The Power of Perfume – Roja Dove

He has likened shopping for scent to dating, in that you want an idea of what is out there before committing to ‘The One’. With a passion for perfume perfection, award-winning master perfumer, Roja Dove, coined the term ‘Haute Parfumerie’ on opening what has become the most influential and luxurious perfumery in the world – The Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie in London’s Harrods, ‘the greatest department store on earth’.

The charismatic perfume expert talks to Angela Sara West about his nose for business, the lavish scents and bespoke fragrances he creates at his eponymous boutique and his commission by Laurent Perrier to create a candle for the quintessentially English event, The Chelsea Flower Show.

When it comes to nostalgia, perfumes are up there for evoking memories. It’s said that fragrance is not only intensely personal and subjective, but interpretive. Who better to take you on an aromatic journey of discovery than the perfume master himself, Roja Dove, famous for his incredible ability to identify over 800 different scents blindfolded. If anyone ‘nose’, he ‘nose’!

Roja Dove

Boasting a reputation that has enticed prestigious global institutions, including Rolls-Royce and Fabergé, the Sussex-born fragrance specialist’s style epitomises indulgent luxury. His eponymous perfume line, Roja Parfums, is stocked in department stores all over the world.

The perfumer owes his phenomenal success to his mother, who sparked his lifelong interest and exquisite taste in perfume. “I had a very happy childhood with my parents and brother and sister and was always very close to my mother throughout her life. She was an incredibly warm person who was always a lot of fun and very positive. She taught me how to be a kind and creative character who should always follow their dreams.”

He says his love of both perfume and jewelry is down to her. ”She always wore L’Aimant from Coty and without this scent I wouldn’t have lived the life that I have. That’s quite a powerful thing to say but it’s true. I fell in love with this perfume when I smelt it on her one evening when I was a small boy. She was going out to a cocktail party and was wearing a gold Lamé dress. As she came in to kiss me goodnight, the light from the hallway created a corona around her and transformed her into this ethereal figure whose scent lingered in my room long after she left. From that moment, I was put on a path that I was born to walk down. Roja Parfums would not exist without that particular scent memory.”

Learning at Guerlain  As a perfume obsessive, he discovered he had a natural talent. “I engaged with these golden elixirs, simply because it was something I was extremely invested in.” He then discovered the work of Guerlain, and his intrigue grew even stronger. “Guerlain had an advertisement in a shop window showing couples dressed in period clothing with a date below: Jicky 1889, L’Heure Bleue 1912. I found it incomprehensible that these perfumes were so ancient, enticing me into the shop to learn more.”

Roja became fascinated with the history behind both the scents and the house. “I would write to Guerlain so often, asking so many questions, that eventually they decided I would be less of a nuisance from within the company! I was offered the opportunity to design a perfumery training course for them. They knew I had an interest in it so they took the risk and allowed me to go forth with it.”Roja Dove perfumes

He worked at the prestigious company for almost 20 years and became the company’s first global ambassador outside of the family name. Working with some of the industry’s most famous noses, he himself became one of the most respected perfume experts in the world. “It was then bought by a very large corporation in 2001, and I am simply not a corporation kind of person. So, I left on Halloween 2001, which I thought was the perfect date to leave as it appealed to my humor! I started my own firm the very next day.”

With a nose for business, he set up his own bespoke perfume service, which came about in a rather organic way. “Right after leaving Guerlain, I was asked by the Terrence Higgins Trust if I would offer up a scent for their annual charity auction. I have always loved to do what I can for a good cause so, of course, I obliged. However, I didn’t want to just make a scent and put it up to bid on, as how would I know who likes the scent?” 

He therefore commissioned Lalique to hand blow a very special bottle, which he then sent to the auction… empty. “It seems a little bizarre but the intent was that whoever won would then have a perfume handmade to their specification by me. It was the highest-grossing entry at the auction, making more money than a brand new sports car and a tropical holiday for six people, which I was thrilled by! When the scent had been made for the highest bidder, their partner then decided they wanted one for themselves… and my bespoke service was born.”

Heaven in Harrods In 2004, he launched his haute-parfumerie boutique, the first of its kind, in Harrods, the store he refers to as the ‘spiritual home’ of his perfume brand. The perfumer’s captivating treasure trove of the world’s most famous, rare, significant and historically-important scents is opulently adorned with antique furnishings, mirrors, silk and crystal.

