Talking scents: We sit down with Guerlain's master perfumer Thierry Wasser
Thierry Wasser has been in perfumery for so long, he has seen the shift of the perfumer from a behind-the-scenes figure, to that of a key voice in a perfume's story. With stints at Givaudan and Firmenich, he joined Guerlain as an house perfumer in 2008. Vivacious, charming and eloquent in person, we had a rare opportunity to chat with Wasser as he spoke about his newest creation, Mon Guerlain, how he did not know that Angelina Jolie was the face of the fragrance while he was creating it, and how the legacy of Guerlain's fragrances does not weigh heavily on him.
You have been in perfumery for many years. How do you think the role of the perfumer has changed especially in the last 20 years, as perfumers are now elevated to the forefront of a fragrance?
Thanks for reminding me [laughs]. That's true. There are two different ways of looking at the perfumers. Some are in those fragrance houses — for example I spent 12 years with Givaudan and 15 with Firmenich. 20 years ago there was no internet. Now communication has changed, and the customer wants to have direct information on the person who actually designed the fragrance. That's why I think perfumers are popping up in the public.
There are very few houses who have their own noses and Jean-Paul Guerlain — even before the internet — was a celebrity, along with Jacques Polge at Chanel. But you have to make a distinction between the in-house perfumers and the perfumers who work in fragrance houses. I think perfumers have been put into the spotlight simply because the public wants to know who they are.
Working in a very storied perfume house like Guerlain, do you feel it is challenging or inspiring when it's time to create a new fragrance when you have vintage fragrances like L'Heure Bleue and Mitsuoko in the catalogue?
It is empowering, it is not a burden per se that in your catalogue there is Shalimar and especially since I had to 'learn' those vintage fragrances very well because I do manufacture them, as it's part of my trade. I'm at my factory every Wednesday for the manufacturing purpose, so I recreate L'Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Shalimar and Samsara which are fragrances created by my predecessors. But I don't feel the burden of history because I start to mix the knowledge of those classic fragrances with my own writing and formulas. This is part of the legacy of the house and the know-how and I think it's more of an opportunity than anything else.
When you created Mon Guerlain did you know Angelina Jolie was going to the be the face of the scent?
No, I didn't. I signed off my fragrance in September 2015 and our president met Angelina Jolie in December 2015, so the fragrance was already done and she had the good taste of loving it, so we were very happy. After that she was very involved as an actress and in the fragrance's film and visuals, so it was a true partnership between Guerlain and her, but fragrance-wise, I was done.
What was your vision for Mon Guerlain when you started working on it when is the moment you know your vision has been captured in this beautiful bottle?
The first question is going to be easy to answer. The second one, is a very tough one. You never know when to stop. It's like a painting. When do you know that what you wanted to express on a canvas has been achieved? You never know.
You have to understand that I work at least a minimum of of two years before a launch. So I'm used to thinking way ahead of time from a launch. Four years ago I was contemplating the idea of doing a fragrance for next year's 190-year anniversary. Four years ago I started thinking about it and how one would celebrate a hundred and ninety years dedicated to beauty. I asked myself this question, and the answer for me was to create a manifesto or a portrait to celebrate women... and you will see how Angelina Jolie was a good choice even if I was not a part of [the decision].
I think it clicks very well with my train of thought. Addressing that manifesto for that women was my idea, and after that the choice of words and scents was very important to place the moods of my portrait of this women. When I smelled lavender for the first time, I had this vision of authenticity. It was screaming truth and that's why I first started thinking of lavender to set my 'portrait' historically in truth. My sourcing trips are an inspiration for me because it broadens my horizons and opens my perspective. When I go to India every year — I go to south India to buy jasmine, tuberose, mimosa and jasmine sambac — I got acquainted with the jasmine sambac because every year I saw all those garlands which were worn in the hair or offered in temples or weddings or festivals. I thought this flower was very outspoken and very social. It was something you gift to God or to a stranger who is coming into your life, and eventually it serves the purpose of beautifying your hair and making it fragrant. So that's why I chose jasmine sambac for the floral. So I had the element of 'truth', 'social skills', and finally I chose sandalwood to express 190 years of women fighting for their rights. Even if women's rights are not there yet, I think in 190 years, the rights of women has evolved slightly.
It's also a very timely interpretation, with all the talk of feminism and the women's marches today.
Yes, it was Women's Day on 8 March, so maybe people have been talking about this issue recently, but at Guerlain we have been feminist for much longer. At Guerlain we also don't really make fragrances without vanilla — that's the signature of the house and vanilla to me was the embodiment of of maternal love, because it is so close to the skin. It is very nuzzle-y, you want to cuddle in vanilla, and that's how I addressed my 'portrait' in the form of my manifesto.
What is your favourite or the most memorable scent you've created?
You know when you have different babies, it's difficult to know which is the one you like the best. Very often it's the latest one, but I have a special bond with Idylle. I love that fragrance because it is also the first one I did when I arrived at Guerlain in 2008. It was a memory for me, because it was the reflection of my state of mind when I arrived at Guerlain. When I arrived it was idylle.
Mon Guerlain is available at Guerlain counters now