Antonia Pearce meets Roja Dove to discuss jasmine from Grasse, Diaghilev, the Suffragettes, perfume personalities and the art of taste without ego….
I am welcomed into Roja Dove’s elegant London town house and am immediately struck by the absence of scent. Instead, the man himself (wearing a black suit with diamond buttons on the cuff) allures, enchants and entertains me with an ‘‘insider’s guide’’ to the world of haute perfume without so much as a sniff!
Had I wanted, I could have smelt a full bouquet of scents – as I am sitting next to a bespoke orgue à parfum or perfumery organ, if you will. Dove had his portable perfumery organ made by British luxury brand, Dunhill….
“Bespoke fragrances are the bulk of my work – I have clients all over the world. To cart a piece of furniture around was not really practical so I decided to commission a portable organ.”
The organ has all the raw materials Dove requires when he works, and are arranged in a very specific way, from the most volatile raw materials (top notes) down to the basenotes or fixatives.
Dove points to the jasmine. “The jasmine I use is from Grasse – which has a very specific odour,” he says. “It takes 5 million flowers to produce one kilo of oil. I pay around £32,000 a kilo.”
Is it all about the quality of the ingredients?
I always find it interesting when people talk about body oils or skin care, and talk about it being natural. My first inclination would be to question the quality. The jasmine I use is a different raw material all together. For a great fragrance, you need the very finest raw materials. I often make a comparison with cooking. If you buy cheap ingredients, however great a cook you are, you will never make a good dish. Whereas, if you buy the very finest things, you can make something utterly delicious.
So perfumery is the same?
If you take some of the greatest perfumes in the world, such as Quelques Fleurs l’Original by Houbigant (1912), which you could argue are the most important perfumes ever to be made. They have very short formulas – with less than 20 ingredients in them. Perfumes like Chanel No5 or the new Tom Ford White Musk could not exist without Quelques Fleurs. These are very important scents because of the quality of the ingredients and the quality of the creator’s imagination and skill.
You are one of the most respected ‘‘noses’’ in the industry – what makes a great nose?
Patience, imagination, and hopefully, good taste!
Why is perfume important?
The sense of smell is the oldest of all the senses. When we are born, we have no preconceptions of good or bad smells – we learn our reactions to smell, depending on what happens to us the first time we smell something. This memory or association is locked away in one of the most primitive parts of the brain; when we re-smell the odour, the memory associated with it comes flooding back. Our responses to odours are as unique as our fingerprints. This ‘‘fingerprint’’ is developed by the time we are around twelve to fourteen years old – the time we would refer to as our formative years – so there is a direct correlation between our personality and our taste in scents. It is essential to understand that we smell nothing with our noses; they act as a conduit to allow air into our bodies along with all the odours suspended within it. The odours stimulate the synapses, which release hormones – hormones govern all bodily functions. So it is true to say that scents have the ability to affect us in the most fundamental way.
For many, a perfume is an access point into the world of a luxury brand – would you agree?
This is a perceived luxury. I believe very strongly that the power of marketing makes many products be perceived as luxurious when they are not. They are mass produced scents. If I think of my ultra-refined clients – they have dresses made for them, they have luggage made for them, they don’t want to go and buy a brand. They are self-assured enough to trust that their own taste is good enough. You should never buy fragrance as a gift for anyone. It is too personal – it is too subjective. When I listen to people selling scent, one of the first questions they will ask is “how old is she?” and I think, well what does that mean?! That every twenty year old is one way and every sixty year old is another way? If you know you have been swayed, that is totally different. I love going into a store and really being sold to – if someone is very clever at it!
What is your favourite perfume of the moment?
I adore the new house of Atelier Flou. Its founder owned Balenciaga before selling it to Gucci Group; the perfumer used to work with Guerlain and Chanel – so not a bad pedigree. I was honoured when they asked if I would like to stock it in my Haute Parfumerie in Harrods as a global exclusive. Of their scents, I love the soft understated sensuality of Paradis Paradis for women, and for men Eau D’Aviator.
What do you think about the rise of the celebrity perfume?
Well, I think that society is fixated by it. This is the media’s fault. Everything is about what somebody else is doing – it is of the moment. I think that the current recession has made the whole celebrity thing slow right down. People are starting to go out and try and find a scent that is completely theirs. You can do that through a mainstream brand. Part of the success of Tom Ford’s private blends (which have been a phenomenon in the market) is due to the fact that people can go to a collection and find the one that is right for them. You have that process of selection whilst still buying into a brand.
You are also a training guru. Can someone be educated in scent or is it something you’re born with?
We can all improve our sense of smell, and within one day the amount you can progress someone is always a huge surprise. As with all creative spheres, you will only ever be great if you were blessed with a natural aptitude towards it.
Have you found a protégée?
I always hoped that I would but I have not. A lot of what I know is anecdotal so instead I wrote a book. The perfume industry has changed exponentially. When I joined, whilst it was still an enormous industry, it was full of many private firms. Today through globalisation, you have basically five companies that own everything. This has changed the way scents are made. So few of the characters that shaped the industry are alive today. However, there is a backlash. There are some fabulous characters coming into the industry. Somebody like Linda Pilkington who owns Ormonde Jayne is a perfect example. She is great because she bangs her own drum. The consumer is fed up of the banality. I think that most scents that come on the market are utterly banal.
What is a fragrance fitting and how do you create a bespoke scent for an individual?
It is about trying to unravel someone’s olfactory taste. People cannot describe what they want and tend to use emotional language: one of the most common things you hear is, “don’t give me anything strong.” That is of no help at all – what is a strong smell? Generally, something you don’t like. The Odour Profiling I have developed helps unravel someone’s olfactory taste and in doing so, helps find a scent for the individual and not the ego.
Tell me about your work with the Victoria & Albert Museum….
Two years ago, I did a talk for the exhibition ‘‘Couture, The Golden Age’’ – with Dior and Balenciaga shaping the new future of fashion after the war. The talk was over-subscribed and apparently (although you are not meant to talk to me about these things), it was the most successful and well-received of all the talks! Whilst there, I was asked about the veracity of the story that the artist, Diaghilev, used to perfume his drapes when he travelled. I said, absolutely. He always used the same scent – Guerlain Mitsouko. We began thinking about the ways in which we could incorporate scent into the exhibition. It was proposed that we scent the exhibition rooms. Diaghilev was a great force majeure and we began to think that the first room could be that of belle époque Paris! I enjoy looking at perfume in terms of its socio-economic context. For example, the Suffrage Movement in Sweden and Britain. Women had just won the vote in both countries and Coty picked up on this and created a scent called Chypré. The perfume was made for le petit garcon and took its creative route from what are considered masculine materials. Meanwhile, Chanel began making dresses out of jersey (previously only used for men’s underwear) and the Edwardian hair was being replaced with the bob! But as the exhibition moves through to the work of Picasso, you would start to use a perfume rich in aldehydes. They were very obviously chemicals which is the basis of Chanel No5 – big synthetic chemicals – that was the point of it. It was modern and it was not like a bunch of flowers. It was revolutionary! [Unfortunately, the plan to perfume the gallery space was not in-keeping with the protective instincts of the curators and so instead the V&A began talking to Dove about creating a scent that captured the spirit of Diaghilev and that time]. I believe that it is the first time a scent has been commissioned for an exhibition. In December, I will present a workshop about how to apply scent and then speak about Diaghilev and his influence on perfumery.