In 2011, he created H – The Exclusive Aoud, to celebrate the official launch of his brand Roja Parfums and his long-term collaboration with the high-end department store. “I was terrified on launch day because I had sunk my entire life savings into this project. Much to my relief, our entire stock for six months sold out within a matter of days, and continued to sell out each day for a long time. We were quite literally making as many bottles as we could in a day and carrying them straight into the store to be sold again. It really was rather funny now that I look back! I created three specific H fragrances for Harrods to celebrate our special relationship.”

Roja’s launch was the most successful in Harrods’ history, and he remains their best-selling perfume brand today.

Unlock your perfume personality! Want to discover your perfect signature fragrance? Roja’s Maître de Consultation offers private, personal fragrance consultations in Roja’s Salon de Parfum. “My Odour Profiling is a process I created myself and copyrighted. It’s a specific way of digging down into the client’s olfactive fingerprint and matching them with their perfect fragrance.” The hour-long Odor-Profiling technique takes the approach Roja uses with his bespoke work – finding the fragrance that is best matched to the individual. “Clients’ perceptions of scent are revolutionized, as it is very much an interactive learning experience. The service is also available at my flagship boutique in the Burlington Arcade.”

Roja Dove A labor of love… The actual scent-making process can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete. “When I am working on a perfume, I am working at it constantly, and often on many at a time. I like to keep coming back to a scent to ensure it is not rushed and that I am happy with it under different mind frames.”

Roja only works with the finest-quality raw materials, some of which require harvesting at very specific times. “My personal mantra is that if you are going to do anything, why not do it properly? The rose I use comes from Grasse in the South of France. It takes 308,000 flowers to make just one kilo of oil, and these flowers can only be harvested before noon in the month of May. A kilo starts at £35,000 to purchase and therefore very few perfumes use this precious oil. And yet, I make a candle out of it…”

Cool, fresh, fruity, powdery, sweet… the premium perfumer explains that the top, heart and base notes are an easy way of identifying where each ingredient sits in the composition of a perfume. “If you imagine a perfume like a triangle, the top notes are the apex. These are higher up in the nose and more diffusive, which means they evaporate away from the perfume quickest. Top notes are typically citrus materials, heart notes tend to involve flowers and fruits, while base notes sit at the bottom of the triangle. These are less diffusive notes, like leathers and woods and balsams, which stay on the skin for much longer. This is what it means when a perfume changes over time – the notes fall away one after the other, starting at the top of the triangle and working their way down.” 

Memories & mood…So, what’s the science behind wearing a fragrance? How does a scent work as a memory evoker and mood enhancer? “Fragrance has been used to change mood since antiquity, which is why smell is the most profound of all the senses. A scent is one of the best things you can buy to make you feel good as each odor stimulates the synapses, which release hormones that govern every bodily function or action, giving us energy, lifting us from glumness or enhancing sensations of pleasure.”

“Scent is transformative… When we smell vanilla, it triggers a sense of comfort within us, whilst citrus notes revive and uplift us. Scent has the power to make one think, feel, or even do. Fragrance is an extension of the soul.”

He says odors work like a cat-burglar, intruding unannounced into our minds and soul. “When revisited, they unlock the floodgates of memories and emotions, leaving a profound imprint in our mind. Scent is like a portal to some place inside us that contains risk and revelation. Smell brings everything into technicolor; it is the most intimate of the senses.”

For those with an acute sense of smell, is there a risk of sensory overload? “Oh, completely! London can be such a cacophony of scent that one small section of a pavement can smell different to the next. I simply cannot travel on the tube!”

“It’s amazing how many people have no idea what they are smelling when they aren’t presented with marketing, visuals, or simply being told. Most people struggle to even say what a lone ingredient is when they are smelling it. Because of my work – and I have been doing this for a very long time – I am able to identify many perfumes and notes instantly. It took a lot of work to commit scents to memory and create my ‘olfactive rolodex’.”

According to Roja, nobody has a particularly extraordinary olfactive talent – some just have more sensitive noses than others. As one of the most significant ‘noses’ of this century, he worked hard to refine his sense of smell, learning each of the raw materials and hundreds upon hundreds of perfume references by heart. “What really enables you to be a ‘nose’ is practice. I always compare it to a singer or a dancer; they may have a natural gift for rhythm or pitch, but what really refines the talent is practice.”

