Bittersweet: an interview with Ralf Schwieger on the gourmand


29th March, 2016


Ralf Schwieger
In the contemporary model of fragrance creation, the juice is the result of a collaboration between a plethora of corporate brand functions that each impart their expertise and vision for the end product. However, that is not in any way to diminish the influential and integral position of the Perfumers themselves. They are expected to be technically creative, emotionally driven, but also business-savvy. More so than anyone else involved in the process, they hold the metaphorical key to the developing perfume; wherever the ideas for the project initially come from, their minds enable formula innovation, olfactory surprise and, ultimately, consumer trends.

Sweetness in perfumery is an important topic at the moment, and Ralf Schwieger is an important Perfumer. Coming to the profession relatively late, he has had great success with an even greater variety of fragrances, creating for huge commercial names such as Yves Saint Laurent, to the self-professed enfant terrible of the niche world Etat Libre d’Orange. There are very few Perfumers whose published work demonstrates such a range of styles, executed with such distinctive olfactory identity, in such accomplished innovative blends. If you have not already, I highly recommend that you seek out perfumes signed by his name as, for me, he is quite simply one of the most ingenious, innovative, and intelligent Perfumers currently in the job.

As Ralf adamantly agreed, no one really knows why the trend for ultra-sweet sugary perfumes and gourmand accords shows no sign of slowing. His views on the topic echo the fascination and concern of many in the industry that everything simply smells the same. It seems ironic that whilst so many tenants of current product culture reflect fast-paced innovation, the olfactory profiles of mainstream perfumery are developing slower than they did a century ago.

I wanted Ralf’s take on these facts as a Perfumer – how he deals and negotiates with sweet notes in his daily work, how he feels about this trend, and what he thinks will happen next in perfumery.

It is a pleasure to welcome you to London, Ralf. When was the first time you visited the city and how does it compare to your home town, New York?

I first visited London with my grandmother when I was about 17. New York certainly smells worse – especially in the summer. When I think of this city, classic lavender soaps come to my mind first, and the peculiar fact that people in London always seem to be underdressed in the colder months – take yourself for example, you must be cold!

As a Perfumer, what do you stand for?

When it comes to perfume marketing, this aspect of the industry can be difficult to accept at times. I try not to lie, and marketing can be a bother for me. For example, a formula can contain up to 100 ingredients so to single out a couple of ingredients, often only the natural ones, and only speak about those is very reductive and over simplifies the fragrance.

A good perfume should be understood as a successful whole and not as single ingredients – it should just stand on its own. If I ever came up with my own brand I certainly wouldn’t go into the details of describing a perfume, I certainly don’t even smell every single ingredient in a perfume myself. I try not to be overly analytical when I work. I hope I am good at the synthetic aspect of it and trying to come up with a combination of things which are not so much used.

Where do you think the trend for gourmand sweetness came from?

Hopefully I’m not just repeating clichés, but it really is true that this trend was introduced with Angel - everyone says so and I think it makes sense. Before this composition the sweet note maltol, which is very different from the traditional Oriental sweetness, was used only in trace amounts, often with jasmine absolute. Thierry Mugler wanted some sort of illustration of cotton candy – it was a glorious idea and in Angel the juxtaposition with patchouli worked well. It is fairly safe to say that this trend was introduced with that accord.


Angel

I started in this profession around 20 years ago and this is what we were told at the time about maltol – that it can be used with jasmine accords but in very low amounts. My first year at the Roure Perfumery School was in 1993 where I trained with my current colleague Cécile Matton. Previously, both Givaudan and Roure belonged to Roche. In 1991 they merged the two groups to form Givaudan-Roure. It was more Roure that took over Givaudan and as a consequence they closed the original Givaudan School in Geneva and moved everything to Grasse where Cécile and I were together.


