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Roja Dove, Rock Star Parfumeur

I discovered Roja Dove perfumes at the spring 2013 Sniffapalooza, and I’ve been falling ever since.

It’s been quite a ride. Of course I knew about Roja Dove, parfumeur par excellence, before then; he’s the fellow that you see in any documentary about perfume (I’d seen the BBC miniseries), and I bought his book The Essence of Perfume. But I hadn’t gotten to smell his scents before they were brought to launch at Bergdorf Goodman.

Let me walk a delicate line here. The Unseen Censer is honest (because who cares what I say on this leetle blog, anyway?). I have things to say that might sound negative. They’re really not. Lemme ‘splain.

I said in my review of his book that it seemed odd to me for him to include his own perfumes in lists of iconic past fragrances. His own perfumes are not as well known, of course, and… he made them.

Nor would I, now that I’ve smelled them, say that they belong on lists with things like Shalimar or Chanel No. 5. The primary feature of something like Shalimar or Chanel No. 5 is that it completely eclipses whatever came before by introducing something completely new. An overdose of vanillin, an overdose of aldehydes; they are extreme, and they are innovative.

By this token (and I’ve said this before), Angel is iconic precisely because of its overdose of fake chocolate patchouli. It was extreme, it was new. It smelled like nothing that came before it, but everything that came after it copied it.

Sometimes what’s truly new – Nude Descending a Staircase, The Rite of Spring, even Hendrix at Woodstock – those things are startling, upsetting, difficult to process at best and easy to dismiss at worst. A real paradigm shift leaves many people behind, many people who still feel that they have important work to do, and do not take kindly to their complete sudden irrelevance. While phlogiston theory is easy to toss aside, because it doesn’t work as well in physics experiments as theories of electromagnetism, in art the cut is not so drastic. There can be good, valuable, beautiful art that follows old paradigms even as new have moved on.

Roja Dove is an absolutely fantastic classical perfumer. If you’re looking for the latest thoughts on perfume, Roja Dove doesn’t have them for you. (At least not on show in this line. You can bet he knows exactly what’s going on in the world of perfume, everywhere.) On the other hand, someone has to make simply glorious perfumes. And there Roja Dove has you covered.

Roja Dove is a master of technique. His decades of experience at Guerlain show in the juice. He knows ingredients, he knows what works, he knows how to paint with olfactory colors. He has no poor perfumes because he insists on the best ingredients and he knows how to get them, and how to put them together.

Mastery of execution is not something millenials prize. The generation that thinks everyone wins a trophy just for showing up does not really understand what it is to spend decades mastering something. Nonetheless, I believe almost every audience does actually perceive differences in quality. I would not be surprised to find out that young people as well as older ones love Roja Dove’s perfumes, because when you smell them, no matter how much you know about perfume, you can tell that you are smelling something not only beautiful, but well made, well performed.

The kind of people who complain that Roja Dove perfumes are “too expensive” are the kind who believe they could make the movie Titanic with their own videocamera on their home computer. They haven’t really looked into what it would take to get this quality of ingredients, blend them this expertly, and have them progress, as a perfume, on skin, over time. Just getting those ingredients is a feat of expertise. And Roja Dove is doing it without a huge multinational conglomerate company at his beck and call.

If you’re reading this blog, you know, just as I know, how many otherwise lovely perfumes just “fall apart” at the end, a victim of Iso E Super or some other poor substitute for sandalwood. You know how flat today’s “jasmine” notes are, or how few impressions one really even gets from a smell captured in headspace and reproduced chemically.

Roja Dove’s perfumes have depth, they create space, and they are heart-stoppingly beautiful. One may say too beautiful, in the sense, for instance, that Catherine Deneuve may become boring to look at; her face is perfect, but not interesting. There is room in the world for perfect beauty, if I may dare say it, and while I may turn to other perfumes for quirks or intellectual interest, I do not mind living in a cloud of perfection.

