Dhaher bin Dhaher (Tola): “I’m spending more and more of my time breaking down barriers between olfactory cultures”

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With Tola, Dhaher bin Dhaher, a creative director and businessman fascinated by niche perfumery, revisits the Emirati olfactory heritage from a nuanced European standpoint. Interview.

How did Tola get started?

I founded the brand in 2010, but my activity as creative director is not my main occupation. I spend most of my time running a company that works mainly on protecting personal data on behalf of the government of Abu Dhabi. The Tola story owes everything to my mother, the biggest perfume fan I’ve ever met. The idea came to me during a trip in London with my mother and eldest sister. The two of them were chatting about the emotions and memories that a fragrance can convey. I was so moved that I wanted to create olfactory stories of my own.

How much did your family influence the creation of your business? 

In the UAE, how perfume is used differs from other places. We tend to associate several fragrances at once, depending on the mood and whatever is the medium used: eau de toilette, scented oil, incense, and so on. My mother became extremely skilled in assembling raw materials herself to create what we in the Middle East call bakhoor, and what you know as incense. The mixture comes in solid form and is composed of agarwood dust or chips mixed with scented oils. Once a small piece is heated on hot-burning coals it releases its fragrance. We use it to scent our homes and clothes, to celebrate the arrival of a visitor, and so on. My mother used to make, entirely by hand, as much as one hundred kilos a year to give to family and friends. One day I told her that with all her expertise and recipes, we had enough to release a whole range of products commercially. We were ready to move beyond the family sphere and address the whole world.

How did you go about making it happen?

I gave myself three years to observe the market. I made the most of opportunities my business travel offered to trawl through niche boutiques, meet producers of raw materials, distributors and creators like Alessandro Gualtieri from Nasomatto and Gérald Ghislain from Histoires de parfums. One of my nieces was a design student at the time and she came up with the visual identity for Tola. Two of my other nieces sketched the illustrations that accompany the fragrance descriptions on our website. 

You go through ups and downs. I almost lost hope when I found out how much bespoke bottles and stoppers would cost. But I was ready to do anything to stand out. By 2013 I’d finalised my first compositions: six perfumes and two bakhoors. I remember my first experience of exhibiting at a show. I laid out my bottles on top of a rusty barrel and, wearing spotless traditional robes, I approached visitors while saying: “Look, we make more than just oil!”

What does your brand name, Tola, mean?

A tola is a unit of mass used very widely in the trade of gold and other precious substances in India, southern Asia and the Gulf region. A tola weighs just over eleven and a half grams.

You’re not a trained perfumer. Who assists you with your creations? 

I might be no chemist, but in my Dubai laboratory I’m still capable of concocting the first trials, the first accords. I work with composition houses to finalise the formulas and make sure they meet IFRA standards. I won’t reveal which ones I work with, except for the fact that I source some ingredients from IFF. 

Have you come across any reluctance or preconceptions based on where your brand is from?

Some people think that they’ll inevitably smell oud in every composition. It’s not something I use systematically, although it is one of my favourite ingredients. Ever since I started Tola, I have always dosed it very subtly, with an eye on the wider market. But, of course, my culture guides my inspiration. One of my most recent creations evokes the interior of an Emirati home with its mixed odours of bakhoor and coffee. But I hope that my admiration for European perfumery comes through in my accords, which use flowers, citrus and spices, among others. Some are very light, others headier. The reception in Europe, where people appreciate oriental fragrances, is very positive. Italy is my largest market by volume. But in terms of cultural reticence, I do see a certain resistance in Asia. I can understand it: China has gone from zero perfumes to discovering niche in recent years. It’s still a little too early for Japan, where perfume continues to be seen as related to the skin’s smell, to interpretations that are more intimate. It’s all a matter of education. This is why I’m spending more and more of my time breaking down barriers between olfactory cultures.

What do you mean?

I started by explaining the diversity of the niche sector to people in my own country, by opening three boutiques in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It’s a concept created with Alessandro Gualtieri called Villa 515. All three stores offer brands such as Histoires de parfums, Jean-Charles Brosseau, La Parfumerie moderne, État libre d’Orange and Nobile 1942. Visitors don’t always make a purchase, but they do at least discover new fragrances and narrative modes quite different from the local culture. And, whenever I can, I partner with local events centring on olfaction. I also created scents to accompany children’s stories during the pandemic and organised bakhoor workshops for students to try and keep the tradition alive. I would like to take things a step further. At Tola, we often welcome interns from perfumery schools in Europe. I’d love to set up an incubator to allow the best upcoming new talents to stay close to us once their work placement is over. In time, my idea is to include creations from these young newcomers in our collection.

What do you hope to get out of Esxence this year?

The fair is a great way to meet people. I’m proud I’ve been the very first UAE brand to take part. There are several of us now and we support each other. For Tola, the fair will be an opportunity to reveal a new design. We’re staying true to the artistic codes of luxury, but staying clear of bling. We’ll be showing our complete collection, twelve fragrances and a new range of bakhoors. My priority this year is to make contact with distributors with a view to entering new markets and increasing our outlets in places where we already have a presence. My ultimate dream is to open our own Tola-branded stores in the near future.

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