Thierry Wasser On Perfume, Guerlain, And Saying No To Beauty Rules

"A fragrance is like an œuvre de l'ésprit: You can use whatever paints you want for a painting, but it's the artistic value that matters."

Photo: Peter Nyholm/Condé Nast/Getty Images.

When it comes to beauty, there's nothing quite as personal as perfume. Be it the residual notes of magnolia on an old sweatshirt or the lasting traces of neroli on a silk slip dress trimmed in lace, fragrances are emotional and invoke an entire spectrum of feelings: anger, sadness, happiness, longing, desire. And, sure, they're just meant to smell good, too. But the fascination (and big business) around perfume is endless.

What makes people spend $100 versus $1,000 on their scent, however, remains something of a mystery. At least, if you agree that perfumes don’t need to be justified as much as spending $500 on a piece of clothing you’ll only wear once. But it’s why, as summer reaches an end and we commence the  search for our next seasonal scent, we reached out to none other than Guerlain’s director and fragrance expert Thierry Wasser to know more.

Dubbed by Guerlain as “the chosen one,” Wasser is responsible for holding the brand’s book of formulas, passed on to him by Jean-Paul Gerlain, and the nose behind many of its best-selling scents. Down to the molecule (literally), Wasser got candid on the difference between natural and synethic perfumes, how fragrances are made, and whether or not there’s such a thing as sustainability in beauty.

What is the difference between a natural perfume and a synthetic one?
Well, there are no such things as these two categories. It's not black or white. But I need to go into the history of the fragrance industry to answer that question. Until the mid-19th century, everything was 100% natural. But suddenly, the new, crazy scientists here and there invented new technologies. And from the natural oils, they were able to isolate a molecule. So instead of having a clove oil, for example — which is a sum of a lot of different molecules — they isolated just one. And it became something very special because those synthetic, raw materials were very pure. Slowly and slowly, the perfumer's palette started to get richer and richer with such molecules.

Because, believe me, if you have only natural, raw materials to work with, you will have such boring fragrances that you would not even use them. You have to understand that it was part of the modern evolution. If I take a parallel with art, for example, toward the end of the 19th century, you start to see the Impressionists in France, and from Impressionism, you get to Abstract art. And the pivotal moment was in the 1890s, with Cézanne making landscapes with cylinders, squares, triangles, and rectangles. And it caused the beginning of cubism.

And at the same time, Guerlain invented their first fragrance Jicky in 1889. This year, I celebrate the 130th anniversary of Jicky, which was the first modern fragrance using three of those molecules. So it's not a matter of opposing natural and synthetics — of course the progress of science allows people to switch from natural, very expensive products, to cheap, synthetic ones. But that's another subject.

If you use the high technology and science of today, you have incredible molecules, which do not exist. So it enriches your conversation and vocabulary as a perfumer; you have new words to play with. I do not oppose natural and synthetics.

Thierry Wasser
Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images.

A lot of people say that natural fragrances are free of "toxic" and "harmful or synthetic chemicals". Can you speak on what those chemicals would be?
I'm going to give you counter examples. In nature, you can die when you eat poisonous mushrooms. Most violent toxins that can kill you within a second are natural. A lot of natural products are toxic. So, it's not because it's natural that it's harmless. The common idea that if something is natural, therefore it will not harm you, is totally wrong.

What about the process of building a perfume that makes it so expensive or covetable?
I think that a fragrance is like an œuvre de l'ésprit: You can use whatever paints you want for a painting, but it's the artistic value that matters. Instead of being hung in galleries, our fragrances are hung in department stores through brands. And the value of that image is about what you do and Guerlain being for almost 200 years around trading beauty (that's our trade, we don't do anything else than that) — we are the upperhand in makeup, skincare, and fragrances. So our value is pretty high. And we have the reputation since we started in the 19th century to use a lot of natural elements in our products. But you cannot be judgmental about the quantity of natural versus other materials in what we do.

Is it that people think because it costs more that it's better?
It's about craftsmanship, texture, and when it's visual. When you look at the Chanel jacket, you can feel and see the details; you can feel the texture and the quality. While in fragrances, it's so abstract and invisible (you spray it into the air and you don't see anything); it's very difficult to judge the quality of it. But the longlasting-ness, the volume, the pleasure you get out of it is part of the quality.

Since we don't outsource anything, you don't have to deal with things that you don't know because they're outsourced. Or with the margin of people you're working with. If a raw material has no added value from the distillation to my factory, I don't know why I should have a middle man. That's why I spend 30% of my annual time sourcing. Some of those routes have been very steady and we've worked with the same people for three generations. But also, sometimes, you have more problems with certain ingredients. Today, the true luxury is to be able to get the Jasmine from South of India, the Jasmine from Northern Egypt, the Jasmine from Southern Italy or France, the Sandalwood from Australia — in quantity and quality — you have to be very careful. It's like a chef, if you have a 3-star Michelin restaurant, it's good for you to go to the market sometimes. And mastering the quality of your basics, raw materials — all of those ingredients make a good product.

Is there such a thing as sustainability in beauty?
It's all about aesthetic. Eventually, if people think that I have horrible taste, I would make stuff that people don't like. There are, let's say, no rules. If it's purely aesthetics. Once again, I go back to an art form which is more understandable than fragrances: painting. If you make a painting with ugly, tacky, brown and orange colors together — maybe it's gonna look horrible to you but someone painted it and they might have liked it. The result is ugly for a lot of people but it doesn't sell.

I've had some flops, too. I'm always aiming for the moon; I want to make a fragrance that's immortal. And suddenly, you hit the market and you see that no one understands it and no one likes it because there are no rules. There is no secret to making a best selling fragrance. It's just a way of expressing yourself as an artist — sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss.

How should one properly apply a perfume and how long should it last?
That's a tricky one. If there are no rules in the composition [of a fragrance] then there are no rules in applying the composition either. Why do you wear a fragrance? I think you wear a fragrance to feel good, for your own pleasure, and eventually, to boost your self-esteem — that's valid for beauty in general. Why do people wear lipstick? Because they love it and they feel more confident! If you have a fragrance that does the same thing, that's the aim — that's what I'm looking for. And if, to boost yourself self-esteem, you need to spray your feet then go for it! Why have rules to be happy?

The only thing I would say is that when you have dry skin, the fragrance brushes off. If you moisturize first, I think the fragrance is much happier and lasts longer. But that's a little trick. So maybe the idea would be to have an unscented moisturizer so you can be very versatile with your fragrance. Moisturizing makes the fragrance last longer.

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