Dominique Roques, The Voice & Soul of Natural Ingredients

2021 . 09 . 07 | written by Laurence Arrigo Klove

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Thanks to his caring mission, ingredients are no longer silent. In his book, we listen to each ingredient story and understand their unique melody. Spread around the world, this family untold story unfolds.

Question: Dominique, let’s start from the beginning, where and when did the idea of writing a book spring in your head? Had you written a travelling diary as a base for your book?

I must confess that not only I had 0 notes to start with but also 0 experience in terms of writing. Quite simply, I had to tackle this new challenge with determination and resilience. It took me 2 years to write 18 chapters and complete the book. Over the years, friends of mine had relentlessly suggested that I had to share my experiences in a book. My last trip to source incense in Somaliland* was the tipping point. My emotions in front of so much History before my eyes were so intense that I decided I had the duty of transmitting it. I had the urge of telling the story of my 30 years of wandering throughout the world of sourcing ingredients. My objective was to focus on the unique human stories behind each natural ingredient. I certainly did not want to write a tedious technical book, but instead one based on anecdotes, on real stories with characters. My intention was therefore to write a novel based on my travels for sourcing ingredients, so I called it ‘Cueilleur d’essences’.

*Somaliland is an independent country since 1991, split from Somalia, not yet ratified by the United Nations

Happy Dominique next to an incense tree in Somaliland

Question: Well, it seems you hit the ground running as the book has been a real success and is about to be translated and published in multiple countries around the world. Tell us more about it.

First, I must say that I was honoured to have been chosen by a French prestigious publishing company such as Grasset. The success of the book is way above my expectations as well as the pace at which the new foreign editions are happening. By Xmas time, the book will be published in 10 countries such as England, Italy, China, Holland, Russia, The Czech Republic, Spain and more … It seems that my intention to speak about humanity at large has succeeded. I am happy that my message has been understood. In one way, my book will also travel to all those different countries and be placed in the travelling section of a vast array of bookshops. I don’t know yet the book titles in their foreign editions. I am very curious to discover them.

Cueilleur D’essences, Dominique Roques first book

Question: I am sure this triggered in your mind the idea of writing another book as it seems you have many more stories in store …

Well … I may have another idea in mind for a second book. Of course, I could write about ingredients not chosen for this first book as I only selected 17 out of 150. Or about additional countries from the 50 destinations I have travelled to. But in the end, I am tempted to write a piece about my journey into the history of forests and their fate once man stepped inside them with bronze axes …

Question: you dedicated your book to your father ‘who showed me the path leading to the trees’, can you tell us more about this path?

Certainly. First, it was only when I had finished the book that I realized that in many chapters I had told the story of a perfume tree. The way the scent was extracted from it in the past, the way it is continued in modern times, the dangers linked to greed and the challenges of a virtuous production. One that preserves both nature as well as the people working with it. My father came to mind as at one point in his life he went to California and Alaska where he worked as a lumberjack. On several occasions, he transmitted to me his passion and respect for trees, their age, their height, their stories... He simply loved them. I am following his path.

In the mountains of El Salvador, a tapper works on an imposing Peru Balsam tree

Question: if you were to pick only sentence from the book which one would you pick?

I definitely would choose one from the conclusion chapter as I took great care in summarizing my thoughts and clearly expressing the meaning of my work and of sourcing sustainably ingredients: ‘… Then he (the perfume) walks away gently, gone to tell us and the air all that the earth had entrusted to him, to the sources of the perfumes of the world.

Question: Can you explain to us how you chose a subtitle for each chapter that is quite enigmatic such as ‘the Earth full of Shadow and Light’ for Haitian vetiver?

Certainly. As I told you I wanted to write a story for each ingredient, a human one. So, I try to depict the geography, the landscapes, the history, the people who live there, the communities who work with such ingredient, the traditions they carry on… It appears to me that beyond each ingredient story, we have the expression of a piece of ethnography… Most times, the subtitle came to my mind after I had finished writing the chapter. In one way, it is my personal take, my strongest emotion from that specific destination.

