Thierry Wasser is the first Guerlain perfumer from outside that family – only the fifth to fill that role in the 190 years since Guerlain was founded. In Guerlain’s anniversary year, Jo Fairley went behind the scenes to meet him
When does your day start? How does it start?
I really am not a morning person. I hate mornings, and I love my bed. So caffeine is absolutely essential to wake me up. But because I am Swiss I also have to start my day with muesli – and being a good Swiss boy, I make that the night before so it soaks overnight and is ready for my breakfast. Then when I get to the Guerlain offices, I have more coffee – first of all with the team in the lab. It’s productive to do that because we chat about what we’re working on and what’s going on. And then I have another coffee with Frédéric Saccone, the perfumer who shares my office. After that, I’m just about ready for the day.
Where do you work?
I could work anywhere. But I have to work somewhere. As of quite recently, my lab is now downstairs in the same building as my office – we just moved everything to the Guerlain HQ in Levallois-Perret [a suburb around four miles from the centre of Paris], after sharing a space with Dior [Guerlain and Dior share the same parent company, LVMH]. It’s not a huge office but it’s good to be in the same building as the lab.
How does your day break down? For instance: do you spend the morning working, or are you better in the afternoon – or both?
Because I’ve had so much coffee… the mornings aren’t my most creative time. I do open my computer first thing and also smell the formulations we made yesterday, along with some we made a few days ago and even fragrances we made weeks ago, which I have on blotters so I can smell how they develop after a really long time. It isn’t just a case of putting ingredients together; like a stew, things take time to develop. So something might be OK on the first day, but on the second day, maybe the spices develop. And maybe those spices are overpowering, so you have to go backwards and do something else, go in another direction. This is why creating fragrances cannot be rushed.
And alongside creation, there are always meetings, too – marketing meetings, supplier meetings, and other kinds of meetings. The door to the office Fred and I share is open, so people are always coming in throughout the day.
How much of your year is spent travelling?
My job is unlike most perfumers because I am responsible for the fragrance from overseeing the harvest of the ingredients right through to when they go into the bottle. We work very closely with our producers in different parts of the world and those relationships are incredibly important and precious. They always have been – I didn’t ‘invent’ this; it’s what my predecessor Jean-Paul Guerlain certainly did before me. It’s completely in Guerlain’s DNA
For instance, a vetiver farmer in India might be able to make twice as much from his fields by growing sugar cane – but of course we want him to continue with vetiver. So I go there once a year, and I spend time with the farmers. And this is how you find out that yes, they can grow sugar cane – but it costs them half what they get paid for their crop, just to water it. And so we can help them, by making sure they get all the water they need, for free. They’ll grow some fields of sugar cane – but they’ll also continue to grow the vetiver for Guerlain.
My travelling begins in the spring in Calabria, at the end of the bergamot harvest – which began in November – because we need to ensure we get the perfect blend of all the oils from that season. Then it moves on to Tunisia and the orange blossom and the petitgrain, to Bulgaria and Grasse for the roses, Provence for the lavender, the Comoros for ylang ylang, Madagascar for vanilla. Now that Guerlain is growing sandalwood in Australia, I need to make a trip there once a year, too. Altogether it’s about four months out of the year, on the road, away from my lab, away from creating perfumes. And then there are the launches, around the world, travelling to speak to journalists and to the Guerlain sales teams.
How many fragrances might you be working on at any one time?
Somewhere between six and 10. That sounds like a lot, but since Guerlain was founded 190 years ago, we’ve made more than 1300 fragrances. If anyone thinks the pace of launches at Guerlain is speeding up, it’s really just what we’ve always done. Every year, for instance, there will be an Acqua Allegoria – at least one. Perhaps a fragrance in the Arts & Métiers collection, and Les Absolus d’Orient. We will be working on future creations and perhaps new concentrations of recent launches like Mon Guerlain. It’s good to work on quite a few different things at once, to mix it up.
How do you compose your fragrances?
I don’t write formulae by hand any more. It’s all done on the computer, and I press ‘send’ and the formula go downstairs where my two lab assistants mix it up for me to smell. Because I have a lot of experience, I’m not often surprised when I smell something. But unexpected things still happen when you mix ingredients or change the balance. It’s never entirely predictable.
What kind of other inspirations do you look for, during your day?
