ROJA DOVE’S SCENTS ARE THE ROLLS ROYCES OF THE PERFUME WORLD. AND THE FLAMBOYANT ENGLISHMAN WHO HAS REWRITTEN THE BOOK ON HIGH-END PERFUME FROM THE GULF TO HOLLYWOOD HAS NO INTENTION OF SLOWING DOWN, AS Caroline Davies DISCOVERS OVER GREEN TEA AT CLARIDGE’S
Roja Dove’s worst nightmare is to catch a cold. “I find it frightening. I become very panicked. It is like someone, I imagine, would feel if they lost sight. We take in so much about our world through a sense of smell. It gives you the power of memory whether you like it or not.
“I haven’t travelled on the underground for years. If you imagine smells are music, it is as though someone has put all their records on at once at top volume.”
The curator of Harrods Haute Parfumerie, creator of bespoke perfumes for the global elite and his own range – the number one and two best selling perfumes in Harrods – Dove is The Nose. Commonly renowned as the most significant perfumer of this century, he has helped pull back his industry from the brink.
“There was a point when most houses were launching with 30ml sprays with a free gift,” he says of the old days. “People forget that, that’s how debased it had become. I was embarrassed to tell people my profession after 15 year of training. 15 years! Surgeons take eight.”
Carefully combed back hair, Indian-yellow coloured silk cravat bulging illustriously from his open crisp, white shirt, cuffs just hiding gold bracelets and a chunky watch, Dove is dressed precisely and flamboyantly. His manner is soft and careful, punctuated with the occasional dignified sniff. With the wafts of breakfast, coffee and the floral display, I catch only a whisper of his scent, “something I created just for me, one of the perks of the job.” Those devoted to his work can tell his creations from just a sprinkle.
“There are elements I come back to, because I like them,” he says. “When I was little, my mother used to bake something between a bread and a cake. She made it very rarely, perhaps twice a year and only in the evenings as we were going to bed. It would go in the oven and as we were up in bed, the scent of this thing, laden with spices and a lot of cinnamon,” Dove wafts his hands “would fill the room. I like very soft spices and I have no doubt that is where it came from.”
Dove began his career at Guerlain, where he stayed for 20 years. Harrods approached him.
“I was invited in for a cup of tea” says Dove, delicately. “Before I was seated they said “We would like to open a perfumery with you”. I said “I would just like tea please”. I didn’t know what they wanted to see me for, but that wasn’t in my realm of consciousness.”
Harrods persuaded Dove to curate his own ultimate collection within their store. “If we were going to open a perfumery, it had to have a raison d’être,” he says. “The world does not need another regular perfumery. Everything in there is my personal edit of what I think is great perfume. It’s not about whether it is old or new, it’s not particularly driven by its price, it is whether I think it is a good example.”
A perfume historian, Dove found that he often had a better knowledge of a perfume house’s work than they did.
“I spoke to the managing director of Dior to request Diorama and Diorling,” he says. “He told me that they didn’t make them. ‘You do make them, you never stopped making them, but that they only sell them in the Avenue Montaigne.’ They found that they did sell it and allowed us to stock it.”
Dove pauses and shrugs, raising his eyebrow slightly. “Eight years later, those scents have now been re-launched and you can buy them from any Dior counter in the world.”
Although he had been creating bespoke perfumes after his lot gained a storm of interest at a Christie’s charity auction, raising more money than a Mercedes sports car or a holiday for 8 in the Maldives, Dove steered clear of creating his own range until he had dinner with an old friend.
“She said to me ‘wherever I look in the world of perfumery I see your name. Your shadow is enormous. As a client, if I read about you and I want to walk into your shadow, how do I because I can’t find your products anywhere. You need to create your own range so that customers can discover your work.’ I realised that she was right.”
Dove launched his own house in 2007. “Within a month I had the number one selling perfume in the shop, which was one of the pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch, is this really true, moments,” he says, eyes shining, pinching his shoulder. “Now we have the number two best selling perfumes in the shop.
“What I find the most amazing is that we don’t advertise. What seduces the client is actually the perfume. People find my work beguiling enough it seems so that when they smell it they say I will take one.”
Today Dove’s reach stretches across the world. London –“in Harrods, the only truly international address”–Dubai, Russia –“I speak it a little, but only enough to make a Russian smile” – Switzerland and Abu Dhabi . This year he will open in Oman –“I have always wanted to visit, they have the best frankincense” – Germany and Jeddah. He is careful to avoid the mistakes of the other major perfume houses.
“I don’t want to be in lots of places,” he says. “It is very important that wherever we sell the perfumes I will always go to the store and explain to the staff what the stories are and the ideas behind them. I don’t want someone else doing it. It’s too personal for me.”
Dove’s way of introducing scent is unique. Working with a palate of smell across four different families – three feminine, three masculine and two crossing in the middle – he guides you across the spectrum to find your favourite.
“When you meet people who are informed about scent, they talk to you about ingredients. “This contains heliotrope and celiac and exotic benzoine.” How does that help you? We need to get people to understand that a perfume is sweet and sexual. It is a bit like when you go to a restaurant. Do you actually care what the chef was doing in the kitchen? You want to know that what you eat is delicious.”
Dove’s kitchen is a complicated concept. “There are fewer perfumers on earth than there are astronauts,” he says. “If you want to understand my world, close your eyes and try to think of a colour you have never seen using no reference point; so you can’t say a peachy shade of turquoise because you already know those two colours. Then try to imagine a smell you have never smelled before.
“My world is trying to think of an idea. I sketch an idea of the sorts of smells that might be part of that idea, put them on blotters then put them on a wheel. They mix in the air and you try to see if that will give you what you want. It is trial and error, patience, memory and hopefully having a little bit of good taste.”
Inspired by a selection of adjectives which become the tongue in cheek names for his creations, Dove creates a story, an image behind each. “Take something like mischief,” he says. “I knew I wanted a fresh floral in my palate. Freshness suggests movement and lightness. I thought mischief is perfect. If you think of a child when it has been mischievous what does it normally do? It normally nips there and does the thing it shouldn’t, stands there looking very innocent or it zips out again” he whistles. “You can feel the movement in your nose.”
Some of Dove’s perfumes have a much darker, seductive edge. “When I created Reckless, the name came about in a totally different way. I was on holiday with my partner Peter and he read out a fabulous line; “reckless maybe, foolish never,” he says, gently. “It put an idea of a woman in my mind, a woman who has got what she wants out of life. I saw this woman in the theatre or opera house in the half light with a big open décolleté and a diamond necklace. I had the idea of how the diamonds would shimmer and tremble; the same effect is created in the perfume by the aldehydes. I wanted to create a scent where you imagine the woman going home, slipping out of her silk dress and if you picked it up,” he pauses and takes a deep sniff, far into the back of his nose. “You would smell the softness and warmth of her skin and her perfume.
“It is the antithesis of a man’s world, but something they find irresistible. The woman knows that. She will always take risks and follow her heart, but she will never do anything to damage herself as she is reckless maybe, foolish never.”
So how should you discover if you are a ‘Mischievous’ or a ‘Reckless’? Dove recommends trying each first thing in the morning, firstly on blotters, comparing each one to another until you find the one you prefer. Do not use hand cream or hand wash, wear it and let the perfume sink in.
“Scents are like love affairs, you only know whether it works when you have spent the night together.”
And how do you know if you have found the one? “If you spent the night with a lover,” says Dove, leaning in conspiratorially, “You would know whether or not you would want to go back a second night.”