Filling the Gilded Shoes of Guerlain - an interview with new in-house perfumer, Thierry Wasser

    by Marian Bendeth, 11 August 2008

    Filling the Gilded Shoes of Guerlain - an interview with new in-house perfumer, Thierry Wasser
    It must feel a bit daunting when you receive an honourable request to be heir apparent to one of the most celebrated French Perfume and Cosmetics Houses in the world!  Especially when you are not a blood relative of the perfumed peerage Guerlain family.   Since 1828, there have been four Guerlain Perfumers running the house.  Jean-Paul Guerlain, the surviving "Nose" for the House is without heirs and sold the company to LVMH in 1994.  Although he officially retired in 2002, he will still continue to be an Advisor and Counselor to the Presidency and will continue to offer creative counsel in future projects.

    The powers on high: prolific and celebrated Master Perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain,  LVMH top Perfumer and Supervisor, François Demachy and Guerlain CEO Laurent Boillot all appear to have zero reservations and every faith, when they invited Thierry Wasser to become the new In-House Perfumer and pilot the illustrious House into the 21st Century.

    Wasser is no amateur when it comes to the industry.  Before receiving his Botany Diploma at age 20 and after graduating from the perfumery school at Givaudan at age 24, his stints with the House and competitor, Firmenich S.A. resulted in the creation of some top fragrance heavy-hitters such as:  Dior AddictHypnôse for Women and Men , Chopard for men, Jil Sander Man, Lacoste Hot Play, Fendi Palazzo and cult classics – Jaguar and Salvador Dali Men. His most recent  Diesel Fuel for Life Pour Femme was a finalist in both the European and US FiFi Awards, 2008.

    I was very excited to hear that Thierry Wasser could find the time to do a interview with me, even by phone from his home in Paris to discuss his latest role as In-House Perfumer for Parfums Guerlain. The legacy of this incredible House stretches all the way back to 1853 and to the founder and Perfumer, Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain whose ancestors have molded and shaped the way we blend and wear perfumes today.

    Jean-Paul Guerlain with Thierry Wasser


    Marian Bendeth:  Hello Thierry, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me and Congratulations on your new appointment! What an incredible honour!  I am curious to know how your first few months working with  Guerlain have been?  Has it been very different from your years working at a Fragrance & Flavour Houses like Givaudan and Firmenich?

    Thierry Wasser: Well before, Guerlain was the customer, I was the supplier at Firmenich and now the roles are reversed.  It is a big deal to me! and I am confident if you ask any perfumer, they too will probably have a soft spot for the brand. 

    I am very very honoured and happy that they chose me for this impressive position.  You have to understand Marian, for the past 25 years I made fragrances according to what my clients wanted me to do and now my role has shifted to bigger decisions to be made.

    MB:  Do you find you have more time for creation now?

    TW: I do have more time for creation but the difference is I was just not hired as the “nose” for the house. Jean-Paul Guerlain presented me as the successor which means I also have the responsibility for many things such as quality, supplies, the factory many other responsibilities alongside creating multiple perfumes.  I try to have a holistic view of how the company runs and to the real role of the perfumer which shifts and puts me as the centre of attention which is not the case at the Fragrance and Flavour House. 

    I am now on the Board and have the opportunity to master the formula. I can now go back to the root of the job by contributing to the agenda.  What is great is now I will have the time to create without having to concentrate on the marketing aspects so much and when it’s cooked, it’s cooked!

    It is very important to me that Guerlain has to move forward without denying it’s past.

    MB:  The role of being an In-House Perfumer must be enormous!  I think of so many other companies that have In-Houses now such as Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermés , Jean-Michel Duriez for Patou, recently appointed, Bertrand Duchaufour for L’Artisan, and of course Jacques Polge for Chanel. That is pretty impressive company!

    TW:  Well, talk about an irony, take Jean-Claude Ellena for example at the House of Hermés, he used to be my boss! He was the Chief Perfumer in Givaudan France and I came from Givaudan in Geneva Switzerland in 1987 to France and he invited me to Paris! and now look at us!  Wow!  


    MB: Since you will be doing so much, what is your official title now?

    TW: I wanted the title of Perfumer because that is the role of  one who creates and who runs the perfume business! That is what I do.

    MB: You are now working with the Creative Director, Sylvaine Delacourte who has directed and overseen so many fragrances for the House. How long does it take to develop a sympatico with someone who you work together with?