Other kinds of stimulation are very important for me, but it really all happens away from the office. For instance, I love classical music, but I don’t play it at work. But when I am sitting in my chair, at home, listening to Tchaikovsky… That is stimulating me. For me there are many parallels between music and fragrance. If I look at modern art, too – not contemporary art, which sometimes I just don’t ‘get’ – then it also feeds and stimulates me, particularly artists like Rothko, who I love. There’s almost a texture to his work, and for me, perfumes also have textures.
Do you break for lunch – or eat at your desk?
I skip lunch. It’s a really bad habit that I got into, but I never eat at my desk or even break in the middle of the day.
After lunch, how long do you work for – and what will the afternoon be spent on?
A lot of the creation happens in the afternoon – but again, there are a lot of interruptions. So I find that I really get the peace and quiet that I need to create my best work after everyone else has gone home and I almost have the building to myself. It’s calm, and for me I need that to do my work. Certainly by the time I go home, it’s always the security guard downstairs rather I’m saying ‘goodnight’ to, rather than the receptionist.
What time do you go home? Is that the end of the day, for you? Do you continue to think about the fragrances when you get home?
Quite often it’s 9 o’clock by the time I get away. And when I get home, I get feedback on what I’m wearing because I am the first person who tries each fragrance – on my own skin. And the reaction at home might be good, or it might be: ‘You need to get in the shower. Now.’ It’s useful feedback!
Do you need to be in a particular mood, to create?
I really do need peace and quiet – but it’s very hard to come by.
How long does it take from concept to finished fragrance, in general?
Sometimes a year. Sometimes less. Every perfumer wishes it was longer.
Do you work with moodboards and are they helpful?
Sometimes – but they’re not particularly helpful to me because my work comes out of my own head.
What is the most number of modifications you’ve ever had to do, on a fragrance? And the least?
The most was probably Idylle – around 650 modificiations. And the least? It’s a funny story. I was working on Encens Mythique d’Orient, one of the Absolus d’Orient series, and Elizabeth Sirot, Guerlain’s Directrice de Patrimoine (basically, she’s in charge of cherishing Guerlain’s heritage) was in my office and asked me, ‘What’s that?’, and pleaded me to give her a sample. And a couple of weeks later, she came back and asked for another bottle because she’d finished it. But I told her, ‘I’ve moved on since then, and made a lot of changes’ – and I handed her the most recent sample. ‘That’s horrible!’ she said. ‘I want another bottle of what you gave me.’ So we went back and that was No.17. And that’s how we ended up launching the seventeenth modification of Encens Mythique. Which shows why it’s so important to work as a team, because as a perfumer sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, and the input of the people around you is incredibly valuable.
How many materials do you have at your fingertips, to work with? And how many tend to be in your regular palette?
We have around 850 materials in the lab – maybe 900, because perfume houses like Firmenich and Givaudan and Symrise regularly come to us with ingredients that they’d like us to use, and we need to play around with those. But I mostly focus on around 450 ingredients. We’ve just moved them to the brand new laboratory in Guerlain’s HQ in Levallois. For the first time all the ingredients have been decanted into Guerlain Quadrilobé bottles, and they look really rather good on the lab shelf.
At the heart of almost every Guerlain fragrance, of course, is the famous Guerlinade, which includes bergamot, rose, iris, tonka and vanilla. Often a different balance of those different individual notes, but they are always present. The only Guerlain fragrance I created without these notes was my very first, Idylle, launched in 2009 a year after I joined. When I presented it to the Guerlain sales people for the launch, many of them said to me: ‘It doesn’t smell like a Guerlain.’ That fragrance did OK – but I learned my lesson. And since then, the Guerlinade is the backbone of everything I do.
How much of your day (or perhaps week) is spent on your own work – creating new accords, working with materials that may have been offered to you by the ingredients houses, to ‘store up’ and use for future finished creations?
I’d love to spend time doing this every single day. For a perfumer, this is like joining words together to make sentences that later will become paragraphs, in a perfume that tells a story – which is essentially what we do. I have a perfumer that I used to work with when I lived in New York; we speak about once a week and somehow after I’ve spoken to him, I’m reminded of how as perfumers we need to ‘play’ with ingredients like this. Often right after I have chatted to him, that’s when I’ll spend time building my accords.
How does it feel to walk past someone in the street wearing something you’ve created?
It’s really very cool and it puts a smile on my face. But my job is to tell a story with a fragrance. When someone puts it on, it becomes their story; it’s not my story, any more. And that’s part of the magic of being a perfumer.
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By Jo Fairley