There’s no way you can miss him even in a big, big crowd. He’s in a black shirt with shiny metalwork, a heavy chain encrusted with gemstones peeping out of his open collar, and a blinding assortment of bling on his wrist extending all the way to his belt bulk. But most of all, it’s the mischief in his eyes and teasing smile. You’ll know here’s someone special even if you don’t know it’s the master perfumer Roja Dove. But curiously enough, he doesn’t smell any different. Or maybe one shouldn’t expect master perfumers to wear perfume when they’re working.
Dove was in Muscat last month to launch Lakmé which he created exclusively for Royal Opera House Muscat to coincide with the world premiere of a new production of the 19th century French composer Léo Delibes’ opera presented in collaboration with eight leading opera houses from around the world. “The opera Lakmé has so many references, indirectly, to perfumery so it was a very natural and beautiful collaboration to be a part of,” Dove said.
His description of the similarities between opera and perfumery is sheer poetry: “Perfumery owes so much to music because the language is so difficult. We have no real language for perfumery - we steal language from a lot of other places. So we talk about notes, and harmonies, and discordant notes. We talk about cords and accords. You can think of base notes almost being like the key in which a piece of music is written, because the base notes determine the family or the style of a scent. We can also compare top notes to the counterpoint which can be found at the top of a melody - the part of music that stays in your head all day.”
Dove’s tryst with fragrances started early when as a little boy growing up in Sussex, England, his curiosity was piqued by the scent lingering long after his mother had kissed him goodnight and left the room.
As he grew up, so did his interest in fragrances prompting him to spend his money on small bottles of scent and writing letters frequently to the French perfumers Guerlain – known as the ‘Vatican of Perfumery’ – asking for information. He went to Cambridge to study medicine but then dropped out to work as a model briefly even as he continued his persistent correspondence with Guerlain.
In what is now perfume industry folklore, tired of receiving faxed questions and phone calls from Dove seeking information, Robert Guerlain - one of the three brothers who ran Guerlain – thought he would be less of a nuisance if he was given a job. So in 1980, the strapping 24 year old received a job offer that would change his life.
He went on to work at Guerlain for 20 years becoming one of the most respected perfume experts in the world before quitting in 2001 and setting up a public relations firm – explaining his fine play of words in comparing perfumes with opera and in pieces written for Vogue, The Times and Vanity Fair. In 2004, he launched Roja Dove Haute Perfumerie, a bespoke perfume service, in Harrods, London, and now sells his scents from 130 outlets.
Dove doesn’t believe completing his degree in medicine would have given him a better understanding of the human olfactory system, in turn, helping him create even better perfumes. “Hundred per cent not, because my approach to perfume making is 100 per cent creative. I’m not a chemist; it’s not my work nor will it ever be. For a lot of perfumers, their background is chemistry, so how they work is very different from how I work. I’m not saying one is right and the other is wrong. The way I work is how perfumers worked for centuries. You put this and that together and it’s like alchemy.”
Considered one of the most significant noses of the century – a description he distances himself away from - that can identify 800 separate fragrances from a single sniff, Dove is surprised at the suggestion of insuring his nose.
While on that, he says he’s often asked what it’s like to have his sense of smell. “I don’t know that because I have nothing to compare with. I don’t know what it’s like to have your sense of smell! Normally with something, you can look and compare, but my sense of smell is of course just what I have.
“But what I can tell you is I’ve saved myself twice from fire owing to my sense of smell. Once while going to bed, I smelt electrical burn. There was something wrong with a light fitting, and another time, there was something wrong with the dishwasher – which is something very unlikely – and it just caught fire. I’d told my partner just moments earlier that I smell something burning. So there are advantages but also disadvantages of having my sense of smell.”
Among the disadvantages of having his nose is the fact that he can’t ride the London Tube. “It’s horrible for me; it’s like listening to 10,000 pieces of music at one time,” he said.
On his fifth visit – including one in 2014 when he came to open a Roja Parfums boutique in Opera Galleria – to Oman, the sultanate continued to grow on him. “I have had the great fortune of travelling a great part of the world, but it’s a country that really touched my soul. Of course there’s frankincense here and that’s fantastic - that’s the extra – but it’s the people who make the country and its warmth.”