Perfume is poetry in motion. Bounded by nature, and created through a language of silence and unspoken words, it’s an elusive universe, an exclusive one, invisible yet ever present, and directly linked to emotion, memory and nostalgia. Requiring a sensibility that surpasses most mere mortals, it comes as no surprise that the world has more astronauts than perfumers, making them a very rare breed indeed.
But even amongst royalty there has to be a monarch, and in this most exclusive of worlds, the very desirable title belongs to Brighton-born, Grasse-trained, Guerlain-blossomed Roja Dove, the world’s leading perfume expert.
Sitting elegantly in his Mayfair apartment, Roja – the first non-family member to be chosen as the French company’s global Ambassador – fits in perfectly with the pale and beautiful surroundings, made of exquisite items such as the antique perfume bottles he has acquired over the years.
Having begun his craft at the House of Guerlain aged 21 – after studying Medicine at Cambridge for a few years – his near obsession with scent comes from an early age, when his mother, his eternal muse, used to kiss him good night, leaving the smell of face powder and perfume behind. This memory has had an indelible impact in Roja’s sensory development, and shaped both his life and work ever since. Where this is more noticeable is in his approach to scent psychology, or Odor Profiling, which reveals that all individuals are born free of a smell identity and, from responses to a plethora of smells experienced throughout youth – up until 12 years of age – one’s unique sensory fingerprint is set. Upon reaching this olfactory maturity, scent presents itself as directly linked to one’s psychological responses, thus the way particular smells never fail to makes us travel, in space and time, to moments in our lives, both dear or unpleasant. As in taste, our brains process smell through chemoreception, a biological recognition system of chemical stimuli in the environment, and which in its third and last stage – called signalling – transforms the now recognised stimuli into a physiological or behavioral response. Such is the power of olfaction in our brains that smell can actually have an impact on mental health: ‘‘The people who are doing the most work on odour in the world at the moment are the University of Japan. Because we don’t smell with our nose but with our brain, they’ve managed to take people – who were hospitalized through depression and almost on medical straight jackets – off all forms of medication just through smell”.
Although this vast knowledge on scent science is very much present in his speech, Roja’s approach to work comes from a 100% creative standpoint, and not a scientific one. One could even say his process is both slightly intellectual and highly emotional, and one he dearly enjoys mostly due to the quiet impact it has on people’s lives: “The thing I love about perfume is it is non-judgemental, and one of the very few things in the world which ignores age, colour, gender, or creed, making somebody dream and removing him or her from the everyday”. When asked about which smell would sum up his own life, Roja easily elects the very rare ambergris, a greyish solid waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and then regurgitated. Comparing its smell to that of one’s skin after contact with something warm and enveloping – such as a scarf – it’s a rather rare raw material to come across, and so very aesthetically pleasing to the perfumer, he would like to be buried in it.

Back in the land of the living, eight years ago Harrods invited Roja for a cup of tea, and in between sips made a proposition that shocked him: an invitation to open a perfumery at the department store’s top floor. Although becoming a shopkeeper had never crossed his mind, Roja went back to his experience as a well-seasoned traveller and the people he meets on a regular basis. Thirsty for something unique, bespoke, or a scent that was once dear to them, they were looking for a dream, and he was the person to make it come true. “For a lot of people, a lost scent was really like losing a friend, or part of their life”. With its luxurious setting, Lalique panels – made originally for the Orient Express and re-blown purposely for the space – and beautifully curated choice of fragrances, the Haute Parfumerie is a hedonistic heaven, a dream come true for the olfactory aficionado, and the antithesis of most spaces designed with fragrance-selling in mind. Conceived as a cross between a sweet shop and a boudoir, it is demure without being a wallflower, decadent without shouting for attention. This is a special space indeed, and Roja knows it. “If I’m remembered for something, somewhere along the line – when I’m not working or no longer around – I hope that one thing people do stop to think is actually how important that perfumery actually was and is”.
Besides the boutique there is also a bespoke Salon de Parfums, where Roja, a perfectionist with his work, tailors his made to order creations at the fragrance’s own pace, until it reaches nothing but the olfactory demands of the client. This is a process he refuses to have rushed, taking him between six months and three years. “Most perfumes I finish within six months to a year, but sometimes I can’t make it the way I want it to be. In fact, I have one perfume which is tucked behind my perfumery organ, and it’s there because every time I close it, I see it, and it reminds me it’s the one I can’t get the way I want it to be, and that I have to work hard”.
A few years back, when the whole industry was taken over by a detergent manufacturer, Roja felt disenchanted by the soulless processes through which the fragrances were being brought to life, making them a commodity rather than a luxury, “I hated what my industry had become so much, that I didn’t tell people what I did if they’d ask me”. By contrast, his own work is produced from only the best natural raw materials sourced from Robertet in Grasse – “the garden I grew up in” – all the boxes are still made by hand in England, and it lacks a marketing plan before the perfume has reached its completion. Focusing on the creation of a masterpiece in every tonality of the olfactive palette, Roja will be launching a fresh floral this year.

The perfumer’s Trilogy collection is made of ‘Scandal’, ‘Unspoken’, and ‘Enslaved’, all rather suggestive words, one might think. Ever the curious mind, he has chosen the name ‘Enslaved’ after having read its definition in an old family dictionary, which referred to it as ‘to become a prisioner of love’. He felt it fit the fragrance perfectly, as it is an Oriental scent that takes time to be truly unveiled, note by note, and by the time you finally reach intimacy, it has enslaved you – and perhaps your loved one – under its spell.
‘Unspoken’, a Chypre with an unexpected touch of jasmine, was originally commissioned by Southbank’s art venue, The Hayward Gallery, to illustrate an exhibition on social attitudes towards sex from antiquity, as a scent that captures the smell of sex. Roja created an Eau de Cologne, seductive and understated, which smells like none other than crotch (yes, you’ve read it right), hence being an unspoken word.
And last but not least there is ‘Scandal’, a fragrance filled with jasmine from Grasse, a very expensive raw material – even more so than gold – which has a high percentage of indole, a natural-ocurring molecule present in all white flowers, on animals intestines and also wherever we have pubic hair. So, as the more rational part of our brain picks up on the floral notes, our most primal parts instinctively detect the indole in it, immediately associating it with, yet again, sex. Rather wittily, the Trilogy translates itself into being enslaved by something, which has to remain unspoken, otherwise it would become a scandal.
According to Roja, what is by no means scandalous is the current state of the industry, which he considers being at the edge of a beautiful renaissance. The perfumer mentions the work of Tom Ford and his Private Blend, besides his own creative contributions, as the catalysts of a movement which reintroduces noble raw materials – such as neroli and patchouli vetiver – still very much unknown to the younger generations of perfume wearers.
Because the boundaries are being pushed, Roja is very optimistic about the future of the industry, and believes that in a decade’s time, what we nowadays consider as pushing the envelope in terms of scent creation, will be rather pale when compared to the work of tomorrow’s creative minds of the nez variety.
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass”, Shakespeare once wrote. The future looks rosy indeed for this rather elusive captive then.

( Words by Lola Roftoples Mealha in Essential London magazine – issue 1, April/June 2012)

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