The perfume industry is powerful globally and our personal choices in this space say a great deal about us as individuals. I must admit I am a loyal fan of Chanel No. 5 and rarely venture to test new fragrances, but when I do, visiting my November Man of Substance – the perfumier Roja Dove – in his beautiful perfumery in Harrods is certainly a treat. I met Roja many years ago and was inspired by his energy and undying passion for the art of perfume - and his talented nose! As we approach the party and gifting season, perfume is on our minds. I asked if Roja would share his journey through life with us.
Roja, you have always talked to me warmly about your mother and how she was the inspiration behind your love of fragrance from a young age. What was the moment when you discovered this was the industry for you?
I remember vividly my mother coming to kiss me goodnight when I was about 6 years old. She was standing in the doorway of my bedroom wearing a gold lame cocktail dress, the light from the landing coming over her as if she had a corona around her. I remember the smell of her face powder and scent as if it had just happened. I always thought that was my earliest recollection of scent, until a woman called Vera Strubi – who was the head of Thierry Mugler perfumes – commissioned two young perfumers to work on a really esoteric project to create the smells from the book Perfume by Patrick Suskind, which was just going to become a film. They called me to their offices to show me what they’d come up with and suddenly there was this smell under my nose that was really familiar but that I was nonplussed by. I suddenly realised that it reminded me of when I was a little child and used to have reigns put on me that had a leather strap that I used to love chewing. It was the smell of wet leather, which was an even earlier scent memory. Also, my mother had a friend who lived in Paris who would buy her bottles of cologne, and I don’t think she liked them because they were always kept in the bottom left-hand drawer of her dressing table. When I was 9 or 10 I used to steal into her bedroom and open this drawer, which I knew was totally forbidden, and then I would open the box, un-stopper the bottle, and if I was really feeling reckless I would take a tiny touch of it. I knew I’d get into trouble but the allure of the scent was stronger than the fear of retribution.
You are known as the 'ultimate nose for redefining luxury and creativity in the world of perfumery'. What does fragrance mean to you?
When I pay up to ten times the price of gold for a raw material there is a reason: A scent is the sum of the contents in the bottle – if a scent is made using cheap raw materials it will smell that way. I use the finest quality materials available, such as jasmine from Grasse which takes five million flowers (hand-picked) to produce one kilo worth £32,000. I strongly believe that if you are going to do something, then do it properly, my motto: ‘it will do will never do’. The finest ingredients produce the finest fragrances, it is as simple as that. For someone who wants to smell good, and individual, then price is no issue, and my clients smell this difference. Within a few weeks of the launch of my brand in Harrods, we became the third best-selling brand. There will always be a market for luxury fragrance.
Working with Guerlain must have been an incredible experience, particularly as you started at entry-level and worked your way up to the privileged position of Global Ambassador. What lessons did you learn there and how have you used those in your own businesses?
It was extremely special due to the fact I was the first person from outside of the Guerlain family to represent the brand. The greatest creative perfumer of all time was Jacques Guerlain, the grandfather of my mentor Jean-Paul Guerlain; you don’t become the greatest without reason. I learned from him to be creative and adventurous with scent, but to also do it to the highest quality possibly available. The beauty of working for Guerlain for (just shy of) 20 years was that it enabled me to carve myself an influence within the industry and consequently opened many doors thereafter. When the company was bought out by the Louis Vuitton group, I felt it time to move on as some changes I didn’t necessarily agree with.
How inspiring to work with so many international luxury brands in so many countries. Please do share just one special story with us from your world travels.
I was invited by Mr. Mohamad Al Fahim to visit Dubai for two weeks every month for a three year period to explore Oud, which was a special experience as we spent little time on this rare material when I was training as a perfumer. It wasn’t fashionable at the time, but has become very popular in the West recently due to the development of Dubai as a tourist destination. Middle Eastern clients tell me they cannot smell the oud in these Western fragrances, or that it is very badly pronounced. This lengthy visit allowed me to understand Oud to the highest degree possible and now Arabs can hardly believe that the Roja Parfums Aoud fragrances are created by a Western perfumer. It is especially rewarding to know that my travels/travails have paid off: My Ouds are Harrods’ bestselling beauty product and we also supply almost every royal household in the Middle East.
Your recent appointment as the Ambassador for Britain for your industry is a very special role – congratulations. Do tell us what is involved.
Thank you - It is a very humbling accolade. My role is to stand as the ambassador for creativity: The campaign exemplifies the best of British creativity, aimed to inspire the world to rediscover what is great about Britain (as a creative nation) and to attract investment and visitors as a result. Although we are home to less than one per cent of the world’s population, the UK has one of the largest creative industries sectors in the world. It is a place where imagination can flourish to create things that connect with people around the world. I have been lucky in that the nature of my job allows me to travel and to pursue international influence; the campaign allows me to forthrightly stand for my love of bringing creativity to other countries, and likewise bringing that back to my motherland. It is wonderful that perfumery has been chosen as the industry to represent creativity; it is an honour to figurehead a campaign that gives a platform to talk about how innovative this country has always been and how there is a huge renaissance happening within British perfumery.
As the personal perfumer to elegant women all around the world, what would be your top selection of Winser London clothes for them?
With Autumn brewing in the air, it would have to be anything from the new cashmere collection. What other than fur defines the epitome of luxurious clothing for cold weather than cashmere? It’s lightweight enough and the range comes in light enough colours for a tasteful transition into Autumn.