Baby Doll
One of our first bigger wins was Baby Doll for Yves Saint Laurent – it was great as they left us on our own to create and this was unusual as we were still very young Perfumers. Often the big companies will push someone experienced into the lucrative projects and I acknowledge that we were lucky. It was Cécile’s formula and I came later on in the process and worked with her on it. It had only 0.1% of ethyl maltol and many said it was so sweet and sugary and a stupid little bon bon thing. Now, 20 years later, you have La Vie Est Belle which contains around 4% of ethyl maltol. It is an enormous increase.

It’s interesting that the dosage of this note in Angel is actually very low – Angel was a similar concentration to Baby Doll. Throughout the last 20 years it has started going up and up. Now it is averaging around 4%. I think that I would like to try a composition of 10% ethyl maltol as a bit of a joke - but is it really worth it? At such a high dosage the blend might recrystallise (ethyl maltol is a solid material) and precautions would need to be taken, but this is the direction the industry is going in.

Why do you think there is such a demand for these sweet compositions?

It’s something that’s a relatively new emphasis and one of the new trends of the last 20 years. There were the watery notes of the 90s, a trend which is still happening, in fact. People like maltol notes probably because they got accustomed to them with the huge success of Angel and the industry then tried to enforce and maximise it. Perhaps it has always been like that – it was a new introduction and now everyone has copied it. It comes in cycles. Aldehydics were popular into almost the 70s and now have all but died. Who knows, sugar might just drop dead again sooner than we think.

The use of sulfurol was introduced with Issey Miyake’s Le Feu d’Issey. It gives a certain milky effect – a lactic note. It does not last as long as maltol on the skin. Maltol seems to be appreciated in blind tests – I don’t know exactly the reason but people really love dessert notes at the moment, perhaps because they are just very easy to appreciate.

Could you perhaps say that this trend has contributed to an anti-intellectualisation of perfume?

Yes, I think perhaps you could. The concepts of Fougère and Chypre were invented as illustrations of destinations, almost abstract compared to the idea of cotton candy.

I have heard many say that praline has all but replaced vanilla. Do you agree with this?

You can certainly say that the classic Oriental notes, like vanilla and coumarin, are not as popular.

From a technical point of view, how do you build the typical sweetness that is found in many Fruity Florals and Florientals? What materials are you using, how is the balance between them changing, and what challenges do you face?

It might surprise you to know that there are really only two materials - maltol and ethyl maltol. They are two different materials but very similar – the one which is the most popular is ethyl maltol, it is just more soluble. There is no real olfactory difference.

Then there is one other note, furaneol, it smells like burnt sugar or in dilution like strawberries. There are more and more introductions of this note, too, nowadays.

Everything smells the same because of this – other notes in that family are sulfurol as discussed earlier and buttery notes such as acetoin which comes from food flavours. Currently, this is not used in high percentages but could become more popular and might grow over time.

I must say that these sweet notes are quite easy to use and clients keep asking us to put it in submissions more and more. You’re coming to percentages as high a 5% and we’re only talking about fine fragrances. In the USA, with all the specialty retail fragrances such as Bath & Body Works – there is no limit to sweetness.

Would you say that this is insulting to the Perfumer’s craft?

Perhaps. I personally don’t like these notes and not many other Perfumers do, either. The sweet notes have a heavy effect, cloying, in fact. La Vie Est Belle is a huge success but not something I am very fond of, perfumistically speaking.


Promo for 'Rosie for Autograph'

One of your most recent creations could arguably be classed as a Floriental building on popular themes - Rosie for Autograph. I am always struck by the richness and density of the composition when I smell it - silky sweet but communicating great depth. Could you talk us through how you created these effects? Are there any materials you used that readers might not have expected?

The Rosie fragrance is built on an accord I find very sexy. It had to be easy to like and to be developed in a finite period of time. Actually, we didn’t have much time for development but we were able to work with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley on it. Rosie is made up of a very simple accord – musk, moss, woods and then the addition of the rose. The essential base accord I really like; the inspiration came from the original Burberry fragrance.

