Credited with inventing the phrase ‘haute perfumerie’, Roja Dove has enjoyed a rich career creating some of the most intoxicating bespoke scents in the world.
“It was a bit of a eureka moment,” he says of opening The Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie on the sixth floor of Harrods in London.
“I was thinking of how fashion and perfumery align. If endless shops sold the same perfumes, they were like the olfactive equivalent of pret-a-porter. I wanted my boutique to feel like the equivalent of haute couture and from there, Haute Parfumerie entered the lexicon.”
This mecca of fine fragrance celebrated a decade in business last year, but Dove’s love affair with scent started at a much younger age. “When I was a boy of about six years old, my mother was going out to a cocktail party and came in to give me a kiss goodnight. I will never forget the image of her in a gold lame dress and how the light from the landing created a corona about her,” he explains.
“Long after she kissed me goodnight, the scent of her lingered in my room. From that moment, I was captivated by the power of perfume and how it could transform someone from an everyday mother to an incredibly glamorous woman.”
Dove left university early to start his career in perfumery and never looked back. “I was one of those tenacious youngsters thirsty to learn every single thing I possibly could about the industry. After writing to Guerlain so much, they decided I would be less of a nuisance inside the company than outside of it,” he laughs.
“From there, I gained pivotal training and grew into different roles in my almost 20 years of employment there. It provided me with invaluable knowledge and experience, which I was able to transfer across to my own businesses.”
In what was seen as a controversial break in tradition, the Guerlain family sold the company to the luxury conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) in 1994. “I am not a corporate person,” Dove concedes, “so I decided to go it alone.”
His confidence was encouraged further when he was asked to create a scent for a charity auction. “Being me, I couldn’t not create something very special and I was delighted to find it made a staggering amount of money. The partner of the person who made the winning bid then wanted a fragrance for themselves and that’s how my career in bespoke perfumery began.”
Only the Best Will Do
From there, his reputation grew as more and more clients commissioned his work. Despite bespoke services costing upwards of US$31,000, he has carved out a niche for himself in a growing market using only the finest ingredients in the world. “I operate under the motto of ‘only the best will do’ and therefore use only the finest quality materials. Once you have smelled the finest of something, how could you ever go back down to something lesser?” he says.
“To put it into context, a kilo of ambergris tincture costs me nearly £100,000 [US$123,500] to buy and it’s one of my favourite notes to use. When it comes to perfume, nothing is spared … much to the chagrin of my finance team. But that part of the business is their problem!”
Roja Parfums was founded in 2011 following the loss of Dove’s beloved mother, the realisation of his own mortality and the desire to create a lasting legacy. “It really turned my world upside down. But I was lucky to have the opportunity to throw myself into starting Roja Parfums and working through it by creating something that was a homage to her,” he reflects. “As such, Roja Parfums is an extremely personal brand and I feel as though that is what most of our clients really connect with.”
Roja Parfums can now be found in 360 sales points across 65 countries, with the biggest markets in the US and the Middle East and a strong business domestically in Western Europe and online.
The perfume industry has undergone much change since Dove started out as an eager young employee at Guerlain. “Without question the best change the industry has seen is the awareness in, and growth of, niche and luxury perfumery,” he notes.
“Long gone are the 90s when the fragrances that dominated the market were crass celebrity scents. Perfumery only continues to gain a wider audience and you will find the average bottle price these days is over £200 [US$250].
“People want fragrances of individuality, quality and integrity. The internet has been an extremely pivotal part of that development as we are all able to find, discover and share on a much wider lever.
“But of course, that’s also where some of the negative changes in the industry can come from. The internet is a powerful entity and while it’s mostly positive, it does of course have its darker pockets. Misinformation can really affect a launch.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges in its early stages, some rather indisputable positives later arose for the industry. “It was scary for a moment. But the most unbelievable thing happened in that suddenly everybody was desperate for luxurious perfume.
“I guess it started as people wanting to enjoy what they thought could be their last good pay cheque. But it just continued – as we all sat at home, I guess people wanted something that made them feel good. And with more people taking to the internet, they were discovering perfume on a deeper level. It was quite amazing,” he recalls.
“Our online business was never really much of a ‘thing’ and then the pandemic made it our main source of income. Since then, it has remained one of our biggest markets. We had to work incredibly hard to adjust to the times but overall, the pandemic really did elevate luxury perfume.”
DNA of the Scent
Somehow, the pandemic seems to have broken through what was deemed to be the final frontier of the perfume industry: online sales. “It’s funny to think back to when it seemed like the impossible task to sell fragrance online. It is probably the hardest thing to buy online as you really need to smell it to know if you want to buy it. Like any brand, we found there was a big element of adjusting to fit to the times – ensuring our offering, service and storytelling worked for the at-home consumer – but it worked,” he says.
“You have to take into account how a fragrance will come across online – how will it look, what the storytelling will be. It’s about expressing the DNA of the scent. And then it’s the question of how will this be received by users? How will it be talked about in reviews and forums? How will social media users engage with your content? It has just become another part of the 360 process of taking something from idea to finished product.”
Next on the agenda is continued growth and expanding into China to enable more perfume-lovers to access Dove’s creations. “I just want to be able to share the enjoyment I feel when I engage with scent,” he smiles.