Thierry Wasser, master perfumer at Guerlain, talks to Prestige about the latest compositions in L’Art & La Metière collection, and the past, present, and genderless tomorrow of perfume-making.
Perfume making at Guerlain is pretty much an elevated art form under the leadership of master perfumer Thierry Wasser, who ensures that all the house’s creations connect with the spirit of the time. It was under his watch that the exclusive L’Art & La Metière collection was established in 2005 as an ode to the source of all perfumes – the natural, raw materials themselves.
This year, the collection is relaunched as an impassioned celebration of the art of fragrance, with the original 11 scents joined by four beloved Guerlain fragrances – Frenchy Lavande, Hermès Troublants, Oeillet Pourpre and Épices Volées (formerly Le Frenchy, Un Dimanche à la Campagne, Lui and Arsène Lupin Voyou respectively). Two new compositions have also created by Guerlain perfumer Delphine Jelk. Rose Chérie and Santal Pao Rose are both interpretations of that most popular floral, the rose, to bring the L’Art & La Metière collection up to 17 unique and distinct scents.
Although the rose is popularly viewed as a feminine ingredient, Wasser insists this was an “occidental way of thinking”, and that the divide never existed in the world of perfume until marketing intervened. And Wasser would know: he’s worked with Jean-Paul Guerlain himself and, before joining the house permanently in 2008, he’d created many notable perfumes for others, including Christian Dior and Lancôme.
Wasser talked about his lifelong commitment to perfumes, the joys of creating perfumes that celebrate a singular accord, and his belief that the future of fragrances will be genderless.
I read that you collected plants to dry at home and make tinctures when you were young. Were you always fascinated with nature, raw materials and scents?
From about the age of 10, I began reading all the literature I could find regarding medicinal plants, then I’d search the hills outside Montreux for the species I’d read about. Indeed, I’d collect them, dry them, and make all sorts of potions. It was my first, innocent, romantic foray into perfumery.
You’ve made so many well-known perfumes in the past, for other houses as well as Guerlain. How would you describe what makes your signature?
I’d rather leave it to beauty journalists and fragrance critics to identify my signature, since self-analysis can be quite difficult. I do believe that I’m versatile as a creator, due in part to my natural curiosity and desire to explore.
How do you approach each new fragrance in a creative way? Is it important to you to create a completely new fragrance with a new story or do you look to the archives?
Formulating fragrance is a way to express oneself, sometimes creatively, sometimes emotionally. In order to do that clearly, one needs to have a sense of culture – its past and its present. There are times when I do take inspiration from the past; other times I literally begin with a fresh, blank page in front of me. I think creating from both perspectives makes for a richer, fuller expression.
Of all the senses, smell is the most powerful when it comes to evoking memories and feelings. Is this something you bear in mind when creating new fragrances?
Creating a fragrance is like telling a story, but instead of words I use raw materials – and, like words, each one has a meaning. That said, the story I choose to tell via fragrance is open to interpretation from the wearer and may be forever linked to their memories and feelings in a way that I never intended or imagined. I quite like that aspect of perfume. It’s intensely personal and eternal in a way that I’ll never know.
Perfumes are usually created as a mix of different notes, but with the L’Art & La Metière collection you placed a singular focus on a raw material itself to create the fragrance. What inspired you to do this?
The fragrances in this collection are of a style, one that distinctly expresses a feeling about a specific raw material. This collection reflects the unique marriage of intention and a singular note. That collision of emotion and solo raw material is very inspiring to me.
Are there certain raw materials that you find more interesting to work with than others?
My passion for specific notes is very capricious. Very often when working with one accord, I begin to fall in love with another complementary ingredient. I can’t name a favourite, because my interest is constantly changing.
The rose comes in so many variants. The new Rose Chérie and the Santal Pao Rose, for example, are two very different takes. Can you tell us more about the two fragrances and the ingredients you’ve chosen to work with?
Rose Chérie is about romanticism. It’s a romantic interpretation of the beauty of the flower itself. It’s like a sweet kiss. Santal Pao Rosa reflects a flower grounded in soil. The added touch of sandalwood gives the fragrance strength and even a sense of spirituality.
How do the new fragrances compliment the other rose scents in the line?
Rose Barbare, the other rose fragrance in the line, is a very sensual, carnal composition. I think these two new additions help to reveal more of the moods and facets of this endlessly inspiring ingredient.
You’ve credited Jean-Paul Guerlain himself for teaching you the importance of sourcing raw materials.
Jean-Paul Guerlain had a very logical, common-sense approach to sourcing, which I learned and appreciate greatly. I’m proud to witness and uphold Guerlain’s long-standing commitment to sustainability, a value of the house well before my arrival and before it was fashionable. Without sustainability, we’d never have been able to maintain our partnerships and relevance for so many years.
When did perfumes become gendered and, moving forward, will we see more unisex fragrances?
Fragrance became gendered in Europe on the democratisation of the use of perfume. The public’s mindset at the time liked to discriminate between male and female. It’s a very occidental way of thinking. If you go to other cultures, these divisions don’t exist in the world of perfume. I like to think that the future is to design fragrances that are genderless rather than unisex. It’s a fine difference but to me, it’s one that matters.
Is there more room today for men to express their beauty and style?
My hope and my belief are that future generations of perfumers will be free to create without limitations of gender or societal norms. Yes, there’s more room today for all of us to express our individual beauty in ways that my ancestors couldn’t have imagined, but there’s always potential to evolve even further. Freedom of expression in fragrance is the future.