Funny story – with Vanille Insensée for Atelier Cologne they wanted an unusual vanilla so I worked on a combination of vanilla, moss, and woods. Mossy notes are something that I am very fond of and played with quite extensively since Eau des Merveilles. One day I wore one of my versions of Vanille Insensée out and a client told me it smelt like the original Burberry fragrance. I knew of it (done by one of the masters in our field, Michel Almairac) but didn’t know it well. I was then curious and looked it up.

I suddenly realised the two parts of my accord that linked to the Burberry fragrance – the moss and the vanilla. It is a ground accord - soft, fluffy, and projects well. Atelier Cologne didn’t communicate about the moss but this is what makes it long-lasting and gives it a good trail.

The woodiness in Rosie is very important too – I used osyrol which is my favourite sandalwood note. It is not very strong but brings a natural sandalwood smell to a composition. I don’t like most synthetic sandalwood notes, which have an overly fatty, lactonic note. Osyrol is easy to use and reflects more the woody part of sandalwood. With Rosie, I built on the accord I used in Vanille Insensée (later discovering the connection to Burberry) and, of course, added different top notes and the very important association of rose. I like working like this and playing and building on different accords, like building blocks.

Men's perfumery seems to be experiencing a similar surge in so-called Fougerientals, laced with ultra-sweet tonka bean. Do you think that the drivers behind this are similar to those in women's fragrances?


Le Male
You talk about the Fougeriental but I have never really heard this term before. However, when you think of it, it’s actually a very old notion already. Jicky, Pour Un Homme, or Brut have a lot of coumarin and it is used as well extensively in Oriental notes but not always ultra-sweet. I don’t mind coumarin but I do not really love the Fougère accord combined with orange flower and actually dislike Le Male. Everyone in Paris smelt like it and the accord survives in fragrances like 1 Million. I find the perfume very reductive and not free-flowing. It is sweet, floral, and soapy. My personal taste is rather for leather, patchouli, woody notes, spiciness, and the Chypres which are almost forgotten in men’s perfumery.

In the feminine universe, a perfume like Coco Mademoiselle managed to bring Chypres back to life for the mainstream.

Are you saying that these feminine fragrances are good explorations of the Chypre for modern tastes?

Maybe not good, they are not what I really like. At least they use patchouli and have powerful woody notes. The fruity part is overdone and is an easy route. I am much more interested in the old ambery and green Chypres.

Is there still room to move in the Floriental genre and bring something new? How do you try to do that in your work?

The modern Florientals are often very fruity. Though I am not against fruitiness, I’d rather push a more natural facet. What I don’t like is that they are often fruity cocktails. Playing more on distinct fruits could be interesting. I would like to use natural extracts here, for example, a new cassis extract I recently got my hands on.

There are many more avenues to explore such as pushing the floral heart; better if you have some money to spend on floral extracts.

There has been much discussion about the recent rise of niche perfumery, demand for uniqueness, increased consumer education and awareness, and a customer-focus on quality materials and olfactory legibility in recent years, not to mention the proliferation of super-luxury concepts and interest in materials such as oud. At the same time, popular models such as the Floriental dominate the commercial market and its variations take a long time to evolve. You have worked in both camps. Does your style as a Perfumer dramatically change when creating a sweet fragrance for niche? Do you alter your technical approach and method of fragrance design?

Certainly – with a project such as Philippine Houseboy (renamed Fils de Dieu) it was a typical niche project. I had time; I smelt with others but did it on my own; there were no real creative barriers. With commercial projects there is much more pressure, you have to get to work right away, please many people, and please in blind tests. The whole process is streamlined and you often work with other Perfumers which can result in producing the common denominator. This makes the creation less precious and more dumbed-down.

In commercial perfumery, I might think of using an unusual accent; I could blow this accent out more and more in a niche thing.

Some see the gourmand as a family in its own right, others consider it an extension or effect within Orientals. When was the last time you felt you were very creative with a gourmand accord?

