The Conversation: Roja Dove, perfumer


When did you decide perfumery was for you?

My earliest memory of scent was a night my mother came to give me a kiss goodnight. She was going off to a cocktail party in a gold lamé dress. The light was streaming in from the landing, and with her dress being metallic it was like she had a corona around her, like something I'd only ever seen in a book around a fairy or an angel. I remember the smell of her face powder and perfume. I think it was at that moment that I thought scent had had something to do with the transformation of my mum into this fabulous vision.

You skipped a place at Cambridge University to go to Guerlain in Paris – what did you get up to there?

I was employed to devise a perfumery training course for them. It was a family company and a friend of mine summed it up as the Vatican of perfumery. One of the cousins offered me a job saying I'd be less of a nuisance in the company than outside it, and the family always said I knew more about its history than they did.

Do perfumes always contain what they say on the bottle?

I've just created a lilac fragrance, but as it happens we don't use lilac in perfumery as it doesn't yield an oil, so I have to imagine the smell. If you take a perfume like Diorissimo, it's the most perfect example of lily-of-the-valley that exists in perfumery, but there's not a scrap of lily-of-the-valley in it.

Every celebrity seems to have their own fragrance – they must appal you.

I think there should be something for everybody. These fragrances might help people enter the world of perfumery. I can't imagine that somebody buying a scent like that thinks they're getting something fine or great, they're buying what they perceive as a reflection of a lifestyle, but who's to say that's wrong?

How do you start creating your perfumes?

I always start with the name. My partner and I sit in the garden and dream up names and write them down. Then we score some out because they're dreadful. For instance, I wanted to make a gentle, powdery, floral fragrance, and looking at the names we had I took 'Innuendo', because innuendo is something whispered.

Do you pick up on scents other people are wearing?

I sometimes find smells so difficult to be near. I was on a long-haul flight and one of the stewardesses looking after me had a scent I found horrific. It was asphyxiating and I very politely said to the purser "I hope you don't mind but I would like you to move the stewardess, or me". It was mechanical, overwhelming.

You create bespoke scents, how much would that cost?

The majority of those clients are in a very privileged position in that they can have anything they like. Having a bespoke scent is the ultimate luxury. A 500ml bottle might cost £25,000. It's like taking a very famous author and having them write a novel just for you. You see the clients over a long period of time, giving them materials to smell. As I give them the raw materials I write what they say about each odour. One client said an ingredient reminded them of hospitals, getting a bandage and nurses – so surprise, surprise that's not going to be used in their scent.

Bergamot Extrait and Lilac Extrait, by Roja Parfums, are now avaliable from Harrods and Fortnum & Mason


Roja Dove, 56, is a perfumer from Sussex and a leading authority on the history of scent. He spent two decades working at the house of Guerlain before setting up his own company, Roja Parfums

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