18 Dec Roja Dove
Photo: Paul Stuart
Known as ‘The Finest Nose in The World’, British Master Perfumer Roja Dove invites us in a world of scents and poetry where the fragrance of vanilla, orange blossom or jasmine twirl in an olfactory verbiage that mesmerizes our senses.
By Victoria Adelaide | DEC 18. 2017
Victoria Adelaide: Mr Dove, how and when did your interest in fragrance start?
Roja Dove: I don’t think I chose fragrance, I think it kind of chose me. I fell in love with scent when I was a small boy. One night my mother came to give me a goodnight kiss and for the first time I suddenly became aware of a connection between the moment and a person – that smell. I became so obsessed with smells, fascinated by them, so I used to steal into my mother’s bedroom and I would open the bottom left-hand drawer of her dressing table where she kept perfumes. We had a very close family friend who would always give my mother gifts of cologne when they visited – I think she didn’t like them as she never used them. So I would open the drawer and then I’d unscrew the bottles and sometimes I’d take a touch and just put it on my hand because I would want to smell it. I just loved how varied the effects of scent were and I think they fueled a fantasy. I always say it was like a genie taking me on a journey somewhere – you just let it take you on the ride. Scent for me is about fantasy.
VA: In which special way did fragrance affect you in your youth and ignite the passion that would later become your life?
RD: To cut an awfully long story very short, I was offered a job by one of three cousins who owned one of the oldest French perfumery houses, who said I would be less of a nuisance working in the house than in an outside location because I had been writing to all the subsidiaries of the country around the world trying to find out the research and history. I started writing the letters when I was about 15 or 16. I ended up getting a job and was employed to develop a perfumery training course – so I was suddenly shipped off to the South of France, to Grasse, to work with a woman called Nancy McConaghey who, as you might tell from her name, is Scottish, and she made a perfume which in its day was very important. It is called ‘Ivoire’ for Balmain. I was only a young man starting my career but it seemed as if I had an aptitude for perfume. So I worked with the house. I worked for 20 years before deciding it was time to leave. I love, live and breathe what I do. I have always said that I have lived the life I was born to lead. At some specific long lost moment a fragrant molecule entered my being and I was changed forever.
VA: What inspires you to create and what are the main steps in the creation of a new fragrance?
RD: What most people now buy is of low quality and very little creative thinking. Laboratory engineered molecules and highly polished photography create a world consumers want to buy into quickly. But they move out of it quickly, too. An exceptional perfume will trigger an emotion within you, whilst discreetly delivering quality, luxury, and sophistication – a fragrance that will become a part of you forever. Beauty, creativity and memory are the key pillars that the olfactory world must adhere to to be true. To be true we must be authentic. The minute you ‘make do’ with ingredients in a scent, you deliver mediocrity. That is not what I am about. I always start with a name when creating a perfume because names help paint a picture in my head of how a perfume should smell. With ‘Reckless’, I was reading a book in which a woman said: “Reckless maybe, foolish never”. What a fabulous statement. I thought of a woman who still has the passion to follow her heart, but over the years she has learned never to allow herself to get hurt. I imagine a woman who spends the evening at the theatre or opera. You can see her in the half-light. She’s wearing a beautiful evening dress with a low décolleté, revealing a big diamond necklace. She’s a woman who knows what she wants – and often takes risks to get it. With ‘Scandal’ we have to look at what a scandal is. A scandal is when everybody is talking, so the perfume equivalent can’t be timid. You’ve got to notice it so it’s a big white floral based around tuberose. When creating ‘Danger’ I had in my mind the idea of a woman wearing very heavy silk satin, and if you were to run your hand over the silk, you would feel its smooth luxury, and behind it you would feel the warmth of the woman’s skin. Its vanilla and jasmine notes are natural aphrodisiacs so I always say it’s not dangerous to the woman who wears it, it’s dangerous to the man who smells it on the woman.
VA: You have bespoke clients you work with for whom you create their own very personal fragrance. What is your approach to get at the core of their very nature, in order to create their personal ‘ID scent’?
