Monday 8 September 2014

Fragrant dreams

People watching: 
Roja Dove, Master perfumer

I was walking through a National Trust garden the other day when I stooped to smell a rose. The delicate, quintessentially  English scent transported me back to my grandparents' garden when I was a little girl. There I was cavorting under a weeping willow in a frilly frock with brown ribbons in my hair. Magic! 

Roja, Dove, master perfumer
Roja: "Choose your scent wisely"
Such is the power of scent. Frangipani does it for me too. Only this time I'm a teenager in Oman at dusk, full of tempestuous emotions. I long for my freedom and yet I am also frightened of what the world has to offer. For me, the sweetness of frangipani is fraught with danger and temptation.

As the master perfumer, Roja Dove, told a rapt audience last week at Henley's Phyllis Court club: "Unstopping a bottle of scent transports you to a different place. It's like releasing a genie from a bottle."

Roja, who trained for 15 years to become a perfumer,  believes that there is a bit of "alchemy" involved with a scent: it changes depending on a person's skin, the clothes you wear and the climate. 

Perfume bottles belonging to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Napoleon
Perfumes of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Napoleon
(from left to right)
Over the course of Roja's career, he has collected a trove of historical fragrances, including original perfume bottles owned by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Napoleon. Little pieces of history decanted into a glass vessel. 

In those bygone days, everyone stored their perfume in standard glass bottles, almost like medicine. It wasn't until after the industrial revolution that the perfume trade transformed into the industry we know today, where packaging, design and branding all play their part. 

"I remembered the smell of her face powder and her perfume. I can still smell it now."  

Roja explained that it was a collaboration between perfumer François Coty and the glassmaker René Lalique (who happened to be a neighbour in Paris) in 1882 that spawned the concept of perfume, box and bottle. 

François Coty found a market for his scents through some audacious marketing: when he was turned down by a buyer at the Paris department store, Grands Magasins du Louvres, he smashed his sample bottle on the floor of the shop. Within minutes, the buyer called him back as customers became captivated by the smell.

The original samples of Chanel perfumes
The original samples for Coco Chanel
Roja also revealed that the iconic scent Chanel No. 5 was created almost by chance. The perfumer, Ernest Beaux (once perfumer to the Tsarina of Russia), concocted it after being introduced to Coco Chanel through a mutual acquaintance. He took up her challenge to create a fresh, new fragrance and presented her with 10 samples. One of them - No. 5 - was deemed a mistake because it contained an overdose of aldehyde (a chemical that artificially creates scent). Naturally that was the one that Coco Chanel chose. 

Roja's passion for scent began when he was a boy - he can even pinpoint the moment of epiphany when his mother kissed him good night one evening in bed. He described how she appeared to glow, backlit by the hall light in a gold lamé dress. "I remembered the smell of her face powder and her perfume," he told us. "I can still smell it now. It set me on this path." Next year he plans to launch a new perfume for his collection, Roja Parfums: A Good Night Kiss.

"Choose your scent wisely," he urged as he left us in clouds of gardenia, lilac and orange blossom, "because you will be remembered for it... It's a gift of memory."

Roja Dove works with The Fragrance Foundation to inspire and educate people about the perfume industry. He was recently appointed a Creative Ambassador for the GREAT Britain campaign. In 2011, he launched his own range of perfumes, Roja Parfums, which are sold in Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges.

Roja Dove's collection of historic perfumes
Roja's collection of historic perfumes


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