The Perfume, The Person: Roja Dove

4.5 min read

Sitting down with Roja Dove is like reconnecting with an old friend. Vibrant, open and immediately chatty in person, it’s easy to see why Dove’s fragrances are imbued with such character. His boutique at Paris Galleries is more than a mere perfume store, it’s a luxe playground for the senses. Whether a powerful slam from something robust or an evocative feminine caress, his fragrances demand attention. Very simply, he doesn’t do mediocrity.

‘They are unapologetic,’ he states. And it is a statement, because his very raison d’ ê tre is to create scents that inspire. This isn’t perfume designed by committee, but the impassioned work of a perfumer who has made olfaction his life’s work. ‘I don’t mind if you hate one, I love it if you love one, but what would break my heart is if someone thought one was ‘quite nice.’ It would mean it’s banal.’

While the bottles and sleek sanctuaries of scent – all glossy surfaces and black leather – bear his name, it’s obvious that Dove’s attachment extends beyond the name. Every fragrance has a carefully sculpted personality. With Dove there’s a return to the romanticism of perfumery that reminds us all why we continue to descend on the counters come Valentine’s Day. ‘It is after all one of the most intimate things you can give to someone,’ he muses. ‘It’s more intimate than lingerie or jewellery because it actually becomes a part of the skin as opposed to something you put on it. Presumably someone will have put a lot of thought into whether a fragrance is right for the person they’re giving it to and so, in that sense, they are really making a statement about how they perceive that person.’

Settling into the conversation it is clear that our meeting is going to be as much an education as conversation. The sheer depth of Dove’s knowledge erupts forth in the form of hard fact wrapped around witty anecdote and all delivered with the panache of someone who clearly loves what he does and isn’t afraid to show it. As one of the world’s most famous noses, a whimsical term for a perfumer, what better teacher?

‘Feminine fragrances can be broken down into three categories’, Dove explains as we probe him on which characters are most suited to various scents. ‘Florals, Chypres and Orientals. With florals, think of a bouquet of flowers, it’s a very straightforward gift and something we all understand, so as people ‘Florals’ are happy go lucky and relaxed. Chypre comes from the French word for Cyprus, the home of Aphrodite who was believed to have slept on a bed of moss, so they’re based around blends of mosses and woods. People who like them are very self-assured. They never shout for attention, you feel their presence. Then there are the Orientals, these are based around vanilla notes, a rare gum resin called Benzoin and a material called Orris, which comes from the Iris plant. It’s possibly the richest and softest family. They love a sense of theatre. You could say we’re all driven by luxury, but they love it everywhere!’

It’s understandable that a perfumer would have a better handle on the nuance of fragrance than us. How many of us have not been seduced by a beautifully shot ad campaign featuring a taught faced model staring into the camera? No spritzing required, we’re already sold. ‘If you ask your friends what they’re wearing, most people’s answer will be the name of the company,’ Dove explains. ‘I always say back, ‘You must be very strong to wear an entire company. It must be terribly heavy!’ Often we’re made to believe that something smells different than it actually does. The proof of that is in the amount of abandoned bottles in bathrooms.’

I don’t mind if you hate one, I love it if you love one, but what would break my heart is if someone thought one was ‘quite nice.’ It would mean it’s banal.
Roja Dove

Dove, who prefers to offer concoctions for the more discerning, is ultimately a storyteller. His inspirations go deep and behind every accord and fragrance name lies a wealth of complexity. More than marketing or brand, he prefers to seduce by appealing to our instincts, even our wit. ‘I have this little line, ‘Please don’t take me seriously because I don’t’, and so with perfumes I choose the names to be a little tongue in cheek. They’re meant to be provocative, a little funny but always embody what the scent is about.’

‘Take Fetish for Women,’ one of Dove’s more incendiary titles. ‘There’s a very famous Helmut Newton photo of Catherine Deneuve. It’s a black and white picture on the streets of Paris and she’s wearing the Yves Saint Laurent Smoking. You believe that she’s naked underneath. So it’s about a woman who is very self-confident. Perhaps some men are even a little frightened by her but many other men will find her even more attractive. So I took a lot of masculine materials like wood, leather, mosses and my idea was that – just like Catherine Deneuve – the masculinity highlights her femininity.’ Danger, he explains, is dangerous not for the woman wearing it but for the man smelling it, while Reckless is the only name he didn’t conjure up himself. ‘I read in a book, ‘Reckless maybe, foolish never’, and I thought, ‘Wonderful, I know this woman’. So I had this idea of someone who always got what she wanted but never took stupid risks. She’d follow her heart but never do anything to damage herself.’

Our sense of smell is undeniably our most evocative sense. Just a whiff of something familiar paints a picture. It’s why Dove believes so inherently in the connection between a perfect fragrance and the person wearing it. ‘Interestingly we don’t smell with our nose, we smell with the most primitive part of our brains, the limbic system. When we are born we have no preconception of smell at all. We build up our olfactory fingerprint in the first 12 or 14 years of our life and at the same time your personality is forming. So there is a direct correlation between you as a human being and the kinds of smells you react to. We have these scent associations that run to the very core of our beings.’

It puts choosing that signature scent somewhat in perspective and is a reminder that, more than personal preference, we’re also saying something about ourselves when we press down on the nozzle every morning. ‘You give a gift when you wear a perfume, a gift of memory,’ he says. ‘You’re giving a subliminal souvenir. It’s one of the driving forces of my work as a perfumer. Anything else that can be made – a leather bag, a pair of shoes – will wear out, but anything I make becomes not just a part of your life, but it becomes integral to the lives of all the people who know you.’

So whether a gift for a loved one on Valentine’s or simply for yourself, give a little extra thought the next time you pick up a bottle. Dangerous, reckless or enigmatic, if wearing a perfume is the gift of memory, make it memorable.