RD: The problem with scent is that most people can’t describe what it is they like and dislike. The language we normally use is subjective – so “I want something sophisticated”, well what is the ultimate definition of sophistication? So when I’m making a bespoke fragrance, I give them the main raw materials that I might use, without telling the person what they’re smelling. So what I’m looking for is not a clever answer – I want you to tell me that it reminds you of something, because smells reveal associations. I will pick up as you’re telling me that story whether it’s positive or negative for you, and if it’s positive, then I might use that raw material. In the end what you see are themes emerging, that maybe you find that when I give you woody notes, you don’t like them, but when I give you mossy notes or what we call fresh spices and powdery floral notes, that you love all of them, so then of course I will incorporate them. No-one ever comes in and says, “I’d like a labdanum accord” – although that would be really handy! I would then go away and work for someone between six months and two years to create their perfume. In reality the majority of them take six months to a year. The really interesting thing about creating a bespoke fragrance is that you have no idea how people are going to react. They’ll suddenly smell something, and a memory comes crashing into their minds. It really takes them by surprise. People say, it’s like going to see a shrink. It’s an unintended side-effect: without meaning to, I’m making them think about things, memories of people and places that they would have sworn they had forgotten.
VA: You were initially a student in medical research, medicine, which is all about caring for other human beings’ well-being. In some ways, does your profession as a perfumer enable you to help people find harmony, soothe their soul and make them feel good about themselves?
RD: Fragrance is one of the best things you can buy to make you feel good, as each ingredient works on our subconscious, releasing hormones, which amongst other things give us energy, lift us from glumness, or enhance sensations of pleasure. Whilst fashion is often as unkind as nature and will do nothing for the feel good factor, scent is un-judgmental, it is kind to everyone.
VA: You said a perfume can change a person. How?
RD: It is often said that our eyes are the windows to our soul. I believe them merely to be observers, whereas, our nose absorbs the world’s life essences. Since the dawn of civilisation, perfume has been with us, evolving within the complex fabric of the human psyche and culture. Scent is intangible. It can touch us, move us, and inspire our very being. It can transform us into seducers or seductresses, elevating and transporting us into an ethereal realm of memories and sensations. Unlike fashion and nature, fragrance disregards age, colour and vantage. As we age, and our bodies start their slow inevitable decay, our skin starts to shout the truth, however hard we try to silence it. Our clothes begin to show the lumps and bumps we wish we didn’t have but, like a true friend, fragrance is loyal, non-judgmental and kind. Sit with someone and breathe in their scent and they give you one of the most beautiful of all gifts – the gift of memory. You may not have seen someone for years but, with one breath of their scent, the memories come flooding back, dreams are revived, love is rekindled. I have always used the simile that odor molecules work like a cat-burglar – they intrude unannounced into our mind and soul. When revisited, they unlock the floodgates of memories and emotions, leaving a profound imprint. Smell is, arguably, the most intimate of our senses. The sense of smell is activated through close contact with the surface from which the odorant is emanating. We should understand that the odors we have positive associations with are part of our identity, our very core. If we can marry the maximum number of positive associations in a fragrance to its wearer, we will have found a fragrance which not only reflects their personality but will contribute to a profound sense of wellbeing.
VA: Prior to creating your own brand, you worked for a French perfumery house. What are the main things you learned during this time and how did that prepare you to run your own business?
RD: I learnt that there is something brave about being able to follow your own drumbeat. Roja Parfums is a self-funded, privately-owned brand so my passion and creativity are not governed by a marketing team or a committee – which means I am free to name a perfume whatever I like. My creative process is tied up in my respect for the golden days of perfumery, when perfumers did not create with either financial or ingredient restrictions, or in response to a creative brief or a marketing campaign. Yet they are resolutely modern. My perfumes are for those searching for a scent that triggers an emotion within them, and that discreetly delivers quality, luxury and sophistication – a fragrance that will become part of them forever. When a woman wears one of my creations, my dream is for it to become not just a part of her life, but a part of the life and memories of everyone she knows. I hope that I have created perfumes that will be worn, loved and remembered – fragrances that might even inspire a future generation of perfumers. There is something heroic about being brave enough to follow your heart – that is something I have always championed.
VA: You are one of the most successful perfumers in the world. Your fragrances are sold all over the planet in the most luxurious department stores including Harrods, Bergdorf Goodman, The Dubai Mall to name a few. Is there a particular character trait you’d like to outline that one must possess in order to become a great perfumer?
