Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Clearer Vision - Guerlain's Thierry Wasser At Selfridges

A few weeks ago, Guerlain's in-house perfumer, Thierry Wasser, breezed into London. The main purpose of his visit was to begin the process of promoting the brand's latest masculine creation, L'Homme Idéal, a classically-structured piece of work, based around bitter almond, which won't appear on UK shelves until September (although it's already out in France and several other countries). But in between chatting with journalists, Wasser took some time out to address an audience at London's branch of Selfridges and to answer questions from Jo Fairley, who chaired the event in her capacity as co-founder of the new Perfume Society.

The ostensible purpose of the Q&A was to talk about the subject of sustainability in Guerlain's various ingredient-sourcing operations across the world. But Fairley kicked off proceedings by asking Wasser to recall his favourite scent memory from his childhood.

Thierry Wasser: Actually, it was a brilliant fragrance called Pour Un Homme from Caron. A friend of my Mom wore it and I was totally obsessed with it, and I still am today. My first fragrance, actually, when I was 13, was Habit Rouge. It was a premonition.

Jo Fairley: That was very grown up for a 13 year old.

TW: No. I was 13, but physically, I looked like I was 8, and when you're 13 and you look like that, it's rather... inconvenient. I chose Habit Rouge because, to me, it was really masculine and it made me more comfortable. I agree, it was bold, but the purpose was to make myself a little older than I was, and it worked.

JF: What is your signature in fragrance? Is there anything you can't resist putting in a fragrance?

TW: Sure, I have some tics. First of all, there's the house tic, the Guerlinade, which is the use - or sometimes, the abuse - of rose, iris, bergamot, jasmine, tonka bean, vanilla. But for the past six years, I've had a soft spot for rose, especially Bulgarian rose. But I'd be the worst person to be able to figure out what my style or my writing is like. I think in five years I've learned so much about sourcing and manufacturing that my formula writing has changed.

JF: Is it true that you've recreated some of the old Guerlains - according to their original formulas - so that you can smell what they were like?

TW: I have. We have the old books of formulas - the manuscript of all the formulas from the time of the founder until now - but they don't 'speak', really. You can see from the handwriting that there is a rhythm, there is a succession of raw materials, but it doesn't speak. And to have a clearer vision, I re-compounded twenty or so old fragrances. I had to fetch raw materials from very remote places to find what I thought would be close to what was used in the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. For example, bergamot was not treated; it was raw. That one was easy, because I said to our partners in Italy, 'Give me 5 kilos of raw bergamot before you start killing it.' So I can have a Shalimar in its 1925 version, which is interesting to smell, because it is, indeed, different from the one we know today. I'm not sure that people nowadays would like it.

JF: There's been a lot in the media about classic perfumes being changed forever. How much under threat from anti-allergen regulations are our beloved fragrances, like Shalimar and Mitsouko?

TW: For the last fifteen years, they've been very mistreated. But this media campaign you're talking about is actually, excuse my French, bull***t. It started with an interview from someone who's working for an allegedly serious news agency, but doesn't know anything about the subject. And suddenly you get a big headline saying, 'The European Commission wants to kill No 5 or Shalimar' which is absolutely, absolutely untrue. The European Commission was opening a discussion about measures which had been proposed by the European Scientific Committee. They hadn't decided anything. And suddenly you had all these articles and fuss about what the European Commission is intending to do.

JF: Why is sustainability important to Guerlain?

TW: Sustainability is a state of mind. When you're 186 years old as a company, I should remind everyone that sustainability is a fairly new term. 180 years ago, things were sustainable. You didn't trash everything. You recycled. You took care. It's nothing new. It's just common sense for us.

JF: I gather that in Calabria, where you grow some materials, you're using the orange trees to protect the bergamot trees.

TW: Yes, but I didn't invent any of that. They've been doing that for three centuries. They understood that the bergamot tree was fragile and that the bitter orange tree was much more robust, so they planted bitter orange trees around their bergamot gardens to protect them from the wind. Our ancestors weren't that stupid. They observed and they watched. It's a bit weird that I have to talk about sustainability here because, we just do it. It's not a marketing tool. I'm very happy to talk about sustainability, but it's not the main thing we do. When we go to India for vetivert or sandalwood - which is a nightmare to source today - we need to be logical and use common sense. And even if you're the most selfish bastard on earth, you have to understand that, for your own future, you have to be sustainable.

