In Conversation with Roja Dove
First published in the October 2013 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
Roja Dove is a fragrance expert, the world’s only Professeur de Parfums, no less, as well as a government-appointed ambassador for creative Britain and a globally renowned master perfumer. And yet, his only desire as a child was to go into medical research. ‘I’d learnt Russian. I wanted to live in Russia and to be a scientist,’ he tells me, utterly deadpan. He goes on to explain that despite such a dream, he had nevertheless always been intrigued by scent. ‘I was fascinated by this amber golden yellow liquid that could smell so different. It was like unleashing a genie! I spent all my pocket money buying scent.’
As Dove spins his tale of the path from Cambridge medical student to noted scentmeister, I note that his recall is littered with incredible detail: a perfume of his mother’s that he used to sneak into her room to sniff was kept not just in her bedroom, but in the bottom left-hand drawer of her dresser; he remembers the exact name of the press attaché at the famous French fragrance house of Guerlain to whom he first wrote after being given a pamphlet about the company aged 14; he ultimately ended up working for them for almost 20 years, recounting too that he resigned on a Wednesday and flew to New York the following Saturday. I can’t help but muse that such specificity must surely be tied into the art of being a nose and its attendant skill of sensing fractional nuances of ingredients in order to compose perfect scent combinations.
There’s something too about the extreme precision with which he is dressed, and adorned, that speaks of a very particular aesthetic sensibility. I take in his healthily tanned complexion, purple velvet jacket, the sparkly shirt buttons, and the generous sprinkling of diamond-encrusted or shiny gold rings on his fingers. The overall effect is rather splendid, quite theatrical, yet carefully considered and therefore just the right side of flamboyant. He converses easily, a supremely eloquent and practised raconteur, although he professes to be quite shy around people he doesn’t know. It does not add up to the demeanour of a medic, so I don’t think that career ever really stood a chance.
So back to Guerlain, for it was here that Dove learnt his true craft. ‘It was like opening an olfactory door to Narnia!’ he exclaims, explaining how after a 21st birthday visit to the flagship boutique on the Champs-Elysées, he began to besiege the company with questions about its history and creations. Eventually, as he puts it, they decided he’d be less of a nuisance inside the company than out. And so he was recruited, and charged with creating a fragrance training course. Such was his passion for the project that six years later he was ordained Professeur de Parfums. ‘I trained in a company a friend of mine describes as “The Vatican of perfumery”,’ he says. ‘I had access to expertise and materials most people only dream of!’ But after nearly two decades in those hallowed family halls, it was time to leave the nest. He flew on Halloween 2001, which was indeed a Wednesday: I checked.
He subsequently founded his own PR company, RDPR, in his home town of Brighton. And when I question why he went solo, he responds: ‘After working for a company like Guerlain, who can you work for?’ But there were links to his former guardian. An early client was the venerable French crystal company Baccarat, a long-time creator of delectable bottles for Guerlain, and run at the time by the former publishing director of French Vogue, Brigitte Bury. ‘I’ve always liked strong women,’ Dove adds as an aside. ‘I had a very strong mother. A real matriarch. She suffered no fools.’
He travelled extensively, lecturing, learning and continuing to share his enthusiasms while working with many of the top names in the industry. And yet it was still not obvious to him to concoct fragrance himself. But in 2004 he stepped closer to the notion by opening an Haute Parfumerie within Harrods’ Urban Retreat, which sells a ‘curated edit of the most perfect examples of a perfumer’s craft, including some perfumes that are no longer made,’ he says. Regardless, customers persisted in asking for a signature Dove scent. Eventually, he capitulated, crafting a limited-edition potion, sold only in 250ml bottles with no name or label, for no more than 50 people. It cost £1,000 a bottle, was not advertised, and sold out in record time. It was the beginning of his bespoke service. And ultimately, the push he needed to launch, three years later, his first trilogy of commercially available scents and the Roja Parfums brand proper, a line that now boasts ten evocative scents for women, four for men, five extraits – from lilac to vetiver – and five aouds (a fragrant resin), as well as seven extraordinarily luscious scented candles. Motivated by ‘a desire for true luxury in the perfume industry’, he uses only the highest-quality ingredients, and everything – from the design of the bottles with their glorious crystal-embellished caps to the boxes and bags, even the font used for the lettering on their fronts – is bespoke to him. He says he wanted to create ‘perfumes that become part of you’. Certainly, there is nothing so intimate, or personal, as one’s smell.
Scent can be both provocative and comforting, and it’s this power that Dove captures within a bottle. It’s no surprise, then, that his superior sniffs have climbed speedily to the number one-selling spots everywhere from London’s Harrods to Bergdorf’s in New York. ‘If I stop and think about it, it’s frightening,’ he confesses. ‘But it’s also exciting.’ And the secret of his success? ‘Nothing lets you down,’ he says. ‘Touch. Perception. Impression. The quality of the scent is palpable.’ Later he also admits, ‘I hate compromise. “It will do” will never do. I’m very self-critical.’ And on that note he takes his leave. Next on his agenda, the collection of a specially commissioned baby blue crocodile skin iPad cover. Only the best will do, a bit like his scents.
Tell me five words to describe yourself. I follow my own drumbeat.
What scent do you wear? Something I make for myself.
What’s your idea of a perfect day? It would start with a lazy breakfast on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean on a day with no appointments. So much of my life is scheduled; the ultimate luxury is having time to myself.
What keeps you awake at night? Conflict or upset. And my latest men’s fragrance: it took 16 months.
You’re hosting a fantasy dinner party, and you can choose five famous guests from the past or present. Who would you invite? Tchaikovsky: how can someone carry the pain and anguish he seemed to carry? Mae West: her wit was fabulous. Jacques Guerlain, the greatest poet the fragrance industry has ever known. Germaine Cellier: I’d like to know her story; she is the unsung heroine of the perfume world. And Bette Davis: I love her acerbic humour.
What talent would you most like to have? To be able to play the piano.
Do you collect anything? Yes, decorative arts, glass and ceramics from the 1920s and 30s.
Are you religious? I don’t believe in organised religion but I believe in God, whatever that is.
Do you have any pets? A Siamese cat called Missy, because we knew she’d grow up to be a Madame. She spits at people she doesn’t like.
What do you think you’d taste like? Like a sweet cake – a very rich sponge cake of some sort.
If you were an animal, what would you be? A cocker spaniel, or a poodle.
Do you believe in luck? I think you create your own luck. Most success comes from having a clear idea and understanding of something and some inherent talent. I’m very intuitive and sensitive.
What star sign are you? I’m a classic Libra: I love beauty, hate injustice and I’m very decisive until I can’t make up my mind.
Do you have a motto? It’s from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’