Perfume Is A Dish Best Sprayed Cold - Roja Dove At The Wellcome Collection

25th July, 2011

Roja Dove always packs so many anecdotes into his lectures, that you never know if you'd prefer him to stick to the subject at hand or keep veering off on increasingly entertaining tangents. His recent talk at London's Wellcome Collection - part of a series of events linked to their Dirt exhibition - was no exception. On the surface, it was an examination of our complex relationship with states of cleanliness and dirtiness. But in reality, it was a breathless tour through decades of social history, interspersed with nuggets of tantalising info about the perfumery industry... and about Mr Dove's methods of dealing with relationship breakdowns.

The two main threads running through his presentation were that almost all of our responses to the relative cleanliness of smells have been learned through cultural conditioning, and that over the course of the last few centuries, the trend in Western society has been to move away from overtly sexualised odours. So in Marie Antoinette's time, it wasn't unusual for the floors of palaces and respectable chateaux to be as filthy as open sewers (which helps explain why women of the time preferred the hems of their dresses to be brown). 18th century European gents believed they could entice women more effectively by perfuming themselves with pure civet (a practice that seemed almost incomprehensible to the audience after Mr Dove allowed them to smell the substance on some blotters). But in the final decade of the 20th century - in response to the spread of HIV - the most popular fragrances were those which proclaimed: "Don't worry. I'm clean. I'm healthy. If you have sex with me, you won't catch a nasty disease."

This drive for more 'sterile' scents led to several conflicts between American and European fragrance developers. Mr Dove recounted how a well-known perfumer once struggled to create a formula which would appeal to consumers on both sides of the Atlantic until someone made the following statement to him: "In France you make love and then you shower. In America we shower and then we make love." With this in mind, he went on to fine-tune his creation, which eventually became Chanel's Chance.

Of course, Mr Dove acknowledged that within these generalisations lies a great deal of room for individual tastes. He stated that our perception of the desirability of certain smells sometimes comes down to a straightforward case of the person (or people) with whom we associate these smells. A scent worn by a confidante can come to represent safety and dependability. But if our trust is betrayed by this person, our brain may begin to associate the very same scent with feelings of revulsion and hatred. The extent to which we link specific smells with specific people can be so great, that we can sometimes use it to our advantage. For instance, Mr Dove stated that if we ever find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having been betrayed by a lover, we could consider seeking revenge by following these simple steps: 1) go round to his or her house about half an hour before he or she is due to return home; 2) spray liberal amounts of our signature perfume through the letter box; 3) withdraw to a nearby bar and enjoy a gin and tonic as we imagine him or her trying to explain our 'presence' in the house to his or her latest conquest.

Mr Dove's tongue may have been firmly in his cheek when he relayed these 'instructions', but his message was clear. Smell is and always has been a crucial factor in how we interact with other people and define our place in society. Although odours may not always be as obvious as sights and sounds, our sense of smell affects and shapes our behaviour on an almost primal level. If we ignore its importance, we do so at our peril.

About the author

Persolaise is a Jasmine Award shortlisted writer and amateur perfumer who has had a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over 25 years. You can find out more about his work at or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com.

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About the author: Persolaise

Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.



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    • Aiona | 26th July 2011 07:11

      Y'know it's interesting that you said that, "But in the final decade of the 20th century - in response to the spread of HIV - the most popular fragrances were those which proclaimed: 'Don't worry. I'm clean. I'm healthy. If you have sex with me, you won't catch a nasty disease.' "

      Because, I was pondering what last fragrance release that really had some musk and civety (poopy-like) smells in it. Must de Cartier debuted in 1981, and that was pretty much when AIDS started to become more talked about in the news. It really *was* the dawn of the aquatic age. It gives me shivers how much perfume has changed in response to world events. That whole butterfly effect. Fascinating.

    • Dr_Rudi | 26th July 2011 07:20

      Persolaise - is the quote about clean scents at the end of the 20th century from Roja Dove - or you?

    • Persolaise (article author) | 26th July 2011 11:40

      Dr Rudi, the quote definitely isn't mine. It was Mr Dove who expressed that particular idea about late 20th century scents. Unless I'm mistaken, he puts forward a similar viewpoint in his book, The Essence Of Perfume.

      Aiona, there's no question in my mind that there's a strong link between societal trends and perfume. I mean, how could there NOT be a link? Perfume is a consumer product that taps deeply into how people feel about themselves, which is connected to how they feel about their families, loved ones, jobs, politics etc etc.

      But I should mention that 'dirtier' smells are released all the time; they just don't enjoy mainstream success. Have you tried Kurkdjian's Absolue Pour Le Soir? That's got a massive civet note, as does Cuba from Czech & Speake.

    • Dr_Rudi | 26th July 2011 12:01

      @ Persolaise - thanks. An innocent question on my part. I haven't seen the recent BBC doco - but the snippet I've seen on YouTube has "someone" saying words to the effect that the Americans just wanted to smell clean - they didn't want to smell anything like their body might actually smell. And has the arrival of 'clean' scents got more to do with the arrival of the technology to make 'aquatics'? Just wondering.