RD: For a perfumer, creating a scent is like painting a picture but we just don’t use paint. We’re telling stories or poems but we just don’t use words. So what I’m doing is allowing these raw materials to express my idea, my vision, like a poet or a storyteller but just using the language of smell. My driving mantra is always, ‘It will do will never do’, an ideology that runs through the composition of each Roja Parfums creation. It’s a simple phrase that perfectly encapsulates my approach. The minute you ‘make do’ with ingredients in a scent, or you ‘make do’ with the way a perfume is presented, you deliver mediocrity. That is not what I am about. Perfume is like viewing a great piece of art, you must give in to it and let your emotions take over. Like art, the devil is in the detail and I’ve always stayed true to this value. I’m motivated by a desire for true luxury in the perfume industry, I use only the highest-quality ingredients, and everything – from the design of the bottles with their crystal-embellished caps to the boxes and bags, even the font used for the lettering on their fronts – is bespoke to me. I want to create perfumes that will become a part of you. There is nothing more intimate, more personal, than one’s smell.
VA: You give many lectures, you train people about perfume and you also teach people how to ‘smell’. Have you observed changes in behavior in those you have trained and what are they?
RD: Training and learning about scent – particularly the work of The Fragrance Foundation – has allowed consumers to become informed connoisseurs, no longer prepared to accept what they are given. Attitudes have definitely changed. A generation brought up on a diet of olfactory banality and instant gratification has realised that what they thought was refined and luxurious was in fact mass–market and crass. They have discovered fragrances that convey their individuality, marking them out from the crowd, which they once so badly wanted to be part of.
VA: You are known as the “Greatest nose in the world”, as you are able to identify approximately 800 different scents. Did you develop your olfactive sense and how?
RD: What is a perfume? If each natural odor is a myriad of impressions, then a fragrance composition is like a multi-faceted diamond – each with its own distinctive personality. The creative perfumers’ skill to fashion each olfactory ‘diamond’ is the result of hard work and good memory (combined with imagination and, hopefully, good taste). Whilst such skill is certainly something that has to be learnt, one will only be great if blessed with an inherent aptitude for scent. This does not necessarily mean having the best-functioning sense of smell, but the ability to understand the power of perfume and how to manipulate its effects. I often draw a simile with playing the piano – one will be better off having had lessons than not, but without an inherent talent, one cannot be great, as greatness is not just about being technically-brilliant but about truly feeling your art. I trained using a box containing some of the world’s most precious materials. I would spend the day committing each odor to memory, ten per day, and in the classical way I started a book where I duly noted down my observations about each ingredient. I was taught how to truly understand an odor, through contrast and comparison. I try to show these rudimentary rules to students today, and see how they are too often blinded by the intellectual idea of an odor, rather than what their nose tells them they are smelling. It is the greatest lesson, learning that just because you have used all the ingredients you love that the scent will not smell wonderful. You need to use other materials to sublimate, and to offer the unexpected. I am lucky that I use the finest quality materials available when I work, and so I want to make sure that each material has space to breathe and is able to truly sing.
VA: What does a perfume tell you about a person?
RD: Perfume is your most intimate accessory. It is an extension of who you are, a reflection of your personality, and your personality has to take you everywhere. A lot of people put scents on that really don’t suit them and they don’t stop to think about it very much, because fragrance is something you cannot physically see. If you are a man and you’re looking in a mirror and can see the suit is showing off a fat stomach or slanty shoulders, or you are a woman and think something is too short or not short enough or pulls a little – you see it. With scent, you don’t. I spend so much of my time travelling – often I am in hotels and I seem to look at lift doors a lot. There’s suddenly this thing where the door opens and whoever is inside steps out and you see – for example – a man who is dressed as though he is trying to look like a slightly edgy but very successful businessman. You have registered him for a few seconds, and then he walks out of the lift as you enter. All that is left is the scent inside. So, if he is wearing a scent that is very commonplace, it does not match. There is a woman in the lift who is trying to come across as the big successful businesswoman and the scent she is wearing is this sugary, fruity thing – the sort of thing a 12-year-old girl would wear – so the image is destroyed. Make sure the style of scent you wear conveys the personality you are giving out.
VA: What is a typical day (if there is any) in the life of Roja Dove?
RD: No day is ever the same but when I am not in meetings I like to create. Whether it is the next scent for Roja Parfums, or a bespoke commission, I like to turn my phone off, close my laptop, and get lost in the magic of perfume.
... there is nothing more intimate, more personal, than one’s smell.``