Roja Dove is one of the world's most famous perfumers. An Englishman with an intriguing name and even more intriguing career, he first entered the perfumery world at the Belle Epoque Guerlain boutique on the Champs-Elysees, Paris. After working with other people for a number of years he eventually opened his own shop Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie at Harrods in London offering a truly exclusive range of the most exquisite and expensive fragrances from all over the world. Using an original method in his choice of scents where each ingredient conveys a person's uniqueness and character, Roja Dove is able to create or select the ideal fragrance for an individual. A consultation costs ‡200 an hour but what's money when you have a top expert in the realm of fragrances working for you?
Do you remember when the idea of becoming a perfumer first occurred to you?
The first association is connected with my mother. She was leaving for a cocktail party and came into my room to wish me a good night. She was wearing a dress made of gold lame. The light behind her made her dress shimmer in the dark. The smell of her face powder and her scent has stayed with me forever. Mum had many friends from France who when they visited would always bring a bottle of perfume. I would sneak into her room and smell them. At 14, I started going to the perfumeries. Sometimes I managed to save just enough of my pocket money to buy a very small bottle. Back then, there were only several famous scents and the main range of perfumes differed from one shop to another. At 16, I saw a show card in a shop window in Chichester saying that Guerlain had been making beautiful scents since 1828. When you're 16 it is very difficult to understand that a perfume can be that old. The woman in the shop was very kind and gave me a few scents to smell and I left with a tiny bottle. When I came back next time with some questions she advised me to write to Guerlain, and so I did. To my great surprise I received a reply. I soon started collecting rare scents by Guerlain: those that weren't made any more. I was going to make a career in medical research but then destiny interfered. A woman I knew from Oxford became a managing director of Guerlain. Michael Guerlain asked her to give me a job as he was fed up of receiving faxes from Guerlain's subsidiaries asking if they could have more of this or that old smell because I was asking for it. His idea was that if I were in the company I would be less of a nuisance.
How did you start your own brand?
Once I was offered to create a bespoke fragrance for an important charity auction to be held at Christy's. I called Baccarat and asked them to recreate a beautiful bottle of 1925. We auctioned only the empty bottle: I created the fragrance just for that buyer later. Among the lots were shoes individually made for the bidder by Manolo Blahnik and a new Mercedes sports car but my fragrance managed to fetch the most money. Then I realised that there were people in this world who were really interested in perfumes and ready to pay a high price for the product. I noticed that clients wanted quality. The market has been occupied by several corporations and two of them make detergents. What do they know about the perfume? In my shop you can buy only the best samples of the art of perfumery. I can do a consultation for you and choose the best scent that would fit like a glove. We recognise smells with our brains, not our noses. Each smell is associated with a certain event in your life, so your perception of smell is as unique as your fingerprints. During the consultation I offer you scents and describe each of them with a special (and patented!) language, trying to unlock your memories and understand your perception.
But you can create a bespoke fragrance as well, can't you?
When you want a bespoke fragrance I come to you with a special suitcase that contains a whole library of smells. I give you one after another and you describe what you like and what you don't, and I write it down. It can be a very emotional process for some people as fragrances trigger memories. It gives me in the end a feeling for exactly what you like and what you dislike. From the information you give me I get the blueprint and start mixing and usually come up with from two to four scents, and those I present to a client. Sometimes I make adjustments: very often they like the first one.
How much do your fragrances cost?
They are usually from Ј20,000 - Ј30,000. The notion of something «expensive» is relative: I don't know anything in life that is truly a luxury product and made of cheap ingredients. A kilo of the jasmine I use costs me Ј28,000. You can buy a kilo of natural jasmine for Ј100. It's expensive but some of the inexpensive fragrances are not worth their price ticket on a bottle because what's inside has no quality. How many people will have the same fragrance as you? Millions! If you make 50 pence on each bottle, then after selling a million bottles you'll make half a million pounds. It takes very little time to make a commercial perfume: I could do it in two days. The rest is marketing.
Who are your clients normally?
The majority are people who can afford anything they wish. They often want something that's not mainstream. They know their status and don't want to show off their wealth. When it comes to perfumes, they want something that is an expression of themselves and I give that. We had no idea if this perfumery would work but the clients fly in from all around the world. It's like a special club: you either know about it or you don't.
If people's feelings and emotions differ that much, how is it that one perfume becomes popular with so many people?
The part of the brain that people use when they buy a new perfume now is not the emotional one that's responsible for processing the smell but the rational one. They buy a new Dolce and Gabbana smell, a new Dior, a new Chanel. They buy brands, not scents because it is hot: marketers told them so!
Do you agree that certain perfumes can attract people emotionally?
Not emotionally but sexually. For example, let's take the natural smell of vanilla which is known as a psychogenic aphrodisiac as it affects the part of the central nervous system that enhances the feeling of pleasure. If you look okay and wear it, the scent of vanilla would make you look even more okay.
It would be more pleasurable to be with you. A person might fall in love not with you but with your odour and what it could give him.
I'm sure you've read Suskind's book «Perfume». What you think of it? Is it possible to create a scent of love?
Smell is the first feeling that develops in living organisms. Even amoebas find each other with the help of the pheromones they release. The idea that someone can be obsessed by the perfect scent of a person is phenomenal. When you make love with someone for the first time something interesting happens after you leave them: their smell stays with you. And as your hand passes your nose it makes you feel nice because you remember what happened. But through familiarity it later fades away. So the idea of trying to capture the smell of all these lovers could become the ultimate obsession. The most extraordinary thing is how well the author researched for the book: there are some processes and technical aspects described in «Perfume» most people haven't heard of and aren't done any more.
You've simultaneously launched three different fragrances. What scents are they based on and what sort of people would like them?
I've always believed there are three families of perfume: floral, chypre, and oriental. I believe people like the smell from one family and not the other two generally. So, I've created a perfume of each type with a fragrance to suit every taste. «Scandal» is a big floral perfume with tuberose as its main theme. It's the most expensive floral oil used in perfumery now. It's not heavy or sticky: it's very feminine and luxuriant. The name «Scandal» comes from white blossoms: they contain animal notes. When you smell it, your rational part will process it as flowers and your subconscious will think «sex». If anyone understood what happened it would be a scandal. «Unspoken» is the name for a chypre perfume with lots of jasmine in it. It's for women who know what they want and get it. This perfume is subtle, just like when you've caught someone's eye but you wouldn't say a word. Hopefully, this perfume could do it for you. «Enslaved» is an oriental perfume. It has vanilla and coumarin in its base which I wanted to disguise. One of meanings of the word «enslaved» is to be a prisoner of love. I hope a woman can become a prisoner of this scent and someone who is next to her will become a prisoner of her love and scent.
Have you noticed that people in different countries like different perfumes?
The English are traditionally very understated and discreet as a nation. The style of fragrances that have been most popular here are chypre. The French have hotter blood, so the more expressive and oriental perfumes are more popular with them. For the English these are often too showy. If you go to Japan, they have no tradition of wearing a perfume. Their culture is based on water, on the smell of a clean body. So, they like giving presents of fragrances but don't wear them. The young generation, having no experience but enjoying this Western tradition, loves unsophisticated, sweet and floral tastes because their palate is not developed yet.
Do you have students?
I always thought someone would become my apprentice but it hasn't happened. There are the people who work with me and they are lovely but I'm not sure if it will happen at all. So I've started writing a book. I'd been asked to six times and refused. It should come out next September. I love sharing knowledge. After all, I was lucky to learn from other people and maybe someone will need my help.