    • Persolaise (article author) | 26th July 2011 13:16

      Dr Rudi, I'm sure you're right: chemical advances have a huge role to play in all this. When an excellent, long-lasting synthetic sandalwood molecule is found, then everyone clamours to use it and the market sees an increase in sandalwood scents. And yes, I believe that in the late 80s and early 90s, several 'clean' molecules were discovered/created.

      But technological determinism is never a wholly satisfying explanation in my opinion. Maybe, lots of 'clean' molecules were discovered because there was pressure on the scientists to carry out research into the field of 'clean' smells, because that's where market trends seemed to be heading?

      It's a fascinating subject. Someone ought to write a book...

    • Dr_Rudi | 26th July 2011 13:54

      I've done post-graduate marketing and that's an entirely plausible explanation. The market research people identify the desired product, and tell the R&D people to come up with it.

      I think 'clean' meant different things at different times. At one point 'clean' might have meant anything that wasn't the stench of filth (or indeed, covered up that smell); and then later, the 'original' colognes probably equated to 'clean'; and now 'clean' means something else again. Not to mention that what was once a guarded luxury is now a disposable item of fashion. Thanks Persolaise.

    • Nymphaea | 26th July 2011 20:01

      In Western (Christian?) culture, where 'cleanliness is next to Godliness', it's not surprising that we are fixated with the concept that cleanliness is synonymous with 'goodness'. If something is 'bad', its immediately associated with 'dirty'. It's Puritan in its' origin in the USA, I think, but it still permeates our unconscious.

    • Larimar | 27th July 2011 11:58

      Thanks a lot for this very interesting summary! I think I can call Roja Dove my favorite contemporary perfumer (although I have a very high opinion of Richard Fraysse keeping up the outstanding quality and old-school style at Caron!!) and always enjoy articles and interviews with him a lot.

      The 'cleanliness' factor is something that bothers me a lot. Most of all, it is something I can NOT understand at all. It is simply beyond my scope, my idea of how I would like to be perceived. Perfume is to me about enticement, allure, sheer beauty, seduction and (sex) appeal and no, I am not walking around constantly looking for sex partners :rolleyesold:. It is somewhat 'natural' in my world. The showering before or after sex really made me giggle and does say a lot...

    • maa | 28th July 2011 11:33

      Good event. Nice write up.

    • redrose | 29th July 2011 10:25

      It's really interesting how perfume is worn for different reasons by all of us and by society at large.

      Some, perhaps most to judge from advertising, wear it to attract and entice. I did, until my wedding day! I'm now happily married to a man with absolutely no sense of smell at all, so I wear what I like. I certainly don't want to attract anyone else, so the question of clean vs. dirty is for me very simple, i.e. do I like this smell or not? And how do I feel today? Do I want to express and enhance some quality - for instance, N'Aimez que Moi helps me focus on my inner world, which is great for writing. But Paris is much more extroverted, and I wear it when I'm out and about and want to feel more linked to the outside world.

      Incense and myrrh put me in meditative mood, and rose definitely links the physical and spiritual worlds for me.

      But still, people focus on the attractant powers of scent, so I guess I'm in a minority here.

      Great reportage! Thank you.

    • scentimus | 30th July 2011 16:27

      Very interesting I think this is what lead the downward sprawl we are seeing today in men's fragrances. Gone if - if not watered down our the masculine envelope pushing powerhouses to to the light crisp hardly sillage aqua scents were are being bombarded with today.

      I think it stems from the world now being global and trying to make something that appeals to both America / Europe / East.

    • Nostalgie | 31st July 2011 17:02

      Thanks for posting this article., Persolaise. It makes me wish I'd been there. You did a great job of letting us know what it was all about. Like a few others who have replied, I'm interested in this perfume-cleanliness-dirtiness discussion.

      J-C. Ellena talks about it a little bit in his new book "Journal d'un Parfumeur" (esp.. the "Odeuers honteuses"/'Shameful odors' chapter.

      Thanks again for posting!

    • pc0e497 | 2nd August 2011 20:57

      The headline grabbed me. Perfume is a dish, best served cold. This had me wondering. Would storing perfume bottles in a refrigerator help, hurt or do neither. The cold refrigerated molecules come in contact with the warm skin and react or the cold perfume is rubbed on the skin to warm it up and disperse the scent. The other option is what I do. Keep on a dresser top and use at room temperture. Sometimes rubbing it warm to activate the scent. Any takes on this. Refrigerate your perfume or don't?

    • cleo cupcake | 2nd August 2011 22:45

      Roja Dove himself recommends keeping perfumes in a fridge - especially ones where you have only a little left and you want it to last as long as possible. It's one of the many things I learned at a personal consultation with him in the Haute Perfumerie salon. He told me - get a small fridge, like the ones sold as novelties for storing beers and it will conserve your perfumes perfectly. The master has spoken!

    • Ratfink | 7th August 2011 14:50

      Thanks for this report - really interesting. Makes me wish I'd been there!

      Also makes me wonder, as a French person, if this is why I can't be bothered with 'Chance'.