In Bulgaria's Valley of Roses during May local women rise before dawn and head out to the fields. As the sun rises they begin harvesting the small pink flowers of Rosa damascena for the delicate petals that will be distilled into attar of roses, or rose oil, among the world's finest and an essential ingredient in designer perfumes. "Bulgarian rose oil makes a great base for perfumes," says Anna Dobreva of the Institute of Roses, Essential Oils and Medicinal Plants. "It has a unique ability to harmonize the most contradictory scents."
Harvesting methods have changed little since the 17th century, when the Ottomans found the valley's combination of sandy soil, mild February temperatures and wet springs ideal for rose cultivation. Women still pluck the flowers by hand, gently depositing them into their aprons. The best pickers collect about 30 kg of rose flowers in a day, earning roughly $4 for their efforts. To maintain freshness, the flowers are distilled on the same day in one of the valley's nine distilleries. The rose petals are boiled and oil is collected from the resulting condensation. The condensate is then redistilled to release more oil.
For decades Bulgaria had few rivals in terms of the quantity and quality of the rose oil it produced. In the early 1900s, annual production ranged between 3,000 and 6,000 kg. By 1917, Bulgaria had more than 8,000 hectares of rose fields under cultivation and the industry employed some 200,000 people. At one point the country supplied more than half the world's demand. But the Depression, World War II and forced collectivization of the rose fields under the Soviets all took their toll. Today, only 1,500 hectares of rose fields are in production, yielding between 1,000 and 1,300 kg of oil per year. The local economy has been further hit by the near collapse of the area's other major employer Arsenal, an arms manufacturer that makes Kalashnikov rifles.
Under ideal conditions, between 1.5 and 2 million rose flowers produce one kilogram of oil. But a spell of hot, dry weather during harvest or a warm early spring can significantly lower the yield and quality of the oil. And Rosa damascena itself is a finicky flower. "You have to do everything just right," says Georgi Stoyanov, deputy director of the Institute of Roses, Essential Oils and Medicinal Plants in Kazanlak, the valley's administrative center. If you do get it right, though, the rewards can be big. A kilogram of Bulgarian rose oil costs between $3,500 and $6,000 in the United States and France. Seventy percent of the country's output is shipped abroad, where it is snapped up by the likes of Christian Dior or Chanel.
The Bulgarian industry is doing its best to meet demand. More than 120 additional hectares of roses were planted last year and more people are getting into the business. And the rose farms are once again being collectivized, this time for sound economic reasons rather than communist ideology. Larger farms allow producers to pursue more efficient cultivation and processing techniques.
But change will not come overnight. It takes several years before a young rose bush flowers, and several years after that before it matures to provide a good yield. And some things may never change like the female harvesters who for centuries have risen before the sun to hand-pick the most valuable flowers in Bulgaria's Valley of Roses.