An ingredient that carries the history of the world’s beauty
by Elize Manoukian
History is full of people who have sought to harness the magical properties of the Damask Rose. Legend has it, the French crusaders were so enamored they carried the rose to Europe all the way from Syria, giving it its name. In Iran, Rosa Damascena was known as Gol Mohammedi, a flower so delightful that its aroma recalls the divine Prophet.
But by any other name, the rich and provocative Damask Rose would still have found its way as a beauty and cosmetics staple. Botanically, rose petals are wonderfully complicated. Due to the abundance of natural phenolic compounds, rose oil has long been regarded as a super ingredient, possessing antioxidant, free-radical protectant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and even antidepressant properties. Each rose blossom has an extremely low oil content, and there are no synthetic substitutes, making essential rose oil one of the most precious in the world.
I had the chance to not only observe the oil creation process at Nairian, but take part in it. In summer of 2018, I visited the farm with my mother and brother, and we collected rose blossoms, took them to the press for distillation, and then visited the Nairian laboratory, where rose essential oil is incorporated into everything from anti-aging creams, the immensely fragrant rose Micellar Water, and even the Lavender Deodorant I’m wearing right now.
You have to wonder if it was fate that brought the Damask Rose to Nairian, as the winding, dusty road that sweeps you from Armenia’s capital city to the farm’s blooming landscapes just happens to be called Yeghvard, the medieval Armenian word for “rose oil.” The highway gives away to a country road, stretching under miles of blue sky and rolling wheat fields. Our driver, also a local horticulturist, instructed us to choose roses whose bloom was half-open, and to gently coax the entire flower from its sepals. An untrained hand might end up with a burst of petals exploding in your palm like confetti strings, but either way, the petals would be eased into a pail and collected. To obtain just a liter of essential oil, the lab’s scientists must distill 5 tons of rose petals. We got to work.
Of course, it’s hard to stay focused on a concrete objective when you have your head in the clouds. Drifting through the tightly woven rows of pink blooms after a long winter feels like a walk through the gardens of paradise. But it’s so satisfying to see the bucket fill up with freshly plucked, pungent blooms. It’s also worth mentioning that the roses on the Nairian farm are all certified organic, and grown without any chemicals or pesticides.
When we returned to the farm, ready to distill our goods, the perfume-like smell of roses greets us from up the road. We trace the smell to a giant distillation rig on the Nairian grounds. Several local engineers are operating a still which appears to be re-assembled and repurposed vintage machine parts, which it turn out, it is. The steam distillation process isolates the oil contained within each cell of the rose, extracted by pumping highly pressurized steam into a tank of rose petals. The oil is separated from the petals as a vapor, treated with heat again, and then cooled. That’s one distillation, and the entire process is repeated. This whole process is accomplished with just rose petals and water, which is not only effective, but the most natural way to do it. All while enveloping us in the divine vapors of a rose bouquet. One of the engineers told us that after all of the work of developing and using the rose oil in the formulas is done, the laboratory technicians use the leftover rosewater to make homemade rose liquor.
That’s the real miracle of the rose. It’s not just beautiful to the eye, it delights all of the senses. Beauty and skincare products can offer this deeper beauty too. Your skin will thank you for it.
Elize Manoukian is a writer and DIY facial aficionado who currently lives in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. She believes that a small brand is like a family. And for her, Nairian represents the tightly-knit diasporan community that raised her in California. Because she is so close to the action, Elize often visits the Nairian eco-farm, where she takes part in rose harvests, interviews lab and agricultural workers, and unlocks the secrets of Nairian's production. Her favorite product is the Lavender Deodorant.