Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Essence of Perfume by Roja Dove: book review and preview

It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Roja Dove is the encyclopaedic resource to turn to on everything perfume-related. Even better that he is a very charming man to talk to as well. A former Cambridge medical student, Roja worked for many years for Guerlain: it all started when Robert Guerlain decided to stop his insistent questioning the company's global subsidiaries for info by harnessing this rampant enthusiasm of the 21-year-old by recruiting him and later appointing him Global Ambassador of parfums Guerlain; a title never before bestowed to non-Guerlain family members. Roja later teamed up with George Hammer (founder of the Sanctuary in Covent Garden and the one who brought Aveda to Britain) to create Roja Dove Haute Parfumerie in the Urban Retreat in Harrods. The mission stated in the brochure? "Haute Parfumerie defies the contemporary notion of "spray and pray" to bring together the finest fragrance offerings within sumptuous, lavish surroundings. Roja's personally trained experts will be on hand to help each customer find their signature fragrance." He continues to lecture audiences for prestigious establishments such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and oversees the creation of a bespoke line of exclusive fragrances for a select clientele as well as his own very special trilogy (Scandal, Enslaved, Unspoken) available at Harrods.

All this experience and passion has been distilled into Roja's newest book The Essence of Perfume. A coffee-table sized volume of glossy luxury, it is beautifully illustrated with photos of rare vintage bottles, especially in the final chapter: from the Egyptian Sphinx inspired Gardez-moi by Jovay (1926) to Baccarat crystal flacons such as the jewel-hued yet tastefully spartan hip-flask shaped Ybry line (1925-27), the Art Deco malachite-green of Trois Passions by Myon from 1928 and the rococo style decorative Bertelli perfumes from 1917. The exquisite naturalistic Lalique flacons for Bouquet des Faunes for Guerlain (1925) and their poetically formed L'Effleurt for Coty (1908) and Ambre d'Orsay from 1913 are also presented in all their glory. Bottles from Roja's private collection such as the Guerlain Bouquet de Victoria, Prince Albert's Bouquet and Bouquet de Napoléon (III) from the 1850-70s make a unique appearence as does the only known complete Chanel box containing No.5 and the never commercially released No.2 and No.11

But the book is not primarily aimed at the bottle collector. The Essence of Perfume strives to be a tome comprising information on various aspects of perfumery starting with a brief consice history of fragrance creation and use from antiquity through the birth of modern perfumery in the 19th century: I find little known facts that delight my historian soul such as the Appolonius' quote "perfumes are sweetest when the scent comes from the wrist" or who the first Grasse company to use solvent exctraction invented by the Robert clan (them of great perfumers' fame) is. The chapters then follow the course of introducing the perfume lover into the methodology of perfumery: explaining the methods of aromatics extraction (steam distillation, solvent extraction, expression, enfleurage and tincturing) with the aid of diagrams; a description of raw materials of natural origin accompanied by photographs and a two-word descriptor of their odour facet as well as a very brief guide to aroma-synthetics (not strictly non occuring in nature, such as natural isolates, lab reconstitutions, novel synthesized molecules and aldehydes), useful to the budding perfumephile who is questioning what is that long series of ingredients listed in their new box's allergens list. Roja then goes into detail explaining how the composition of a fragrance is constructed in the classic pyramidal style, the basic fragrance families (floral, chypré, oriental, fougère) and the fragrance facets within those divisions (for instance the "aromatic" facet is further divided into lavender, aniseed and minty tones or the distinction between "soft", "resinous" and "powdery" balsamic) as well as the differences in concentration of compound in the finished product resulting in Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, Extrait de Parfum/pure parfum and the always confusing matter of Eau de Cologne and the origin of Eau Fraîche types. Basically the seasoned perfumephile will want to leaf through these and instead focus on the delightful perusal through the great classics that follows.

From Jicky by Guerlain (1889) and L'origan (1905) by Coty all the way through to Narciso Rodriguez (2003) and Perles de Lalique (2006) Roja Dove saves the bulk of the book for the detailed exposition classified by decade of the perfumes that marked their era due to their popularity and innovation. This is accompanied by vintage ads, socio-economic commentary on the evolving mores that were expressed into the change in tastes and trends on each sub-chapter introduction and pictures of iconic style representations such as Great Garbo, Barbara Goalen in a Dior couture dress from 1947, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Andy Warhol entourage of the 70s, Lady Diana Spencer and Jennifer Lopez. Reading about them we come across facts we have encountered and shared before and others which we have not. Jacques Guerlain being touched by a previous Guerlain mention by Claude Farrere leading to using one of the author's heroines name in Mitsouko. Patou wanted "Joy to be to perfume what Roll-Royce is to cars". How naive older practices like the one used by Opium (and Caron 60 years before it) to cut short the long waiting list when the product did come in the stores to keep fueling the demand seem in our marketing-obsessed times...And how truly it resonates with poignancy about the changes in attitude towards intimate smells when Roja describes Shocking by Schiaparelli "like the interior of ladies' underwear" and its progeny Boudoir by Westwood "like Shocking wihout the knickers"!

After this mesmerising foray into anecdotes and descriptions on so many fragrances, there are alphabetized entries on each house from Coty to Carven through Robert Piguet and Christian Dior to Jean Patou and Yves Saint Laurent also illustrated with famous and not so famous pictures of the protagonists behind perfume vision and little stories about some of the myths that surround them: it is here that we find more detailed info on Coco Chanel's sobriquet being inspired by a tune sang by her in cafes with the chorus "Qui Qu'a Vu Coco" about a little dog ~dispelling the rumour that it had to do with hosting cocaine parties; that Madame Carven was behind fragrances sold aboard airplanes concept; that Patrick Alès (the buyer of the Caron house) calls Roja "Monsieur Caron" for his dedication while Anarchist was named in tribute to the revolutionary spirit of the house's founder Ernest Daltroff; and that Cacharel is named after a small migratory bird of the Camargue.

Roja Dove thinks "perfume has become debased over the past 10 to 15 years. The marketing brief is getting younger and younger: it's all for 18-25s. I don't know of any house that's creating perfumes for women over 30, and all the great perfumes are disappearing by stealth. Perfumers are frightened to take risks, but many of the great perfumes came about by mistake." and "A lot of perfumes disappeared because they were no good or were of the moment and ceased to be relevant. But these ones - all the ones in my parfumerie - are more than relevant today; they were probably just ahead of their time. When you take scents like Miss Dior or Vol de Nuit by Guerlain, you have formulas which are still avant-garde and totally wearable. Commercial perfumery is nowhere near as creative," as quoted in an interview to Alison Kerr in The Scotsman. "But a small renaissance has begun as not everyone wants to smell cheap. Consumers are waking up to the idea of individuality once more; the cognoscente is turning back on mass-marketed fragrances. There is a revival in creative perfumery; shifting the craft back to the genius of the master perfumers", Roja comments on the foreword of his new tome. A sigh of relief...

If I were to find fault with anything it would be that there is some English-ised construction in several French phrases (eau de colognes instead of eaux de cologne, Professeur de parfums instead of des parfums, fougere's for the plural fougeres on page 86), as well as the perennial but widely standardised formulas instead of the Latin plural formulae. But these are misdemeanors that can be easily sidetracked by the sheer scope of the book. If not absolutely indispensable to those who have perhaps read too much on the subject, it is still a very concise and worthy addition to a library that focuses on fine fragrance.

You can watch Roja Dove talk about his niche and classic fragrance choices here:

"When you wear a fragrance you create tomorrow's memories". Aaah!

Official issue date of The Essence of Perfume for the US is 28th October (70$) Apart from pre-ordering at Amazon, you can get a 40% discount off the retail price by contacting Jess Atkins at jess@blackdogonline.com stating "Perfume Shrine discount" in the title of your mail.

Pics through Black Dog Publishing, not to be reproduced without permission
Clip provided via handbag.com


  1. Anonymous14:32

    I'm afraid the Professeur de(s) Parfums title does make me giggle which is totally mean of me since he is, as you state, a charming man. I attended, with a dear perfume friend, one of his talks at the V&A and the audience was spellbound. I also caught him on a quiet day in the Haute Parfumerie and we had a lovely chat. I sniffed a few of his uber exclusive scents and fell in love with one of them (somewhat reminiscent of Eau d'Hermes)which he generously spritzed me with. This book sounds very interesting in a similar manner to the Michael Edwards book. It is on my birthday list :-) Thanks for a lovely review, E. Nicola

  2. I wish Mr. Dove has dedicated a few lines to the current niche perfume trend, at least write a couple of Lutens or L'Artisan perfumes in the Classics section, I think some of them are innovative enough to be market turning. Otherwise the book is great.

  3. Anonymous21:00

    Oh, Helg, this sounds right up my alley: I have been searching high and low for a coffee table book on perfume with beautiful illustrations and photos of bottles. Thank you so much for the elaborate review and teasing us! And for the discount!

  4. Anonymous21:05

    Helg, does Dove mention Lutens and Malle and the new fragrances at all? Reading the comments I guess he doesn't which is weird as he mentions Narciso and Perles de Lalique which are not that distinctive to me, but what do I know, he is the expert, right. Still, I would love to see what you think on this.

  5. Roja Dove is a charming man who really gives a great talk. I went to one of his talks for Guerlain way back when he was working for them . Lots of knowledge and I got the feeling his favourite Guerlain was Jardin de Bagatelle.
    I wish he opened a shop here .

  6. N,

    he does have a very intense effect on audiences, that's very true. How lucky to watch and hear him talk at the V&A: I can't imagine a better place for such a talk (LOVE the V&A, have photographed almost everything that could be photographed).
    Indeed if I recall correctly he likes EdH so it's natural he was inspired.
    And yes, it's comparable in concept to the ME book: worth getting at any rate because of the unique pics of his own collection.

  7. L,

    I agree with you: he talks about the new renaissance therefore the lack of some of the new niche fragrances is somehow felt.
    But I believe he was going about what is widely available because all the other classics were also widely available (and some were bestsellers too!), therefore he should apply the same criteria to all. I could be wrong though, this is merely my reasoning behind this. :-)

  8. S,

    you're welcome! Glad you liked the presentation. It's exactly what a perfect coffee table book should entail: lots of glossy paper, beautifully bound, good informative content, beautiful pictures and a conversation piece to be sure!

  9. A,

    like Elysium pointed out there are no Lutens or Malle or L'artisan fragrances covered in the exposition of classics, *not* because he deems them unworthy (if you watch the clip I linked he is very sympathetic to niche offerings), but because they're not widely available like the rest are. Also probably because he is bound by the limitations of what the HP at Harrods stocks.

    As to Narciso I think it's VERY influential (therefore could be seen as classic) because it was the first which went for this new "woody" clean-vetiver accord that defined the trend for the "modern chypres" (or however you want to call them) which imitated it. Perles de Lalique is comparable in that it revolutionised the rose of chypres of yore into a modern composition that could be chosen by a young woman without her feeling she's wearing the scent of her mother/grandmother.
    Hope it's clearer now :-)

  10. M,

    great, another one who has heard the man in vivo! He's encyclopaedic, certainly. I gather when he was working for Guerlain he was mostly focused on their creations.
    Perhaps you might petition the desire for the new shop? ;-)

  11. I was hoping to save this for Christmas when I would either get it as a present or give it to myseld but now I really don't think I can wait!

  12. Rose,

    I am pretty positive you will be thrilled! :-)

  13. Anonymous10:49

    This book would be a perfect gift to any perfume lovers out there.

    I love the way you present your review about this book, very enticing indeed.


    Make Homemade Fragrances

  14. Thanks for the comment Bobdy, glad you liked the review and the book.

  15. Anonymous18:33

    Dear All, thank you for the kind words you write about my book. I wanted to create a bookj that covers everyarea of perfumery, from how the brain processes odour, to the way fragrances are made - including a large section on th major materials of perfumery both natural and synthetic.
    The book looks at scent in a socio economic context and as the generally accvepted norm is ten yeras before you could begin to say a creation is classic I tried to include the creation of the past few years which have truly shaped creative perfumery - Rodrigo was the first creation to redefine the chypre accord removing the deep mossy aspects of the classical structures - I do not know of any pefumer who would disagree.
    I find it interesting that people make comment of the my hands portentially being tied by the selection in my perfumery - the selection is totally mine and one thing most people might not realise is thta it is the only perfumery in the world where someone has been able to say to the houses that they only want to stock certain scents - usually you are obliged to take the complete offering.
    Whilst I would agree that L'Artisan, Malle, and Goutal have interestinf creations in my opinion most of them are based around either quite simple structures or are not original enough to have shaped a trend in creative perumery - which is my criteria. I have tried not to be emotional in my selection but factual.
    Once again I thank everyone for their kind words and some of you might be interested to know that I am giving another lecture at the V&A in December and two workshops - which will be a first.
    N.B. as for the Professeur de Parfums - th etitle was given to me by Guerlain and was accepted by the French Perfumery Commity.
    If uyou com to the V&A please be sure to come and say hello as I will be bringing many of my unique perfumery artefacts there.
    Roja Dove

  16. Mr. Dove, what an utter delight to have you here on my page and comment in such a clarifying and wonderfully warm manner! Thank you so much!
    Your point about the selection amidst a house's offerings is indeed very interesting and I admit I hadn't paid enough attention to, had slipped off my mind dazzled as I was by the wide selection. And thanks for pointing out the criteria around the brands mentioned (personally I'd think L'artisan in particular has some new concepts ~perhaps~ like Mure et Musc or Navegar or Premier Figuier, technically the first in their respective categories; but whether they did create a new standard/trend that's a matter of personal opinion).
    I do intend to follow up shortly, if that's all right with you :-)

  17. Anonymous21:05

    Dear Perfume Shrine, I hope my comments were of help. I had to define what I wanted the book to convey and not waiver from it - the topic is so vast and each enters into it through their own particular view, desire, opinion, and slant. So many might not agree with some of the things I say or do which is why I state that I have tried to do my best to cover evry area of perfumery so that each might find something which is of benefit.
    It is interesting to see what people have to say, and how people form opinions of me and my work without knowing me - often they make me annoyed and soetimes they make me rreally laugh as in the case of anothert blog-site where someone has seen my photograph in the book and realise that I do not have whiskers and a tweed suit! People generally are really very kind and I think many peoplerealise I have spent my entire life trying to promote an understanding of the creative process of perfumery and those who inhabit it and have made it what it is today by making it relevant- which is why I try to explain the importance of a perfumer like Coty in the modern market otherwise it can alienate too many people who see it as too removed from their reality. Having worked with the likes of Jean-Paul Guerlain and Guy Robert or as a sort of middle-man with the likes of Mr Valentino as well as the consumers and press from all around the world it makes you realise the importance for context, which is what I have tried to acheive in my book.
    Thank you for giving me a place to air my opinion and voice.
    With warmest wishes
    Roja Dove

  18. Dear mr.Dove,

    thanks so much for writing in such detail and you're very welcome to air your opinion on Perfume Shrine always! We're honoured to have you here!
    Of course if one hasn't had the pleasure of seeing you in person, one might imagine various things: but the essence (no pun intended) is that it is your knowledge and the passion with which you pass on this knowledge that should be the captivating element for us and I am pleased to see that the book distills that well.
    Coty is a prime-example of a perfumer and a company which has lost its cachet through going the mass route, so it's always good to reacquaint ourselves with the illustriou history of such brands (and Le Galion, Jovoy, Houbigant, Cherigan, Gabilla etc) and with the many little tidbits that someone with your experience has collected along the way.
    In fact I would be very interested in conducting an interview with you, the one we didn't have the time to conduct at Harrod's, and I will be in touch with your agent so I can foward you some questions for your perusal if you're so inclined. (You can always reach me personally at perfumeshrine@yahoo.com)
    Thanks again for your time and stopping by!


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