In the beauty world, the job of perfumer holds a mysterious allure. The idea of blending fragrance notes and precious oils in a lab to create a signature scent beloved by women and men around the world is a dream for many. Once hidden behind closed laboratory doors, perfumers are stepping forward and taking well-deserved credit for their wonderful creations. Frederic Malle has been instrumental in championing talented perfumers through his Editions Frederic Malle collection of luxury perfumes. He gives his favourite perfumers carte blanche to develop a scent and then gives them full credit for the work.
Guerlain Exclusive Perfumer Thierry Wasser & I
One of my favourite perfumers is Guerlain’s Exclusive Perfumer Thierry Wasser. He’s a super star in the world of fine fragrance having created Hypnose for Lancome in 2005, Giorgio Armani Emporio White Diamonds in 2007, Dior Addict in 2002, and La Petite Robe Noir for Guerlain in 2012. He’s worked with Beyonce and Kylie Minogue along with many of the world’s top fashion designers. In 2007, he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur medal in France. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Thierry several times and his stories are both fascinating and entertaining. I sat down with him last week on a visit to Toronto to ask his advice for aspiring perfumers.
“To start, I always say you have to truly love perfume to pursue a career as a perfumer. You need to be passionate about it and have it in your bones,” he says. Born in 1961 in Montreux, Wasser grew up in the Swiss countryside. He unconsciously developed a sense of smell by collecting and drying herbs. “I collected herbs like other boys my age collected football cards.” This hobby allowed him to revel in creating new concoctions. For anyone wishing to develop their sense of smell, start by learning to identify different herbs and flowers. Spend time learning the difference between how a rose smells versus a peony for example. What does thyme smell like? This is a wonderful first start even for children who want to follow this career path.
“In school, you’ll need to study chemistry and biology in order to enroll in a perfumery school. I don’t know why they insist on this because I don’t use that knowledge when creating a perfume. But those are the rules.” He says there are several good perfumery schools in France. “There is a very good one in Versailles and one in Grasse. And there is one in Paris that is slightly easier to get into.” After coming across an article about Givaudan, a global perfume manufacturer, he spontaneously made an appointment with Jean Hadorn, the director of the perfumery school. He enrolled in a standard course at Givaudan in 1981 and by 1987, he became a Fine Fragrance Perfumer with the company in Paris.
There are a couple of very big fragrance developers such as Givaudan and IFF that hire several hundred perfumers to work on all kinds of different projects. But perfumery is a very competitive industry. You have to work very hard and master your craft.
“There are more astronauts in the world today than perfumers.” – Guerlain Exclusive Perfumer Thierry Wasser.
For those wanting to learn about perfumery, Michael Edwards publishes an annual guide book to all the fragrances that have launched in that past 12 months including information about their notes and fragrance type. You can order it at www.fragrancesoftheworld.com As with any career, learning all you can about your industry is essential. Read about the history of perfume and the most important scents and their creators. You’ll notice that there is a big trend today to niche fragrance brands. These are individuals who are launching their own small brands and selling online and in smaller retailers. That is another career route for an aspiring perfumer.
“I would call myself an ‘explorer’ today rather than a perfumer. I spend much of my time traveling to secure the very finest ingredients for Guerlain fragrances. It is very competitive between fragrance companies to secure the best jasmine and rose harvests, the best vetiver and the highest quality sandalwood. I actually travel to the locations and spend time with the farmers in their fields. I’m constantly negotiating with them to buy their harvests. I spend 10 days in Tunisia for the orange flower harvest. Flowers don’t like to travel so I distill them myself for their oil right in the fields. I buy 100 tons of orange flowers every year.”
Wasser takes pride in the fact that Guerlain has remained a fragrance and beauty house since 1828. Napoleon III’s wife made Guerlain the court perfumer at Versailles which was an entry for the brand to work with every major Royal Court in Europe. Guerlain has developed more than 900 fragrances throughout its history.
“I’m like a chameleon when I travel. I feel at home everywhere I go. When I am in India sourcing jasmine, I live and eat like the locals. Everywhere I go, I meet people dedicated to their craft. And I take all of these memories and experiences with me. I use them when I sit down to write a new fragrance formula.”
He says there is nothing like walking through the fields during the Bulgarian Rose harvest. “I walk through the fields and the fragrance just envelopes you. I breathe in the scent and I’m in another world. Only the buds are harvested. They are carefully placed into aprons then taken to a distillery as quickly as possible. It’s magical. This is the experience I want to capture in a fragrance.”
Guerlain fragrances are available in Canada at Hudson’s Bay stores and thebay.com