Today, business is no picnic for Bulgaria’s rose oil producers.
Derived from Damask roses grown in the aptly named Rose Valley, the oil is a key ingredient in the perfumes of the world’s top luxury brands such as Christian Dior, Estee Lauder and Chanel.
But a heat wave has severely impacted this year’s rose petal harvest, labor is hard to find and the global rise in energy prices has pushed up the cost of a product so valuable it’s been dubbed “liquid gold.”
This year’s oil will be “significantly more expensive,” Plamen Stankovski, a partner in rose oil producer and exporter Bulattars, told AFP at his distillery near Pavel Banya in Bulgaria’s famed Rose Valley.
The cost of producing a kilogram of rose oil was around 6,000 euros ($6,300) in 2021, but has increased by up to 40 percent this year.
According to the manufacturer, the price of petals alone has doubled since last year.
A glass weighing 4.5 kilograms filled with the viscous, golden-yellow oil could be sold for more than 45,000 euros this year.
Bulgaria is the world’s leading producer of rose oil, along with Turkey and distillers to fuel the precious substance with natural gas, diesel and fuel oil – commodities whose prices have skyrocketed after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
“The price of fuel has gone up two or even three times,” Stankovski said.
– ‘Not All Roses’ –
Small amounts of rose oil are used in almost every high quality perfume – not for its aroma, but because its fixing properties help blend other ingredients and prolong the scent on the skin.
To make it, huge quantities of flower petals are boiled in massive metal vats. The vapors are then distilled to separate the oil in a process nearly unchanged since the days of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century.
In his family’s rose fields near Pavel Banya, Dimitar Dimitrov laments that the sector has been plagued by a chronic labor shortage for years.
“Picking is the most expensive, since it is only picked by hand. If you don’t pick the open roses today, they’ll be gone tomorrow,” says the 40-year-old, who picks petals with his father and brother-in-law.
Fertilizer, fuel, plowing and pruning have all become more expensive, he said.
With petal prices nearly doubling, he’s hoping “this will at least cover our production costs so we don’t end up in the red.”
To make matters worse, a heat wave scorched the rosebuds before they could open, drastically reducing yields and cutting the picking season in half.
The surviving flowers secrete less oil. To obtain one kilo of rose oil, 4,000 kilograms of petals are needed today, 15 percent more than usual.
“We are concerned about the increased cost of our production,” said exporter Filip Lissicharov, CEO of manufacturing company Enio Bonchev in the nearby village of Tarnichane.
“The picture isn’t just roses,” he added.
More fuel is now needed to sustain production, which has been disrupted by erratic flower supplies, but calls from the industry association for fuel subsidies have so far gone unanswered by the government.
Rose oil production is expected to fall below the usual annual yield of 2.5 tons.
– Certified as ‘pure’ –
Almost 100 percent of the oil produced in Bulgaria is exported to countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Lissicharov is worried about how the market will react to higher prices.
“There’s interest (from buyers),” he said. “But whether this interest turns into deals depends on the price.”
To prevent counterfeit products from entering the market, the oil is certified by a few selected laboratories, such as the Bulgarska Rosa State Laboratory in Sofia.
The product leaves the laboratory in hermetically sealed aluminum bottles with a label guaranteeing “100 percent pure and natural genuine Bulgarian rose oil”.
Smears are not an option, said Stankovski: “Regardless of our worries, we will preserve the high quality of the rose oil.”
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