In Depth

Thierry Wasser: an interview with Guerlain’s master perfumer

Master of scent Wasser on finding inspiration in the everyday

Everyday tasks leave a strong impression on Thierry Wasser. “I’m currently renovating my home,” says the Swiss master perfumer. “I had a meeting with the architect and his team this morning. I smelled the fresh coat of paint, saw-cut wood and varnish.”

It is this curiosity that, in June 2008, made Wasser a perfect match for Guerlain when the Parisian heritage brand appointed him as in-house perfumer.

Wasser follows in the footsteps of four generations of Guerlain “noses”. The family lineup includes Aime Guerlain, who in the late 19th century pioneered the use of synthetic ingredients, and Jacques Guerlain, who produced scents such as the 1925 Shalimar and, in 1933, Vol de Nuit. The latter, a fresh iris, galbanum, daffodil and oakmoss concoction, was dedicated to writer and pioneering aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

“Creating a perfume is so much about exploring other countries, cultures, scents and products from around the world,” Wasser explains. “My inspiration comes mainly from Guerlain’s rich heritage and knowhow, two endless sources of imagination”.

Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain established his namesake business in 1828, at first setting up shop on Paris’ Rue de Rivoli, before moving to premises on the nearby Rue de la Paix in 1840. It was here that Guerlain formulated his Eau de Cologne Imperiale for Empress Eugenie, wife to French Emperor Napoleon III, in 1853. Bottled in a bee-motif detailed flacon, the fragrance and its crowned patron gained Guerlain entry to Europe’s royal courts.

Throughout ensuing generations Guerlain’s ancestors have built on the brand’s noble heritage, all the while embracing innovation. Specialities include the Guerlinade, a signature blend of jasmine, vanilla, tonka beans, iris, rise and bergamot notes. “I like to say that the Guerlinade is the secret seal in the majority of Guerlain fragrances,” says Wasser. While staying true to its heritage, Guerlain is revered for its imaginative take on perfumery; in addition to literature, previous fragrances have found inspiration in oriental fairy tales and Far Eastern religion.

Wasser (pictured left) at a charity event in Paris (Guillaume Baptiste / AFP via Getty Images)

Today, Guerlain produces fragrances, make-up and skincare. It’s catalogue of bestsellers include 1969 perfume Chamade – named after an existentialist novel by French writer Francoise Sagan. To date, Guerlain has put its name to more than 1100 creations. “Guerlain perfumes portray the rich heritage and the excellence of raw materials”, Wasser enthuses. The perfumer’s earliest memory of the brand is Habit Rouge, a masculine fragrance formulated by Jean-Paul Guerlain and originally unveiled in 1965. “Habit Rouge holds a very special place in my heart because it was the very first perfume I wore when I was 13,” he says. “I still wear it regularly”.

Born and raised in Montreux, Switzerland, a picturesque town framed by Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps, Wasser had ambitions of becoming a chef. Aged 15, he joined the kitchens of a local hotel restaurant and the brief internship proved influential to his career trajectory. “After two weeks in that monumental kitchen, I realized it’s not the same as cooking in your mom’s kitchen. The volume of potatoes to peel was overwhelming, I decided to do something else”, he remembers today.

“I love cooking. Cooking is very close to what I do. Cooking and designing fragrances are both artistic ways to expressing yourself.”

After gaining a diploma in botany, Wasser enrolled at specialist Paris college Givaudan Perfumery School in 1981. In 1993, he crossed the Atlantic, moving from Paris to New York where he joined Swiss fragrance specialist Firmenreich. Wasser has counted luxury brands Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Lancôme and Jil Sander among his clients. For Dior, Wasser dreamt up 2002 success Dior Addict, artfully clashing notes of orange blossom, sandalwood and night blooming cereus.

It was while collaborating on Guerlain Homme that Wasser first met Jean-Paul Guerlain; his predecessor suggested the addition of invigorating rhubarb notes to the fragrance’s formulation. “I was chosen by Jean-Paul Guerlain who taught me his know-how for two years,” says Wasser. “Through his teaching, I went back in time; I got to know Jacques Guerlain, Aimé Guerlain and Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain. This immersion in the family history and its creations helped me a lot and still helps me today.”

Today, Wasser spends three months of the year on a quest for new materials and olfactory sensations. The rest of the time, he is busy at his office inside Guerlain’s Champs-Elysées headquarters and at the brand’s state of the art lab. “You’ll see me checking the production from the transformation of raw materials to bottling and the artisanal expertise of the Dames de Table, who put the exquisite finishing touches on the bottles by hand,” he explains.

In Paris, Wasser’s office is furnished with books on art and chemistry; nearby, recent fragrance trials await the master’s verdict. “On my desk, you’ll find desk a myriad of smelling strips. I let them dry for days and study [their] evolution.”

Since joining Guerlain, Wasser has updated the marque’s emblematic creations, while debuting new fragrances. Wasser followed his 2012 Bulgarian and Turkish rose invention La Petite Robe Noir, with Shalimar Parfum Initial L’Eau and Eau de Cologne Impériale Edition 160 Anniversaire Guerlain. The latter was his own take on Empress Eugenie favoured potion.

Most recently, he masterminded Mon Guerlain Intense, a heady combination of sandalwood, patchouli and vanilla. Fronted by Angeline Jolie, the scent’s campaign captures the actress awaking in an exotic paradise, many miles from Paris.

“I am an optimistic and happy person and my perfumes are usually bright and luminous”, Wasser says. “Each fragrance creation starts from an inspiration. People, places, memories”.

“Creating a perfume is so much about exploring other countries, cultures, scents and products from around the world”, Wasser explains. “My inspiration comes mainly from Guerlain’s rich heritage and knowhow, two endless sources of imagination”.

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