a popular summer destination. The high altitude of the land, as well as well-established irrigation systems, plentiful groundwater, and fertile topsoil, offer the perfect environment for cultivating over 300 million of these precious, 30-petal flowers per year.
Treasured Taif Rose Oil
The roses are hand-picked in the early morning before the day’s heat wilts the delicate petals, destroying their precious oils. They are gathered in baskets, sorted, weighed, and taken to the local distilleries. The petals are steam distilled releasing the rose oil into vapor. Once this cools, the essential oil, also known as “attar” or “itr” in Arabic, is separated from the rose water. This treasured oil is then sold in the form of a “tolah,” a small glass vial weighing a mere 11.7 grams, fetching around US$450. Today, not only is it used to cleanse and perfume the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca, but it is also the preferred rose oil of perfume houses around the world.
“The fragrance is so multi-faceted that the net effect is of something far more complex than one imagines a pure rose oil to be,” says Renaud Salmon, creative director of Amouage perfumes. “It exudes serene beauty, a sense of authenticity, and symbolizes nobility in the Middle East.” The Amouage Rose Taif attar itself strikes a paradox. Simultaneously fresh, green, bright, and citrusy but at the same time, lusciously rosy, rich, and with spiced honey notes. For perfume houses looking for a new take on the timeless rose scent, the Taif otto is an exquisite surprise. In 2004, Ormande Jayne’s master nose, Linda Pilkington, came across the Arabian bloom and immediately knew it was an ingredient she wanted to work with. “I thought it could be the perfect rose for our philosophy, which is to use rare ingredients not commonly used in the perfume world.” In 2005, Ormande Jayne launched Ta’if Eau de Parfum, one of the first fine fragrances to contain the Taif Rose. The blend of saffron, dates, pink pepper, orange flower, jasmine, and rose, was an immediate success. It soon become the brand’s number one best seller and garnered a spot on Harrod’s list of top ten best-selling fragrances.
Having created custom perfumes for royalty around the world—Queen Elizabeth I and the Saudi royal family—Italian master perfumer Laura Bosetti Tonatto was selected by the Saudi Arabian ministry of culture to create a unique collection of fragrances in celebration of the Tantora Festival in the ancient city of Al Ula. At the time of the unveiling of the historical site and its opening to the public, The Royal Commission for Al Ula selected five different fragrances from the Essenzialmente Laura collection blended with the Taif rose to commemorate the event.
The constant reincarnation of this classic ingredient has reignited the interest of perfume enthusiasts worldwide. Whilst it has held the title of the “Queen of Flowers” for centuries, it’s clear the rose of Taif’s olfactory influence will continue to flourish for generations to come.
Known for their intensity and sensuality, Arabian perfumes have long been revered for their use of rare and valuable natural ingredients.
An edited version of this article was featured in the June 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia.