Roja and Out

Debra Brock got a masterclass in olfactory enlightenment. Here’s what she learned from The Don.



It’s not often in life you get to spend two days with a world expert. But that’s exactly what I did at the end of last year, when I was invited to join a group of journalists for training with the legendary perfumer Roja Dove. I doubt there is anyone in the world who knows more about fragrance and I’m sure there’s nobody who could present two days worth of intense training more charismatically. It was a truly brilliant experience.

Because Roja believes so strongly that people should talk knowledgeably and accessibly about scent, he gives two days of his time to train journalists every year. For those who can’t access the course, he’s distilled his knowledge into The Essence of Perfume, a beautiful coffee table book covering a lot of the same content (although sadly not with the smells. Can we call for a high class comeback for scratch ’n’ sniff books?). I highly recommend the book – as well as his guidance on all things fragrant, there are beautiful images of bottles from his personal collection, including bespoke creations by Guerlain for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

But back to the course itself. I came away with new found knowledge and a determination to smell everything I had at home with a completely fresh approach. I wanted to share here some of things I learned that really surprised me.

Perfume can smell differently on different blotters (yes, we spent 30 minutes talking about paper, and it was fascinating. I suspect the Venn diagram of scent and stationery nerds has a sizeable crossover zone).
Most paper uses some form of glue as a binding agent, and the alcohol in perfume can dissolve this adhesive, which has its own scent. If you see a blue or violet line on the paper that’s the adhesive dissolving, and it could well affect what you’re smelling. Ditto printed blotters – the perfume can dissolve the pigment on the paper and alter the smell.

The reason you can’t smell anything after sniffing two or three fragrances is because you are smelling them too quickly.
The very first thing that evaporates when you spray is the alcohol in the scent, and if you dive in to sniff it straight away this will act as a very effective anaesthetic for your nose. Leave the blotter a bit longer before smelling and you’ll be able to go on sniffing for ages (Roja had prepared our blotters in the morning and we were able to keep going all day). If you’re shopping, spray some blotters, don’t let them touch each other and then walk away with them. Smell them over a good couple of hours to see how the scent develops.
Pro tip: if you are leaving blotters on the table, bend the ends you’ve sprayed up so they don’t touch the table. That way you won’t pick up the smell of Eau de Mister Muscle.

It’s really difficult for a non-expert to pick out a perfume in a blind sniffing.
I managed two (Chanel no 5 and YSL Paris) out of about 30. Picking out individual notes (think of rose or lemon, for example) was way easier.

The best way to remember how something smells is to create an association in your brain.
For example aldehydes, which add a sparkle to scent, can smell like a hot iron. Perfumers build up their own books of these associations over years of training.

If you’re not sure how to describe a fragrance, or which family it belongs to, smell it against a known reference point.
If you’re thinking something might be an Oriental, pull out something you know is an Oriental and compare them – you’ll probably smell similarities. There are various iconic fragrances that even perfumers use as key fragrance family reference points – Guerlain’s Mitsouko within Chypre, Thierry Mugler’s Angel within Gourmand, for example.

There are only five people left in the world who know how to perform the oldest method of fragrance extraction, enfleurage.
They place flower buds by hand on a layer of fat and over time the fragrance from the buds seeps into the fat, which becomes known as a pommade. It’s now so labour intensive and expensive compared with other methods of extraction, that it will probably die as an art.

Vetiver doesn’t smell ‘green’.
It smells of leather, smoke and earth. The reason we think it’s a green smell is that Carven produced their original vetiver scent in green packaging, and other houses followed suit. We now historically associate vetiver with green.

You really need oil in your skin for scent to last (this becomes even more important post menopause).
Roja recommends using a pH balanced wash (ideally a slightly acidic pH to match your skin’s pH of 5.5), then fragrance, then an unscented body cream over the top to lock it in (Chanel’s beautiful Les Exclusifs Fresh Body Cream is designed exactly for this purpose.)

When Roja says take your time to smell something, he really means it.
We spent a good ten minutes with a blotter of bergamot under our noses and began to understand how one simple raw ingredient can have such a complex scent, developing and changing significantly over a relatively short space of time.

If you’d like to hear Roja talk about perfumery in person, do follow his Twitter and Instagram feeds for regular updates on public speaking engagements, events and workshops. Roja will be speaking at a Feast For The Senses champagne dinner, in partnership with Laurent-Perrier, at The Ritz on Friday 18th March 2016. For full details, see here.

Debra Brock

Debra Brock is co-founder of and a contributing writer.

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