The smell of a new-born baby. The smell of a freshly painted house. The smell of your late grandmother’s clothes. The smell of bitter almonds.
While the former represents positive aspirations and life itself, the latter indicates the end of all aspirations, natural and unnatural. Beginning his 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera with the sentence “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez was alluding the use of almond smelling cyanide as a method of suicide. In essence, scent encapsulates the full circle of life.
No one knows this more than world-renowned perfumer Roja Dove. While he was born and raised in Sussex, England, his true spiritual home would probably be Grasse, a town in the South of France notable for its unofficial title as the world’s capital of perfume. First a medical research student at Cambridge, then a model, his final metamorphosis came when he celebrated his 21st birthday with a trip to the Guerlain parfumerie in Paris. Comparing his birthday visit to the legendary parfumerie to the feeling a Catholic might experience meeting the Pope, in an interview with GQ magazine Dove said “I knew from the minute I walked in the door what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
As a result of his persistence and passion, shortly after his life-changing trip, Dove began working for the Guerlain family and so began a partnership spanning nearly two decades and countless visits to Grasse. Valued for his extensive knowledge (the Guerlain family claimed that Dove knew more about the brand’s history than they did themselves), Dove was honoured with the position of Global Ambassador, the first ambassador to be a non-Guerlain family member.
If his career had ended with his lauded position at Guerlain, Dove would still be considered the world’s only Professeur de Parfum. However, driven by the death of his parents and following a successful collaboration with Harrods, Dove decided to forge his own path divorced from the heritage of Guerlain and Harrods. Using his life savings to fund his dream down to the handmade boxes and crystal bottle tops, Dove launched Roja Parfums in 2011 in England. It was an astounding success, which took him to New York’s Bergdorf Goodman less than two years later. When he’s not travelling the world, writing for the likes of Vogue and Vanity Fair in-between lecturing at museums and running his fragrance line, Dove does something no one else in the world can claim: he captures the essence of a person – at a (very high) price.
Working with a maximum of ten private clients a year, coyly described by Dove as something along the lines of “my gentleman” or “my actress” Dove invokes the power of his nose, as well as the power of his perception, to distil the irrefutable id of a person and capture it in scent form. His ambition would seem crazy if he hadn’t already done it for numerous lucky (and wealthy) clients.
Through months of tireless meetings, trial and error and sniff tests resembling a psychological analysis, Dove emerges with a 3.4 ounce bottle that smells as unique and irreplaceable as the client who inspired it. Designed to be worn forever, the fragrance that equals the weight of less than half a cup of water costs a staggering $40,000 or nearly R500,000, that’s nearly R150,000 per ounce. The price includes the cost of the raw materials: vetiver from India, a rare jasmine that less than five perfumers on earth have access to, amyris from Haiti, and Dove’s time and expertise. The sweet smell of success seems to have a hefty price (pricier than gold per ounce) but Dove insists that his clientele aren’t exclusively the rich and famous, there are those who “scrape and cobble everything they have because fragrance plays such a central role in their life.”
However, with his bespoke fragrance costing more than a new car, you have to wonder if fragrance can perhaps be considered an investment in happiness? While many people would be inclined to put so much money to different, more practical use, Dove believes that the daily ritual of putting on fragrance makes a person “infinitely happier” and isn’t that truly worth more than gold?