Dominique in Haiti, loading vetiver with locals prior to distillation

Question: Dominique, you are an expert in more than one hundred natural ingredients, can I ask if you do have a favorite one?

May I possibly ask for 2? 1 is too hard for me. I will pick the rose from Bulgaria and benzoin from Laos. I can tell you a secret which is that I had written several chapters about the rose, so big is my passion for it. In the end, there are only 2 chapters about it. Rose is the eternal flower, the symbol of a woman, complex, always different, impossible to get tired of. Bulgaria is special to me for multiple reasons. First, the rose production during the communist times came to a halt. I personally took up the challenge of restarting it in the mid-nineties. Second, one needs 1 million flowers for only 1 kg of rose essence! With only 3 weeks of harvest in the spring in the expert hands of women from the gypsy communities. What an accomplishment! The landscape is captivating, it is called the ‘roses valley’, full of water and girls with roses adorning their hair. I am also in love with benzoin from Laos, it grows in the North of the country. The landscape is stunning, full of rice fields, forests, traditional villages, in a sub-tropical climate, utterly exotic. Benzoin is extracted from trees, huge ones, we humans are so insignificant next to them.

Bulgarian gypsy girls harvesting rose

Question: You are an experienced traveler, used to a ‘nomadic life’ but is there one destination you particularly do not fancy?

I must have been blessed by the gods - or by my ingredients - as none of my trips have gone awry. I can happily go back to every destination I have been to. Each one has its charm and is full of new learnings: people to engage with, beautiful ingredients to source, local distilleries to visit, local music to listen to, food to taste … in the end, authentic experiences. I believe that man and nature can live well together, respecting each other. However, there is one thing that makes me feel uncomfortable and that is extreme, dire poverty. I have seen it in Haiti and Madagascar, and it hurts. It helps to know that my line of work makes sure people can make a living out of it.

Jasmine field in Tamil Nadu, India

Question: So, Dominique if I understood correctly you are caught in between the field and the lab, how comfortable is such position?

Quite clearly, it is a very precious position to be in. From my point of view, I am very lucky to be able to talk to the 2 opposite ends of the ‘perfume chain’. The producers on the one end, the perfumers on the other end. The fields & their smells as well as the sleek business offices & their labs. I have the whole vision that allows me to always strive for the best solution, as each side is quite demanding. My challenge is indeed to find the highest level of ingredient quality and sustainability and select the appropriate distillery plant, all at the right price and for a substantial duration. This process takes time and usually requires several field visits. The most difficult ingredient sourcing mission has been oud. I only cracked ‘oud’ thanks to Bangladesh.

Question: According to you, to do well in your line of trade, what qualities does one need?

Above all, one needs to like people. In my opinion, this is a business based on humans, on communities following tradition and yet looking to the future. Investing in the well-being of their people as well as nature. Perfumers too have a desire to continue to create the most beautiful perfumes with the best ingredients. Everybody dreams and strives for a better future.

Tradition continues, incense in Somaliland

Question: It seems to me that you are quite optimistic about the future, what advice would you give to the next generation?

Nature is fragile and needs to be protected. At this point in time, there is a growing interest and demand in natural ingredients in perfumes, sourced and produced in a sustainable way. This for me, means to also take at heart the people behind it, their traditional know-how and their future. I see so many passionate people around the globe determined to fight this case, so yes, I am optimistic. I can only praise them. Keep up the good work!

Question: Finally, if you had to pick one destination, what is your happiest place on earth?

My journey can end up in Calabria. From the hills, I am looking out to the sea and to Sicily. All around me, I can smell the delicious bergamot scent* and see its beautiful orchards. Tradition mixes with modernity with new, best-in-class distillery plants close by. This is luxury and beauty mixed together. I am simply happy. Che Bello…

*In the winter season from December to February

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Dominque Roques Ingredients Manifesto is Loud and Clear

He tells us their story in an articulate way. Their Dreams. Their challenges. Their People. Thanks to Dominique, opening a bottle of perfume will never be the same. A new impactful emotion will come about. We will hear beautiful, untold stories. Reconnecting us with the beauty of natural elements. Like kids who want the story to be told again and again before bedtime, we want Dominique to tell us the story, one more time. Please.