The renowned “nose” Roja Dove spent almost 20 years at the French perfume house Guerlin, becoming the first global ambassador of the brand to emerge from outside of the tight-knit family. He began making his own bespoke scents for his commercial line, Roja Parfums, in 2011. He recently spoke to Polo Lifestyles’ Oksana Toussaint-Vig about the wonderful world of scents.
PL: Let’s start with the basics of selecting a scent; I know it’s the thing most readers ask about. What would be your starting points?
RD: The most important tip when buying a fragrance for yourself is to be thorough. If you smell fragrances freshly sprayed your nose will tire after the third one or so due to the alcohol content, which works like an anesthetic. Smelling the perfume on paper, when the alcohol has evaporated is the only sane way to try a fragrance. Spray a few options on blotter cards, taking note of the name, and smell them away from the perfumery. Compare each one to the next, eliminating the one you like least. Continue this process until you have only one. Then go back to the counter and spray it liberally on your skin, allowing it time to develop: If it is still intoxicating after 30 minutes, you’ve found your signature scent.
PL: A smell’s influence on people is very primal, how do you continue to innovate in perfumery without losing touch with those primal instincts?
RD: Fragrance has been used to change mood throughout history. It is one of the best things you can buy to make you feel good as each ingredient works on our subconscious, releasing hormones. Scent is one of the most fundamental parts of intimacy. It is the oldest scent in living organisms and we have it to fulfill three functions: find food, escape danger, and find a mate. When you first see someone you are attracted to, you instantly feel that magical frisson of excitement. As you get closer, you breathe in a little of their perfume and their olfactory tattoo is imprinted on your psyche. This is because we don’t smell with our nose, but with the most primitive part of the brain – the sense of smell being the most primitive of all the senses. When you smell a desirable fragrance on someone, the hormone balance in your body is stimulated and you subconsciously become attracted to them. This is precisely why I have always said that what we as Perfumers do is a little like Alchemy.
PL: What are your five favorite smells?
RD: Ambergris, Labdanum, Rose de Mai, Jasmin de Grasse and Orris.
PL: Scents and memories are so closely connected, how do you translate memories into fragrances?
RD: Invisible on our wrist, perfume can bring a tear to our eyes. It transports us back to the smells of our childhood – to the signature fragrance of our mothers. Scent is intangible. It can touch us, move us, and inspire our very being. It can transport us to an ethereal realm of memories and sensations. They work like a cat-burglar; they intrude 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.
PL: How do different travel destinations influence you as a person and the perfumes you make?
RD: One thing I really enjoy about traveling is to discover the origins and methods of obtaining the finest materials. For example, I worked for two weeks each month in the Middle East, for three whole years learning about Aoud. Largely unknown in the West at the time, I got to work closely with this ancient and precious ingredient in a very intimate way. I was so beguiled by the enchanting and exotic material that I decided to release an Aoud scent when I launched Roja Parfums. It proved such a hit that members of Middle Eastern royalty were literally fighting on the shop floor over who would get to be the last tester bottle. What this illustrates is that Aoud is notoriously tough to master, and this why I am delighted when my Middle Eastern clients say to me “How do you know our smell? This is how we like to smell.” It is the most flattering compliment of all, as a Westerner, to appease discerning Middle Eastern clientele. I believe the key to my Aoud’s being so well-received is because I took the time to really learn the intricacies of the material and to strive to do it justice in my own compositions by refusing to compromise on quality.
PL: What kind of perfume are you working on right now?
RD: I’ve just finished working on my first ever range of hair mists, which has been an exciting new venture. Last year, I released two body creams and had a lot of involvement with the formula, as I wanted it to be like a skin treatment that just happens to be scented, rather than just a bit of scented whatever. I have taken the same approach with the hair mists, ensuring they are as good for the hair as they smell; those should be out in the coming months.
PL: What’s the best achievement of your career?
RD: The GREAT Britain campaign was launched in 2012 to capitalize on the excitement and interest generated by the Diamond Jubilee and London Olympics and Paralympics. Since then, the campaign has grown and can now be seen in 144 countries worldwide and nearly 300 cities. In the UK, the campaign is helping British companies to access government services as well as helping them to export more. The GREAT Britain campaign showcases the best of what the UK has to offer to inspire the world and encourages people to visit, do business, invest and study in the UK. Being appointed as an Ambassador for GREAT Britain was one of the proudest moments of my life. Britain is indeed a creative nation, where imagination can flourish to create fragrances, films, music, design, food and literature that connect with people around the world.