At the same time, I admire Roja’s business sense. He is really the Quentin Tarantino of the perfume world. Appreciating craftsmanship but without a “studio” after he left Guerlain, he essentially (and somewhat accidentally) became an indie director, pleased and surprised to find that others still wanted the kind of product he knew how to make. He appears to have been smart about the business connections he has forged, and has done good things by being sensible about scope but firm about his opinions. He does not stock perfumes in his perfumery at Harrod’s that he does not want to stock; he does not create perfumes that he does not want to create. This, as you may imagine, ensures that the work that he does do has his heart in it.

The result, as can be the case when someone of great experience and talent follows his dream after a lifetime of learning his craft, is that the work he does is great. Maybe not earth-shattering, but satisfying every time.

So, blah blah blah, what perfumes should you get?

If you can’t get your hands on some samples or visit either Bergdorf Goodman, Osswald (where his perfumes have debuted here in the U.S. as well as in Zurich), or his own shop at Harrod’s in London, then for the love of Pete don’t be selling your kidneys to get your hands on his perfumes without smelling them first. They are expensive. Very expensive. You probably will not be able to afford the size of bottle you would like to. Surrender to Chance has some samples, and Dhiaghilev can be tried at the Perfumed Court; if you can’t get to Osswald or Bergdorf’s, it may still be that their presence in the U.S. will lead to more samples on the market in this country. But don’t hold your breath. This is a brand for which you may have to ask your fellow perfumista for samples. And offer something good in return. Like some vintage No. 5. Like a bottle of it.

I am in love with Mischief, while I will readily admit that in a classic collection, Mischief is about as low-key as you can get. Many perfumistas who love the orientals or chypres will wonder why anyone would spend Roja Dove money on a soft floral like Mischief.

Because I love it. For the same reason I enjoy listening to Handel or Mozart more than Stravinsky. Because a beautiful structure is as worthy of my investment of time as an artful chaos. The delicate Grasse jasmine and the touch of vanilla in this perfume are just what my brain and heart want. I make no apologies for my love of Mischief.

My passionate affair with Amber Aoud is quite different. Amber Aoud is an experienced and talented lover, with carnal knowledge and enough money for a bed in a five-star hotel anywhere in the world. Amber Aoud is Robert Taylor in a silent film, with dreamy eyes and dark hair – less threatening than Robert Mitchum, less boyish and modern than Robert Redford.* The rich smooth luscious dark sweet depths of Amber Aoud go on and on, and I will not be without it.

But you don’t need to start with my favorites. It’s difficult to know where to start, I know, because invariably these perfumes come with descriptions and names that are impossible to keep straight. Here are a few:

Scandal is not scandalous at all, to my nose. It is sunshine and sensual tuberose, but no one is gossiping about it.

Enslaved is for oriental lovers; it may make you languid with luxuriousness.

And the extraits – ah, the extraits. I can’t believe people who aren’t perfumistas buy soliflore extraits, but then, when I smell them, I can. I have fallen for neroli, and as I’ve stated, I don’t even LIKE neroli; gardenia may be the gardenia that gardenia lovers have longed for ever since Michael Kors ignited an itch for gardenia he couldn’t quite scratch; and the lilac has distant echoes of classic scents like Le De but is fresh, light, springlike, delightful. I know at least one woman who longs for an unlimited supply of the vetiver; don’t let the gender categories hold you back, as I know Roja doesn’t. If you know you like anything in the extrait category, don’t hesitate to try one.

I find the EDPs lovely formulations, and the parfums sometimes (sometimes) a little less of what I want from a juice. This is heresy, as I understand that Roja would prefer to only offer the extraits. I apologize. I prefer the Mischief in EDP at this time. So don’t think that the EDPs aren’t worth your time. If that’s what crosses your path, by all means, take advantage of it!

Oh dear, I know I’ve launched a bunch of lemmings. I’m sorry. It’s Roja’s fault, really. It’s really not that he’s a pre-Stravinsky (post-Roudnitska) dinosaur but somehow still surviving in the modern world. Really, he’s more like the Gershwin of perfumes. I’ve never gotten into an argument with anyone about whether “Rhapsody in Blue” is classical, jazz, or even innovative. When we listen to it, we just smile.

Images by me, published under Creative Commons license; not for redistribution without attribution, and not for reuse in commercial content.

*You draw metaphors with whatever you like. I will use movie Roberts.

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