This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with perfumer Roja Dove as he was in the Washington DC area to launch his Roja Parfums collection in the Tyson’s Corner Neiman Marcus store. The primary reason Roja was here was to provide an introductory training session to the sales associates at the store. So not only did I get a chance to sit down and chat one on one with Roja, but I was able to hear him talk about his collection, his creation process and how to introduce his perfumes. It was really an eye-opening experience to say the least.
But let me go back for a minute. If you look at the perfume industry, there aren’t many names that loom as large as Roja Dove (at least living). His 20 years at Guerlain, the Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie in Harrods, the Roja Parfums collection and his recent appointment as a Creative Cultural Ambassador for the GREAT Britain Campaign for his contribution to British perfumery all contribute to the fact that he is master at his craft. So I have to admit that I was a bit nervous to meet him. And as I was expecting, he arrived at Neiman Marcus, perfectly dressed in one of his trademarked jackets, with rings of diamonds and gold all topped by a very captivating smile. What I wasn’t expecting, was a very wonderful warm, inviting, friendly and easy to talk to individual who was passionate about his work and who was incredibly down to earth.
Before addressing the Neiman Marcus staff, we had some time to chat one-on one about various subjects; from the new release of the 2nd edition of his book, “The Essence of Perfume” (an incredibly beautiful resource book at a great deal) to his love of jewelry (much of what he was wearing originated from his mother’s collection of jewelry where he has re-purposed original pieces in new settings for rings, cufflinks, etc….and they are gorgeous!), to some new projects that I was sworn to secrecy on, but which sound incredible.
But the bulk of what we discussed was his collection of perfumes and how he approached the creation process. Launched in 2011, Roja wanted to create perfumes where the root of the perfume is the creation of the scent; not something that is driven by marketing. He wanted to create perfumes that go back to a time when they had character and were exotic and beautiful. So his initial collection started as an extension of his approach to his bespoke parfumerie. In other words, that each person is unique and their tastes in perfume vary, so he wanted to create a balanced palette of fragrances that crossed all through the various fragrance families. In the initial collection for women, this included perfumes in the floral, chypres and oriental families and for men, perfumes in the fougere, chypre and oriental families. The newer Extrait collection follows the same family path; florals, chypres and orientals.
When creating a new perfume, he stated that he initially decides on a floral family and then breaks down the family further to the facet level (fresh floral, cool floral, powdery floral, etc.). Once the facet is decided upon, the first step is to come up with a name which will fit that particular facet. For instance, “Scarlet” probably would not be a good name for a powdery floral fragrance. Once the name is chosen, the creation process begins. It’s really as simple as a name, but as you can see from the names of the perfumes, they don’t solicit simplicity. Fetish for example.
So after our discussion, it was time for Roja to speak to the sales associates. Given the collection, what he wanted to impart the sales associates with was how to approach his perfumes with the customers. He said the key to understanding the customer and what they like is not to speak of “notes” or “fragrance families” but to introduce them to perfumes in each family, gauging their likes and then exploring the perfumes in each of those families further.
He introduced the team first to the feminine floral family of fragrances which include Scandal, Innuendo and Mischief and provided a description as to what he was attempting to create with each and what his inspiration was behind them (the inspirations and stories were funny, fascinating and sometime a bit risque!). We were each given three strips, one for each fragrance and were asked to hold off on sniffing them as he was going to give us direction as to what order to smell the fragrances and what to look for. We would sniff, for instance, Scandal at first which was a big head turning floral; then we were asked to smell Innuendo which more powdery and light. He then asked us to then sniff Scandal again and he asked if we then noted how much more heady the perfume seemed after smelling the powdery Innuendo. It was utterly fascinating and eye-opening as to the differences in the facets and the movement from one to another seemed to bring forth extra life and hidden notes in the already beautifully lively perfumes. It went to show that each design and creation is not just a single and solitaire perfume, but a masterfully thought out and fluid collection as a whole.
Roja then went through the same process with the feminine chypres (Risque, Fetish and Unspoken), his favorite family to work with, and then the orientals in the collection (Enigma, Danger and Enslaved) as well.
It should be noted that the Creation perfumes that are sold in the U.S. are actually the same perfume as in the other parts of the world, but due to US trademarks, some of the perfumes can’t be sold under their original name. Therefore, Innuendo is Creation-I, Enigma is Creation-E, etc. but they are the same perfumes. Roja Parfums is working with the trademark issues and soon some will appear under the original names in the U.S. I’m so glad, because Enigma speaks volumes over the name Creation-E.
Roja then went through the men’s fragrance line and said that the bottom line with the men’s collection is that he wants to create perfumes that make you feel sexy!
He then went into discussions on the bottle designs (the Swarovski crystal tops are based on his diamond ring of the same shape) and the fact that the new bottles are moving towards a nameplate that is a gold plaque vs. a gold label.
Finally, Roja spoke about his top-selling Aoud perfumes, punctuating the discussion with the fact that Amber Aoud is his biggest selling perfume worldwide.
Overall, this experience gave me new insight into the creation process and how to approach perfumes, not from note standpoint, but from a fragrance family and facet understanding. And I do have to say that you can tell the difference in the quality of the materials in Roja’s work. He discussed some of the rare ingredients being more costly than gold bullion and the costly and time-consuming extraction process. That quality in his work is impossible not to see or smell.
As for the sales associates, I could see their understanding of the perfumes come alive and I asked if one of them if it was typical for a perfumer to provide a one-on-one session with the depth of background on their perfumes. I was told that the day’s event was very a-typical, but such a great opportunity to really get to know the vision of the perfumer which will be incredibly beneficial to their assistance with their customers.
Roja made a statement during our time together that stands out in my mind. He said that he understands not everyone will love his perfumes, but he’s not concerned about that fact. He wants them to either love or hate his perfumes, because in him mind it’s worse that someone would say that his perfume elicits nothing or that it’s just OK. To him, mediocrity is not acceptable.
To gain a more comprehensive understanding of Roja’s vision, I greatly recommend his book “Essence of Perfume” where he goes into detail on his creation process as well as provides a detailed overview of the fragrance families, facets and materials. It’s recommended on my Holiday Gift Guide for 2014!
Finally, I would like to give special thanks to Dana Narode and her wonderful staff at Neiman Marcus for allowing me behind the scenes access and for helping to make this a fascinating and enlightening day.
What a fun way to end 2014!