Right now, gourmand notes are only sweet things and the savoury aspect is ignored – it’s sad that we don’t talk about this. I am interested in saltiness – this is something I like to work with as you can achieve this effect from current perfumery raw materials. We evoked the salt association in Eau des Merveilles and discussed the smell of skin after a bath in the ocean during development. I am always happy when people acknowledge this after wearing the fragrance.

I am interested in fattiness at the moment, and buttery notes. You could introduce those kinds of notes and give more interesting effects – a bit like umami in food. Vegetal notes are interesting – currently I’m working on a gazpacho accord. Cucumber is easy to work with but not so easy to test so you have to make sure it doesn’t smell like pickles.

My favourite oriental is Must de Cartier – it is vanilla but not really sweet. Put it like this - you don’t need to have a digestive when you smell it.

Let’s now turn from sweetness in general to sweetness in your work. The orange juice accord of Orange Sanguine is widely referenced in the artistic perfumery market. How did you achieve this effect in the fragrance? Was it very difficult to realise?


Orange Sanguine
It didn’t happen overnight. I worked on it a little bit – I tried to achieve some kind of juice aspect in it. In perfumery, you generally only encounter orange peel notes and in a couple of minutes it is almost gone. You have to enhance it in a way. I tried to build this up with a green, fruity, juicy part and use some aldehydic notes to robust the structure, the tartness, and deliciousness.

The juiciness does not come from one material. It does, however, contain one particular material which is great but not even necessary really – sinensal – an aldehydic fraction of orange oil. It smells like orange juice – a little sweet. Even without the sinensal, it virtually smells the same, but this material gives the composition a little magic.

You contributed to the Mugler release Womanity which certainly has a gourmand aspect with its saline fig note. Many found this accord to be highly unusual, divisive, even shocking. How do you feel about it?

I liked the savoury approach to Womanity with this salty fig note you speak of. There is a nuttiness which is played up a bit too much for my taste but the sweet and salty aspect is very interesting.

I am always struck by the olfactory variety of your oeuvre and your versatility as a Perfumer in different genres and areas of the market. From dark to delicate, rich to transparent, crazy to collected. For me, a unifying thread of your creations is the exploration of distinct olfactory textures – unique, crafted, and deeply evocative. Have you ever considered your work in this way, and do you think you have a defined personal perfumery style?

It is difficult for me to answer this – perhaps I don’t really have a defined style as of yet. I have themes like moss and like exploring freshness – which is one way to think about my work. I love pursuing aldehydic notes such as the cucumber we spoke of, and I like bold fragrances. That said, I do appreciate Jean-Claude Ellena’s work and his idea of watercolours. This is certainly not my style, I prefer something with stronger statements. On the other hand, I don’t like cloying fragrances that are too sticky, and I always try to bring a sexy aspect. I haven’t worked on super floral fragrances as of yet; they still present a challenge for the years to come.

Have you ever created a fragrance for a consumer product?

No not really – after the Roure School, I pretty much went into fine fragrance creation straight away.

Why do you think you weren’t drawn to this genre?

When I was interviewed by Jean Amic from Roure before joining the fine fragrance department, I stressed my interest in the use of dirty notes in fine perfumery which made him chuckle. For consumer products, it really has to smell clean, and this doesn’t interest me much.

What are the differences creatively between working for a smaller up-and-coming house and a large dominant one? Does the company’s market position affect your approach?

I think it all depends on your managers and the people you work with – the people who let you go in certain directions. I remember at the very beginning at Givaudan we had a lot of freedom. With Baby Doll, they let us play quite a lot as Junior Perfumers on our first big project.

The idea of luck comes to mind – Francis Kurkdjian was lucky with Le Male, a huge success. I was lucky with Eau des Merveilles, and lucky to have been able to work for Hermès. You have to take your opportunities. It is not so much about being in a big or small house but being around the right group of people.

In your opinion, what is your most artistically accomplished perfume and why? Which are you most proud of?


