Francis Kurkdjian and Fabien Ducher, Changing History in a Bottle

The new rose created by the nose Francis Kurkdjian and the breeder Fabien Ducher. They spent six years ferreting out the ancestral chains of Damask and May roses to develop their hybrid, which they call Nevarte. Sophie Tajan / United Photo Press

Together, a fragrance legend and a horticultural pioneer have cultivated what could be the first new perfume rose in more than a century.

WHEN IT COMES TO perfumery, there is perhaps no flower or ingredient as important as the rose. It is as crucial to the alchemy of many fragrances as yeast is to making bread, an element both powerful and supple. In some scents it is the central facet, the essence of refined femininity. In others, it’s the magical, undetectable elixir. The rose is one of the few flowers that is not ‘‘mute’’ — that is, its smell can be extracted from its petals, unlike honeysuckle, peony or lilac, which have to be concocted in the lab — and technology has not been able to improve on it.

Perfume roses live in a different dimension from the ones we see most often: wax-perfect and upright as No. 2 pencils in a frosted vase, with no smell at all. The sueded petals of perfume blossoms are tethered to stems as willowy as a shoelace of licorice, on plants cultivated without an eye for garden beauty. They peak on a single early morning in ancient fields in obscure locations and must be plucked by hand before the sun turns them limp, robbing them of their redolence. Just yards away sit copper stills in which they are processed by methods that haven’t changed much in generations.

Yet what is perhaps more interesting is that the variety of roses used to make perfume haven’t changed in all that time either. Whereas cut-flower farms experiment constantly with new hybrids in a range of sometimes-unnatural colors, and large-scale nurseries perpetually tinker with new cultivars, from climbing varieties to the sorts that bloom even in the shade, today the perfume industry mainly uses just two sorts of roses for fragrances: the spicy Rosa damascena, or Damask rose, and sparkling, tangy Rosa centifolia, sometimes called May rose. Damascena, thought to have been cultivated in the Middle East around 500 B.C. and grown largely in Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran, accounts for about 95 percent of the world’s rose oil (a byproduct derived through steam distillation) and rose absolute (obtained through mixing in solvents). The more delicate, early blooming centifolia, stabilized as a hybrid in the 1870s in Grasse and still grown there as well as in Morocco, contributes the tiny remaining portion. Instead of seeking innovation with new cultivars, the perfume companies lean on the narrative of immutable history, the mythos of the historic fields, the lure of flowers unchanged through the generations, to counterbalance the fact that perfumes are largely made of synthetic ingredients. (Researchers have genetically mapped rose DNA, but the molecular version pales.)

Ducher’s farm near Gier, France, where the new hybrid rose will stay for two years before being climate-tested elsewhere. 

For years, this logic drove Francis Kurkdjian nearly mad. The celebrated 46-year-old nose, who created such classic scents as Narciso for Her and Gaultier’s Le Male as well as his own Maison Francis Kurkdjian, was frustrated that perfume roses existed in such a reductive binary. Considering how important the rose is to fragrance, how huge the fragrance business has become internationally, how much rose oil costs (it can take up to 60,000 roses to get a mere ounce of oil), why not breed a revolutionary blossom for modern times, one lusher or more fruity?

His quixotic odyssey began in earnest in 2009, when he was flying back to Paris from New York. The in-flight magazine contained an article on Fabien Ducher, 44, the scion of one of the world’s most famous rose-breeding clans. His family had created such classics as the world’s first modern yellow bloom in 1898 and the climbing variety that was a favorite of William Randolph Hearst and may have inspired Orson Welles to invoke the word ‘‘Rosebud’’ so poignantly. But because his relatives had dispersed, some into the cut-flower business, many of their historic hybrids were now mostly grown in rarefied botanical gardens. At the time, Ducher was traveling the world to gather cuttings and reassemble the collection at his farm near Gier, outside of Lyon. This is the guy, Kurkdjian thought, who would be willing to do something crazy. Crazy enough to be the first person in centuries to cultivate a new, third rose. Within weeks he was on the bullet train to Gier. It was a trip he would wind up taking dozens of times over six years. ‘‘It is,’’ he says, ‘‘this insane project that we cannot get out of our minds.’’

Walking with Kurkdjian and Ducher through their rustic botanical laboratory on a hillside, you are jolted alive by the scent. It wafts in waves from rows of plants and unruly six-foot-tall mounds covered in nodding, imperfect blooms that range from molten pink to blackish purple to the palest butter yellow. Some are the size of cantaloupes with up to a hundred dense peonylike petals, others as tiny and airy as Ping-Pong balls. The smell is rose but not rose: maroon noisette tinged with anise and Golden Delicious apple; Jacques truphemus, ballerina pink and ripe with verbena; startling white Mrs. Herbert Stevens, laden with comice pear and freesia.

Kurkdjian, whose frustration with the lack of diversity in perfume roses sparked a quixotic journey to create a fresher hybrid, at his studio in Paris.

It is not hard to make a rose redolent enough for the garden, but to breed one that will stand up to perfume processing is a challenge. Ducher and Kurkdjian traced back the ‘‘ancestors’’ of the two existing fragrance hybrids in a slew of combinations. It needed to have the perfect petals; not too thick and leathery, yet not tissue-thin. The scent had to be powerful enough to be steam distilled. The plants must be bred under the natural constraints of the field, and then must make it through the next winter as well as be regrown from seed to test for staying power. It takes five years to know if the flower will produce enough oil and resist disease and pests. Kurkdjian and Ducher, whose main tool is a slender sable-tipped paintbrush to spread the pollen of one plant onto the stamen of another, have spent dozens of near-dawn mornings sniffing madly, eyes shut beatifically.

One season nothing bloomed; another, there were ladybugs. In 2012, finally, the rose of their dreams pushed through the loamy soil and flowered. This spring, they were able to get two dozen plants whose pale pink blossoms had all the crisp, sweet lychee-strawberry power they had selected it for. Kurkdjian took one precious plant back to Paris with him, begging a friend who has a terrace to nurture it, calling daily to get progress reports and photos of the buds. The code name for the project pays tribute to his Armenian grandmother, Nevarte, whose name means ‘‘New Rose’’ in Armenian. She came to France as a young woman and was strong, too, a fighter. ‘‘You have to torture the flower in this process, so it has to be bold,’’ he says. Kurkdjian is looking for places to begin cultivation on a larger scale. As fall approaches, he and Ducher now have 50 plants — enough to get 1,000 roses next year, perhaps about a shot glass worth of oil. It’s a start. Within three years, they’ll have enough to make a batch of perfume.