JF: Tell me about your vetivert project.

TW: In the south of India, I used to source jasmine sambac, tuberose and mimosa. Our local partner came with a smelling strip one day and said, 'Smell this.' And suddenly, I was transported to the perfumery school of Givaudan twenty years earlier, and I was reminded so strongly of the bourbon quality from Réunion which isn't made any more. So I said, 'This is awesome, where does it come from?' And my friend said it was in a valley a two-hour drive away. So for the last four years, we've done an experiment. We started with a couple of acres of vetivert to see what it would yield. But what's funny was that I had to convince the farmers to share a little bit of their acreage to grow vetivert, because they didn't know about it. I had to convince them, because instead of the vetivert, they could have grown corn or tapioca or peas or bananas.

Sandalwood is another story. It's a war, because it's very difficult to source sandalwood. Besides the big houses - Givaudan, Firmenich and IFF - there are three companies which use sandalwood in quantities: Chanel, Dior and ourselves. We have a programme where you plant sandalwood on a whole mountain. It's so secret that I'm not going to tell you were it is. It's a touchy subject. The mountain was an old tea plantation which had not been used for 35 years. We decided with a partner that he would acquire the forest and we replanted a natural habitat, in which there is now some sandalwood.

JF: Do you check on the sustainability of your suppliers?

TW: Yes, but I really think the sustainability thing is funny. It is not a dogma. A lot of people have gargled with that word and think it's the new thing to do. But when you go to Haiti, as I have, sometimes you see that their priorities are a bit different. They have to eat first. And after that, they think about being sustainable. We have to understand that. We're not in the time of colonies any more. We don't give lessons to people. We have to have a minimum of understanding and humility about who they are and what they do. First, we let them solve their problems, and then we talk to them about sustainability. In India, I asked a lab to do an analysis of the calorific potential of the leftovers of vetivert roots. On a scale of 0 to 10,000, I think carbon is 6000, and the vetivert roots were 5000. So there is calorific value in them. So you can compact them and use them as fuel instead of trees. They can do that in India, because they have access to food, hospitals and schools. But in Haiti, it's another story.

JF: Why do you go to the Bulgarian rose harvest every year? What difference does it make to you?

TW: There are vintages. This year was like 2010: it was an amazing year for the rose, and I witnessed that in Bulgaria and Turkey and the south of France. A beautiful vintage. When a supply route is open and running, maybe you don't need to go back every year. But first of all, it's fun. And second of all, you have to negotiate prices.

JF: You recently reformulated Mitsouko and you've made it better than it has been for years. How did you 'fix' the oakmoss in it, to make it compatible with regulations?

TW: Robertet makes some oakmoss and tree moss without any of the nasty, naturally occurring molecules. If you make a fractional distillation and you pull out what the European Commission doesn't want any more, then you create an olfactive hole. So then you have to find a way of tricking the nose into thinking that it's smelling real oakmoss. You have to cheat by using other things. I put in a little lentiscus, which is a bush with a green note. The new oakmoss evaporates very quickly, but old oakmoss was a fixative. So the long-lastingness is a problem too. The trick is to get the same density to achieve the same long-lastingness. There are several solvents which are so heavy that they stay forever, but they don't smell of anything. When you blend your whole 'à la oakmoss' composition, the role of these solvents is to hold your composition down. And so, if you use them, you have your old oakmoss. That's what happened with Mitsouko, and that's why Mitsouko is now back. You just have to be creative even when you're doing technical things.

JF: If you could make a fragrance for a celebrity, who would you make it for?

TW: I did make a celebrity fragrance before Guerlain. I did the first fragrance for Kylie Minogue. She was so tiny and cute and very sweet and very involved with the project. She was with Olivier Martinez at the time. I met them. They had a terrifying dog from South Africa. And I remember I came to London several times to work with Kate Moss. But the problem was that we got so drunk at the bar that they asked another perfumer to take over the project.

