Manhattan-based, German-born Ralf Schwieger is creator of many notable scents, including the wonderful, put-a-sashay-in-your-step Lipstick Rose for Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine, and more.
We asked Ralf Schwieger a series of questions in line with The Perfume Society’s ‘nose-to-nose’ interviews – some of this appears in the new edition of The Scented Letter, but we’re sharing additional material here with VIP Subscribers…
What is your first ‘scent memory’?
I remember a wildfire on the Cote d’Azur when I was a child. Quite an unpleasant memory, as it’s mixed with the fear I experienced when we had to leave the beach rather hurriedly, and the menace of the huge orange sky hovering over us.
When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer/create your own perfume?
As a teenager I started making my own cosmetics following a then-popular book. Getting the right scent proved to be difficult but I managed to order rose oil and orange flower water through a pharmacy; I even got hold of iris root but the powdered rhizomes do not have strong smell. Later, while studying chemistry, I came to the conclusion that instead of pursuing the science of smell I would give the artistic side of the business a try.
What are your five favourite smells in the world?
I love the smell of silk.. Fresh earth… Lavender… Roses… The bodily scents. But the absence of smell is important too; I don’t like when everything is scented.
What’s the worst thing you ever smelled. (Honestly!)
The worst thing I’ve ever smelled takes me back to one of my travels. During a vacation in Indonesia, I found a market in Bali where all the different smells made up an unbearable whole. Rotten meat, dust and dirt mixed in the ambient mugginess. A rather unpleasant olfactory memory! But also going back to my studies in chemistry, the smell of unrefined carbondisulfide (CS2): much worse than rotten eggs! Smells reminiscent of carrion really are awful. But even on the perfumer’s shelf you can find delicacies like dimethylsulfide, which, in the right dilution, can impart a yummy fruity aroma but otherwise reeks like boiled cabbage. Handle with care!
What’s the first fragrance you bought. And the first bought for you…?
As a student I had a job working for a company specialising in window dressing for perfumeries and I was lucky to receive lots of testers for free – which played a big part in my perfumery education. One of the first scents I bought for myself was Annick Goutal Eau d’Hadrien – not so easy to find in Germany in the 80s Nobody ever bought a fragrance for me – but I am patient…
Do you have a favourite bottle design, from those that have been used for your fragrance creations?
I still love the spinning top bottle of YSL Babydoll, a fragrance I developed together with my friend Cécile Matton who is like my sister in this business. We went to perfumery school together. I like as well the somewhat clunky yet elegant shape of Marc Jacobs Men, another collaboration with a friend of mine, Barbara Zöbelein. As you see collaborations between perfumers are common – but I had the chance to work with great colleagues.
How many perfumes might you be working on, at one time?
There are lots of things cooking in my kitchen, perhaps five on the front and ten on the back-burner in any given week.
How long, roughly, does it take you to create a fragrance?
That much depends on the context, a big brand collaborative effort might take up to five years (!) whereas a fragrance I work on alone might only need a year or less to come to fruition. Still, I like the idea to not work on a fragrance for a couple of weeks and wait to see whether the spark is still there after having set the project aside. I need to get to know a scent myself and coming back to it after a while helps me understand its different facets.
If you could have created a fragrance for a historical figure, who would it be?
Catherine the Great? Cleopatra? Alexander the Great? Or better still Hitler – but I would have rather mixed in a sufficient amount of hydrogen cyanide which has a pleasant bitter almond-like odour, to disguise the poison.
Is creating a fragrance ‘visual’ for you, as well as something that happens in the nose/brain? If so, in what way…? Is a mood-board helpful?
I am not ‘synaesthetic’, but of course I imagine a smell before I write a formula. Sometimes I associate colors with a scent. A mood board is often used in commercial projects and can be helpful but inspiration might have any kind of input. Music, a film or a place are good examples too.
Do you feel (like us) that this is one of the most exciting times in fragrance history, because of the creativity being expressed by perfumers? Why do you think that is?
I believe there have been many exciting times in fragrance history: the birth of modern perfumery with the emergence of organic chemistry in the late 19th Century, the early 20th Century (Chanel No5, the Coty fragrances, so many other brands now disappeared), the 40s(Germaine Cellier with Balmain Vent Vert and Bandit), the 50s and 60s with the great Edmond Roudnitska…
What can each of us do to enhance our appreciation of fragrance?
I believe one should not smell too many fragrances at the same time; moderation is valuable. Allergic to dust and cats myself, I use saline nasal sprays to rinse and humidify my nose, which brings great relief.
What is the fragrance you wish you’d created?
Some of Edmond Roudnitska’s fragrances are incredible: Eau Sauvage, Eau d’Hermès. I love Chanel No19, as well. Actually, I don’t really feel the desire to have been the originator of these fragrances – but I would have liked to watch the creative process behind these scents.
And your one favourite perfume note, above all others?
I like phenolic and mossy notes, the classic ingredients being castoreum and oakmoss – but there are many synthetic equivalents on the perfumer’s palette. These notes complement so nicely the natural odor of the human skin…