Afternoon of a Faun
You could say that the two fragrances I did for Etat Libre d’Orange are the most artistically accomplished and I am in fact proud of them – I had total freedom. The one I cited earlier, Fils de Dieu, came to fruition over the course of a year and Etienne didn’t push me into anything and accepted what I showed him. With Justin Vivian Bond and Afternoon of a Faun it was his ideas as a performer reflected into the fragrance through the collaboration – they are not commercially viable projects but we were allowed the time, space, and aspiration to be artistic.

Do you think they are art?

In that there were no boundaries and they were totally about creative freedom, I do.

Finally, in a video for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, you spoke of a so-called ‘inspirational sloth’ you hugged during a trip to Costa Rica that afforded you a remarkable olfactory experience. As it were, what is your latest inspirational sloth?

Something that comes to mind is the scent of silk, something I’ve always wanted to work on but haven’t yet had the chance. It would be a very animalic project, so not to everybody’s liking. Do you know the scent of it? Untreated silk is very distinct in odour and very particular; hard to describe. It smells slightly fishy. A bit like aldehyde C7 but not quite – nothing on the perfumery market I know of even touches it. This is something I want to explore and go to a silk factory to get a feeling for it. I had a thick knitted silk pullover when I was younger and each time I smelt it gave me a very sensual experience. I would like to use that note in perfumery – I really look forward to researching it and exploring the olfactive of silk.

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About the author: Eddie Bulliqi

Eddie Bulliqi is a perfume writer and aspiring perfumer, based in London, working on perfume theory, the semiotics of olfaction, and the relationship between smelling and philosophy. He read History of Art at the Courtauld Institute and is currently part of the Global Marketing department at Jo Malone London (Estée Lauder Companies).

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    Comments

      • gandhajala | 29th March 2016 13:49

        An enjoyable read.

        Given Ralf's professed fondness for animalic notes, I really hope he gets the opportunity to work in that direction more.

        Some interesting ideas for future directions in perfumery, too.

        Thanks!

      • hednic | 29th March 2016 15:30

        This was a very interesting read.

      • pluran | 29th March 2016 23:58

        One of the best perfumer interviews I've ever seen. Thanks Eddie !, and Ralf !

        If I posted too much of it, then please delete. :)

        __________________________________

        Would you say that this is insulting to the Perfumer’s craft?

        "I personally don’t like these notes and not many other Perfumers do, either."

        [FONT=trebuchet ms]Could you perhaps say that this trend has contributed to an anti-intellectualisation of perfume?[/FONT]

        "Yes, I think perhaps you could. The concepts of Fougère and Chypre were invented as illustrations of destinations, almost abstract compared to the idea of cotton candy."

        "My personal taste is rather for leather, patchouli, woody notes, spiciness, and the Chypres which are almost forgotten in men’s perfumery."

        "When I was interviewed by Jean Amic from Roure before joining the fine fragrance department, I stressed my interest in the use of dirty notes in fine perfumery which made him chuckle. For consumer products, it really has to smell clean, and this doesn’t interest me much.

        It is not so much about being in a big or small house but being around the right group of people."

        “It’s interesting that the dosage of this note in Angel is actually very low – Angel was a similar concentration to Baby Doll. Throughout the last 20 years it has started going up and up. Now it is averaging around 4%. I think that I would like to try a composition of 10% ethyl maltol as a bit of a joke - but is it really worth it? At such a high dosage the blend might recrystallise (ethyl maltol is a solid material) and precautions would need to be taken, but this is the direction the industry is going in.”

        “Right now, gourmand notes are only sweet things and the savoury aspect is ignored – it’s sad that we don’t talk about this. I am interested in saltiness – this is something I like to work with as you can achieve this effect from current perfumery raw materials. We evoked the salt association in Eau des Merveilles and discussed the smell of skin after a bath in the ocean during development. I am always happy when people acknowledge this after wearing the fragrance.”

        “It might surprise you to know that there are really only two materials - maltol and ethyl maltol. They are two different materials but very similar – the one which is the most popular is ethyl maltol, it is just more soluble. There is no real olfactory difference.