[The evening concluded with a few questions from members of the audience.]

What's your favourite perfume from the ones you've made?

TW: It's always the latest one. I have a soft spot for Idylle, because it was the first perfume I made in-house at Guerlain. I had a lot of pride for Shalimar Parfum InitialI love the fragrance, but I think the whole concept didn't work. There is only one Shalimar. But frankly, I work for a company and we're not philanthropists, we have to make some money. The sickness of making flankers every five minutes is very upsetting, but if I don't want to get kicked out for not doing my job, I have to do it.

Is there a perfume out there that you wish you'd created?

TW: Yes, I think I would have been super-proud if I'd made Terre D'Hermès. It's the only perfume from the recent past which I think is absolutely stunning. I would have been amazingly happy if I'd made Eau Sauvage. And I would have been very proud if I'd made Mitsouko. That's my favourite Guerlain.

You said that the original Shalimar smells quite different from the current version. What differences would we spot if we could smell them side by side?

TW: You would see several things. The original is much less animalic than the version we have today, because the civet is rounded by the raw bergamot. But it's much more leathery, because it has birch tar, which today has been turned into birch water by IFRA. And it's much muskier than today's. Now, the musk has disappeared. Those are the main, striking differences.

Are you going to have to reformulate Vol De Nuit?

TW: No, because I don't need to. It's safe, according to the law. But a couple of adjustments have been made to the narcissus used in it. Jacques Guerlain created it in 1933 and it used a narcissus absolute from the Auvergne. In the 50s, there was a horrible winter there one year and all the narcissus bulbs were killed. So Jean-Paul Guerlain made a substitute for the narcissus and that's what was used in Vol De Nuit since that time. But two or three years ago, there was a molecule in that substitute which came under scrutiny. Another problem. So I decided to go back to the original with narcissus absolute from the Auvergne, but otherwise I haven't done anything. So it's now a little bit different, but only because it's gone back to Jacques' original.



  1. This is very interesting. I have to admit that I really dislike most of what Wasser has done since joining Guerlain but it sounds as if he is very constrained by commercial considerations. His comments about the Shalimar Parfum Initial concept are spot on in my view (although I don't like the fragrance much but perhaps that is connected to expectations around the name) and this has greatly increased my respect for him. It also makes me want to obtain some vintage Shalimar.

    1. GreatSheElephant, thanks very much for your comment. Yes, Wasser never conceals the fact that his creativity has to meet the demands of the Powers That Be at the company.

      And as for Shalimar... you can never have enough of the real stuff ;-)

  2. There has been a lot of controversy around the choice of Thierry Wasser but he is quite articulate and a straight shooter. Great Q&A.

    1. Anon, thanks very much. I'm not entirely sure why, but I have a feeling Wasser will grow into his role and surprise us with a few gems.

  3. Hey there Persolaise.
    I love this interview. Wonderful.
    Portia xx

    1. Portia, thanks very much for taking the time to let me know. And for reading :-)

  4. Hugs of thanks!! I also had the `straight shooter`` thought about Wasser ( this is from living in Oklahoma for a few years as a kid!) May be mid-west lingo - but it`s a compliment!! :-) Three cheers for T. W. !!! :-) :-)

  5. I agree w/ the `Straight Shooter` thought - and that`s a compliment!! Three cheers for T.W. :-) :-) for pulling no punches...I spent a few years in Oklahoma as a kid, so the lingo lives on - lol!!

  6. I have the highest respect for Thierry Wasser. I love this interview too .

    1. Mimi, thanks very much for taking the time to say so.

  7. What a great way to start my sunday-thank you! I finally 'got' Mitsuko last year-the EDT, and how odd is that. Usually it is the Guerlains EDP that turn my crank. But this was probably pretty old. It was shipped to me with a few other fragrances, and as soon as i opened the box there was a faint smell of spicy peaches and wood-Mitsuko, so beautiful on an indian Summer day. What a memory.
    Have a good weekend, and thanks as always for your delicious blog,


    1. Carole, how lovely to have received an old Mitsouko.

      And thank you so much for your kind words about my blog.


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