What can we do to enhance our sense of smell, train our noses to enjoy more scents and what are his tips for readers looking to make their mark in the perfume industry? “Practice, practice, practice. The best way to really understand a scent or a perfume is to smell it in comparison to another. That way, the nuances of each will come to the fore and you will be able to pick out styles and notes more distinctly. Smell things on card, away from the perfumery hall, and spend time with each scent under your nose to allow the ingredients to pop out at you. Read the olfactive descriptions and notes to help you along, join online fragrance communities and invest in discovery atomizers and libraries. Immerse yourself in as much scent as you can. It’s like writing an essay; you wouldn’t do it without reading a hundred essays yourself.”

Flower power! Roja once collaborated with the Duchess of Devonshire to create a very special candle for the Chelsea Flower Show. “I tend to do a candle with the Champagne brand, Laurent-Perrier, each year and this was a limited edition. I worked with Her Grace’s gardener, learnt about all the incredible plants in her garden at Chatsworth Estate and incorporated these oils into a candle for their entry at the Chelsea Flower Show. Such fun!”

His favorite flowers? “I love white flowers. Because they have no colorr, they need to attract pollinators in another way, so they compensate in scent. White flowers contain a particular molecule called indole, and flowers like jasmine are incredibly sensual. I like this rather risqué floral fact.” 

Roja reveals many of his clients have become his friends but, naturally, is discreet about his discerning clientele. “Even the people I work the most closely with do not know. The clients that come to me for my bespoke work come for a very specific service. It is a very personal process as I am finding out every detail of their lives. It’s a bit like a doctor’s confidentiality oath, except that many clients say that coming to see me is like seeing a therapist!”

Roja Dove perfumes

Roja Parfums boasts a particularly special trio of fragrances, the Haute Luxe Collection. “Each scent is a particular story that is personal to me, so these are, without doubt, my favourites. ROJA is simply the fragrance I made for myself, A Goodnight Kiss captures the moment I fell in love with fragrance and Great Britain is my homage to my country, for which I was made an ambassador for The GREAT Campaign – the biggest honor of my life.” 

The Fragrance Foundation has also recognized Roja for his contribution, dedication and passion for the industry.

Inhaling inspiration… Roja travels the world for his work and even spent six months a year for three years in the Middle East, learning about their ancient ingredient, Oud. “Few perfumers have enjoyed that experience and it is a massive complement when Middle Eastern clients ask ‘How do you know our smell?’, because that means I have done the ingredient the utmost justice.”

His inspiration is derived from the myriad of people and places, among other things, he encounters around the globe. “This can find its form in anything from a word or story, to a place or concept. I am constantly inspired… I am very lucky to travel so much and therefore be exposed to the beauty the world has to offer.” 

Roja says he takes the utmost care in communicating his brand. “I travel the world visiting Roja Parfums stockists and train any staff that represent me to ensure that, wherever in the world you go, the same message of my brand is being communicated. I go through everything from the materials I work with, to the scents in my collection and the stories behind them. This is a very important thing for me to do because my brand is very much a part of me and is privately owned and self-funded by me. What people really respond well to about my work is that it is personable and feels real, made by a real perfumer.” 

When he’s not on the road, Roja spends Tuesdays to Thursdays at his beautiful flat in London’s Mayfair, catching up with friends, holding business meetings and working on fragrances. His head office is in bustling Brighton on the south coast, where he spends Fridays and Mondays working with his team and enjoys resting at weekends.

How does he see the perfume industry evolving and where does he see himself, and his wonderful perfume brand, in five years’ time? “I hope that Roja Parfums remains a name that people associate with the ultimate example of fine fragrance. It has grown at such an alarming rate thus far that day-by-day, I struggle to fathom how it can grow further, yet it just continues to. The perfume industry is a fascinating thing… we are past the time of the next big blockbuster or celebrity scent and are very much in a time where the public want fragrances of quality, creativity and individuality. Small, niche and luxury brands are having continued success, but I do wonder if this might alter at some point as the conglomerates have bought up most of these names.”

So, was Coco Chanel right when she said ‘The sense of smell is the only one that is still instinctive. It lives on nostalgia, the subconscious’? “Completely!”