Guerlain Master Perfumer Thierry Wasser sits down with a&e to share his ongoing exploration and love affair with fragrance in the Arab world, creating art through scent, and the mystery friend who inspired the entire collection.
As he launched a new fragrance inspired by the region, Theirry Wasser chats to a&e about all things fragrance
As the first perfumer working for the oldest ongoing fragrance house that doesn’t bear the family name, Thierry Wasser had big shoes to fill. But since taking on his role of Guerlain Master Perfumer at the luxury beauty brand in 2008, it seems as though his predecessor Jean-Paul Guerlain made the right decision of passing on his secret formula book to him.
But naturally, Wasser’s love of all things scent came long before his career at Guerlain. Starting with the smell of apricots baking in the oven during his childhood growing up in the Swiss countryside, this evolved into him enrolling in a standard course at Givaudan Perfumery School in 1981. Upon completion, he landed his first job working as a Fine Fragrance Perfumer with Givaudan in Paris in 1987, and later in 1993, he joined Firmenich in New York.
Since starting his career at Guerlain, the charming perfumer has created countless adored aromas for the historic French house. Though none he will describe as his masterpiece just yet, so he tells us. As Wasser visits Dubai with his hands full of – and wrists doused with – his new fragrance CUIR Intense, we catch up with the famed perfumer as he discusses the unusual story behind his latest launch, teaming up with Dubai’s Perfume House and why he has no idea what’s in store next within the realm of aromas.
a&e Interviews Thierry Wasser, Guerlain Master Perfumer
Can you talk us through this family of fragrances?
Well, the new fragrance is the latest born from a family which started seven years ago. And eight years ago when I was here, our general manager here asked me to meet somebody who said he had two questions to ask, and that it would take ten minutes. He said ‘He’s a great fragrances lover, but he’s not in the business.’ I said, ‘Okay, two questions and ten minutes won’t hurt’. Well, the man had no questions and it took two hours. But the idea was for him to tell me that European people don’t know how to design ‘Big Wow’ perfumes. It was a big-time lecture, and he was not tender, really.
But he explained his routine and his approach to fragrances. He was living here in Dubai, and was definitely not happy with what I was producing – and he loves fragrance. I think that I took it graciously but I remembered those two hours. Then I create this collection, and which was a Big Wow perfume, and in his opinion, I think I passed the test. He is still my coach, he is still giving me advice with all those little things – I send him little lab samples beforehand.
So the story of the latest one is strongly linked to all its elder brothers and sisters. When you create a family of fragrances (unlike when you have children) you can predict their character because you are inventing them. You want them to form a harmonious, happy family. Because I think fragrance should be uplifting and eventually boost your self-esteem. It should give you confidence and make you happy. This is my way of looking at designing fragrances. I’m not tortured as a French poet, or like Tchaikovsky who needed to be miserable to write music. So that’s why I want to have this happy family.
So why leather next?
I think the addition of a more oriental fragrance with a leather scent – which is sometimes a little rough – is a nice addition to the family.
Grasse, in the South of France, was awarded by UNESCO as the centre of fragrance – I was part of the board and I was very happy with the outcome – but Grasse didn’t start out as the capital of fragrances, it was a capital of leatherwoods. And in the 17th century, they started to fragrance the leather because when you work with leather goods it’s kind of smelly. So they were putting flowers to fragrance the leather, and I wanted to go backwards and say that I should leather the flowers.
And leather is now a raw material per se, and the great thing about fragrance design is that you use your own language with this language of a raw material to create an effect; to express something that is not picturesque, it’s much more abstract. So you play with those raw materials to bring out a story that is an impressionist or an abstract piece of art, if I may say so.
What’s special about the bottle design?
The bottle is the same in different colours for the whole collection, but the design of it goes back to 1853. The Bee Bottle was designed by Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain for the wedding of Napoleon the third’s wife, Empress Eugenie. It was a wedding present and was a very good thing for the founder as it led the Empress to award us as perfumer of the imperial court. That was the beginning of the Bee Bottle, so for me it just goes back to our roots and opens the door for a new family.
What is unique about people in this region’s relationship to fragrance?
You have to know that for me it’s like coming to heaven because this is the only region in the world where people have true love and knowledge of fragrances. It’s historical. Yesterday we were at The Perfume House in Al Shindagha Museum and I was really surprised by the whole experience. There you see rituals surrounding bakhoor as incense has meaning during family gatherings on Fridays as well as religious meaning.
A friend told me he always carries rose oil with him, and when he goes to meet somebody he puts a couple of drops in his palm and puts his hands on his beard and puts a little bit on his nose. He explained that since every human is a creation of God, you will not insult a creation of God or God himself by smelling bad. So when you meet and you do the nose touch you have to smell good. This story left a mark in my imagination. The explanation and profoundness – compared to Louis XIV who, when everybody was stinking like a goat, he was wearing fragrance to hide it – it’s a totally different approach.
What else did you learn while teaming up with The Perfume House?
I fell in love! I can’t be thankful enough because the place is outstanding and it helps people, even local or younger people who will eventually lose their ancestral traditions – to remind them of the meaning of incense, the meaning of family and friendships and the meaning of scent.
What do you like about working and travelling in this region?
I have travelled to the Middle East a lot in the last ten years, and I love it. It is rich in different cultures. Last year I went to near Jeddah to witness what is happening with the roses there, and you meet passionate people who welcome you them into their lives. Everywhere I go to in the Middle East I find open hearts. It’s true! You have people who are really ready to share with you and those trips have given me confidence in humankind. This collection is a little bit of the expression of that discovery.
What excites you about the future of fragrance and what’s next?
So… I have absolutely no idea! I’m not keen on checking out the competition or checking out the market, it’s so crowded my head would spin. My house is 191 years old and I think as a representative of the fifth generation of “nose”, I have to carry on with what we always did before. We just go ahead with it. Creating a fragrance is a communication tool for me to tell stories. So what is the future looking like? I cannot forecast, which is part of the fun.
Driving on the highway can be terribly boring and eventually you fall asleep and die on the highway of boredom. So if you don’t know what is ahead of you, you pay more attention to the road and eventually will, that save your life.
Perfume aside, what is a motto that you live by?
Did I love well? It’s a question that maybe one day at the end of my life I would ask myself, to see if it was successful or not. So I would say the motto is… Nobody doesn’t love to be loved. And I’m no exception. But do you give enough to be loved? Because it’s a two-way street.
What do you still want to achieve?
One person told me a couple of months ago that I haven’t achieved my masterpiece yet. I’m like: ‘Okay, does that mean those were just rehearsals? What do you mean?’ But it resonated with me. So the more I thought about it, the more I eventually thought ‘they’re right;’ you have to continue challenging yourself. So what do I want to achieve? Eventually, I want to achieve a masterpiece one day. When I grow up. I have a little time ahead.
Quick Fire Fragrance Questions
Describe CUIR Intense in three words.
Deep, sensual and awesome.
Which Guerlain fragrance should every woman own?
I dream of a world with every woman wears Mitsouko.
What is your earliest memory of scent?
As a child, I loved baking, and the scent of apricots baking in the oven is just outstanding.
Which aroma reminds you of France?
What is the biggest fragrance myth?
That synthetic molecules are garbage.
Is there a perfume rule you live by?
There are no rules – that’s the rule!