The flamboyant perfumer on his latest creation, Elysium, and how the UAE has inspired his work
A chat about scents and sensibilities with 'professor of perfume' Roja Dove
Roja Dove is, above all, a master storyteller. Lauded with the moniker “professor of perfume” by the Guerlain family, whom he worked with for two decades, the British-born Dove is a leading expert in his field, an acclaimed bespoke perfume maker and founder of the most commercially successful brand ever to be retailed at Harrods in London. And yet, he says that becoming creative ambassador for Great Britain in 2013 remains the greatest honour of his working career.
He tells the tale of how this came about in trademark Dove style: a manner that’s eloquent, absorbing and interjected with whoops of mirth, his eyes twinkling to match the multiple diamonds that sit on his fingers. “Imagine you’re sitting at your desk on a regular day at work, and you’re told there’s a call for you from 10 Downing Street. So you pick up the phone and, if you’re me, you say: ‘Hello, Roja Dove here.’ And they say: ‘We’re calling from Downing Street and we’d like you to come along. Oh, and you need to bring your passport.’ Lovely. So we fixed the time and I went there, got past security and, suddenly, I found myself walking up to this very famous door that I’ve seen all my life on the television. And all that was going on in my mind was: do you ring, or do you knock?”
What ensued, says Dove, was surreal. Not only was he declared creative ambassador, but invitations to the upcoming launch of one of his perfumes in New York were sent out on royal stationary, with the then consul general to the Queen playing host at the event. “That was the first time that the honour of the title became a reality. The fact that the work you do makes a difference to your country is really fantastic,” he says.
The work he is talking about involves formulating between four and 12 one-of-a-kind perfumes a year; conducting courses to train and guide emerging perfumers; as well as creating more standard, but no less special, scents under the Roja Dove label that he founded in 2011. The latest of these, Elysium, launched in the UAE last month.
The box that the sparkling glass bottle comes in may be marked “pour homme”, but Dove is quick to align himself with the unisex trend that is infiltrating the world of modern perfumery. “More of my perfumes are unisex than not. I make no products that say ‘for women’ because, generally, for women around the world, if they like something, they are confident enough to use it. I’ve always loved that women are much more self-assured. Many men need to see ‘for men’ on the bottle, otherwise they don’t feel quite so secure.”
As astute declaration indeed, which Dove backs up with more of his delightful insights. “Having gender on perfume is a Victorian concept, a time when women were not supposed to have opinions or, indeed, sensual desires; they were considered delicate. This might explain why they were named after flowers, Rose, Lily, Violet, Marigold, and that decided what their perfumes should smell of. The idea of what makes a masculine scent – woods, mosses and spices – comes from the idea of men being earthy, the whole woodland-predator thing,” Dove maintains.
“But one of the great things about modern perfumery is that we go back to this idea of scents being genderless, and more about what suits your personality. Interestingly, in the Middle East, most men don’t care about what they wear. If they like a smell, they put it on, which I think is fabulous.”
Dove’s ties with the region stretch far beyond his admiration for its “progressive people”. He credits the UAE for introducing him to oud, an ingredient he has since used in almost a dozen perfumes; and he opened the first-ever stand-alone Roja Dove boutique in Oman. “When I am introduced to clients from here, they often ask me: ‘How do you know our smell?’ And that’s a very interesting turn of phrase, and a great compliment, I think. I tell them it’s because I used to spend two weeks every three months of the year in the region, and that I got very, very close.”
In fact, he has even created a series of perfumes dedicated to the Gulf, including one that is called the United Arab Emirates, which is a rich and sophisticated scent that mixes oud with vibrant notes of rose and saffron. Many of Dove’s bespoke clients, too, hail from the Middle East. “Creating a scent for someone is a very intimate process, because perfumes have the power to both bring back memories and to create new ones.” He says that clients often compare a session with him with to going to a shrink, because of all the questions about their personal preferences and childhood references.
Dove also comes up with scents for people’s homes, offices and even their boats, based on the ingredients contained in the perfumes they wear. For instance, you can isolate specific notes in the perfumes you favour, in-store, and then burn these in your home, to sublimate, or dilute, the scent. This means your spaces will not smell exactly the same as you do, but will still carry the key notes that you respond to.
“Think of it like having a beautiful ring. You are the precious stone at the centre, and it is the job of the scented candle to work like the jewel’s setting; you don’t want it to shine more than you. A lot of people don’t stop to consider the effect of a smell, which is where I come in,” Dove explains.
That effect is greatly influenced by the quality of the ingredients, an area that Dove is actively involved in. The freshness of Elysium, for example, comes from a rare lime that exudes a woody aroma. He also included a special musk – a note that usually sits at the base of a perfume, but this is the only one in the world that works as a top note, he says. In addition, Elysium contains the elusive Rose de Mai. “It’s my signature material,” he explains. “It comes from Grasse in the south of France, and only blooms in May. An entire year’s production of this rose is less than a day’s production of the Bulgarian rose. And it’s in every single perfume I make.”
Details, then, are what drives Dove forward. Each perfume, bespoke or otherwise, is contained in a hand-polished bottle in a handmade box. And each scent tells a story. “With the Gulf range, it was the concept of a mirage – the idea that these beautiful buildings [the Burj Khalifa on the United Arab Emirates perfume bottle] emerged from what was, until recently, nothing but desert. With Elysium, I imagined a star burst, one that both radiates light and draws you in. And every time you spray it on, I want you to imagine a supernova and go ‘ta-da’,” Dove concludes, with an exuberant flourish of his sparkling hands.