        Then there is one other note, furaneol, it smells like burnt sugar or in dilution like strawberries. There are more and more introductions of this note, too, nowadays.

        Everything smells the same because of this – other notes in that family are sulfurol as discussed earlier and buttery notes such as acetoin which comes from food flavours. Currently, this is not used in high percentages but could become more popular and might grow over time.

        I must say that these sweet notes are quite easy to use and clients keep asking us to put it in submissions more and more. You’re coming to percentages as high a 5% and we’re only talking about fine fragrances. In the USA, with all the specialty retail fragrances such as Bath & Body Works – there is no limit to sweetness.”

        "My favourite oriental is Must de Cartier – it is vanilla but not really sweet. Put it like this - you don’t need to have a digestive when you smell it."

        "I don’t like most synthetic sandalwood notes, which have an overly fatty, lactonic note. Osyrol is easy to use and reflects more the woody part of sandalwood."

        Are you saying that these feminine fragrances are good explorations of the Chypre for modern tastes?

        "Maybe not good, they are not what I really like. At least they use patchouli and have powerful woody notes. The fruity part is overdone and is an easy route. I am much more interested in the old ambery and green Chypres. There are many more avenues to explore such as pushing the floral heart; better if you have some money to spend on floral extracts."

        "If I ever came up with my own brand I certainly wouldn’t go into the details of describing a perfume, I certainly don’t even smell every single ingredient in a perfume myself. I try not to be overly analytical when I work. I hope I am good at the synthetic aspect of it and trying to come up with a combination of things which are not so much used."

        Finally, in a video for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, you spoke of a so-called ‘inspirational sloth’ you hugged during a trip to Costa Rica that afforded you a remarkable olfactory experience. As it were, what is your latest inspirational sloth?

        "Something that comes to mind is the scent of silk, something I’ve always wanted to work on but haven’t yet had the chance. It would be a very animalic project, so not to everybody’s liking. Do you know the scent of it? Untreated silk is very distinct in odour and very particular; hard to describe. It smells slightly fishy. A bit like aldehyde C7 but not quite – nothing on the perfumery market I know of even touches it. This is something I want to explore and go to a silk factory to get a feeling for it."

        ______________________________________________________

      • Zephyr1973 | 30th March 2016 05:35

        I enjoyed the entire article, and am especially interested in the idea of raw silk as an olfactory experience/exploration! I hope he is able to pursue this quite soon!

      • purecaramel | 30th March 2016 06:19

        I am appreciative of the fact that he speaks of the interesting collaboration with others and chooses to direct our attention to that process rather than the " Drudgery" and that Eddie chooses to edit to that.

      • chypre | 31st March 2016 20:21

        Interesting article, thanks! I always love hearing what perfumers have to say.

        I have to say, I feel rather vindicated that even perfumers dislike the candy note. Not that that makes any difference to their overuse in the industry, unfortunately.

      • cazaubon | 1st April 2016 05:13

        So nice to read that he too dislikes La Vie est Belle. :-)

      • Marais | 1st April 2016 19:59

        'Who knows, sugar might just drop dead again sooner than we think.'

        Here's hoping! :barf:

      • freewheelingvagabond | 2nd April 2016 02:06

        Excellent article, and a very interesting interview.

        I only wished it were longer!

      • Florian from Berlin | 5th April 2016 20:50

        Thanks for the very interesting interview! The last question really „woke me up“. Will he tell this time which parfum was inspired by his little sloth-adventure? No, again not? Oh pity…

      • Foustie | 6th April 2016 14:51

        What a terrific interview, with such interesting insights. Loved it.

      • highnote | 12th April 2016 15:22

        Very interesting reading. Thanks for the in depth interview

      • lisaryan | 20th May 2016 08:24

        That's a pleasant interview . Thank you.

      • farawayspices | 29th May 2016 16:20

        An extremely interesting read! I would love to read more interviews like this.