    TW: First of all the relationship exists already because we did work together on some projects for the House and more seriously for Guerlain Homme (above) which is launching now.  If you don’t have the trust on the activity then you have nothing so we have worked together on a few fragrances and have built that trust between us.  

    We have a lot of brands to launch – at least 20 fragrances a year – there is work for a lot of people in the different brands and styles of Guerlain Parfums, Cosmetics and Skincare lines.  One cannot know everything and I am open to learning – that is my character.

    Above Thierry Wasser with Jean-Paul Guerlain

    MB: What is like to be in the company of Jean-Paul Guerlain?  He is a tour-de-force.

    It’s my privilege to say we have a marvelous, wonderful relationship! Very sensible!  Sometimes we just have to look at one another and we understand each other. I feel like we are family and I cherish it.  We will work together on several future projects too.

    MB:  I recently smelled your new Guerlain Homme – it is just superb! You collaborated with Sylvaine Delacourte on this but Did M. Guerlain work on this with you as well?

    TW: The bottle is beautiful, heavy, very masculine.  It’s like the analogy of a man’s toy being a Ferrari! It was designed by Pininfarina –a luxury automotive design house with a silver hip flask like the bonnet on a hot car over glass that looks like a frozen ice. It is like every guy wants to have his “toy” in the bathroom.

    We wanted to have a fresh character fragrance – something new to Guerlain with sweet lime, bergamot, crushed fresh mint, green tea to complement the roundness,  rum, pelargonium – a flower whose leaves, stem and roots are used to produce a very green/floral overtone. We wanted a very aromatic at the beginning and so traditionally at Guerlain, we tend to have a lot of patchouli so this time I wanted cedarwood and I had my little private joke in it, I wanted to give something back to Jean-Paul,  the woodiness at the backnote of the fragrance which is what Guerlain is all about and I took the vetiver from Jean-Paul’s first fragrance in his honour.  

    I explained to him what I wanted to do and he is a very shrewd man and he mentioned at the time that the drydown wasn’t that fresh and why don’t we try an unusual note - green rhubarb? And the outcome was surprisingly good and the freshness stayed all the way through with all the other notes.  I very much admire his mind and brilliance.

    MB:  Speaking of men’s scents, would you say the Guerlain customer of 1965 who wore Habit Rouge is the same customer of today who could also wear Guerlain Homme or has the customer changed in your opinion?

    TW: Ah, Habit Rouge is very French but I don’t think the customer is any different but the style of communication has changed.  Today, Guerlain still attracts a sophisticated customer and also appeals to those who love the label and what is represents. I think the brands of Habit Rouge and Vetiver can pass the examination of a young person equally today because they are bold and strong.  I hope Guerlain Homme will become a Guerlain classic as well.

    Take a Chanel No. 5 or Shalimar, still strong today which tells me women prefer the classics but men are catching up in this area and are now more opinionated.  Their access or purchase of colognes are  not necessarily so much through their wives or significant others anymore.  Now, they are choosing for themselves.  Some Houses use major celebrities to link to the House for this marriage. Some seek brands that are more fashionable or linked to the fashion or music trends or names,  melding the two worlds together.


    MB:  Speaking of classic Guerlain fragrances, which scent do you wish you had personally made for the House?

    TW:  Ah..Mitsouko! The fantasy that they developed around the fragrance itself and of course, the formula was very well done and bold because the Chypre wasn’t that well known at that time.  The peach note was Wow! - from another planet. It was a very daring choice back then and I wish I had that kind inspiration for a great blend.

    MB:  In terms of development and creation, which side of the House do you get a kick out of?  The  more commercial side? Vintage? Fragrances Exclusives or Bespoke?

    TW:  I will have fun working with the Maison. Fragrances Exclusives and Couture (Bespoke) side of the business.  People who are coming to place an order love fragrances.  First of all, the way I see it, the person will have to express themselves to me and not unlike a painter and I am making portraits, you are coming to me because I have a style. I don’t think that Picasso’s wives, Jacqueline and Olga recognized themselves in Picasso’s portraits but they were right there in a lot of them and you have to have the Guerlain signature if you want a personalized style.   



    MB:  You have already created beautiful and very elegant fragrances for the House such as Iris Ganache and Quand Vient La Pluie for the La Maison Fragrances Exclusives Divisions, very different styles from the more commercial appeal for the global market.  How do you intend to approach this wider sector?

    TW: We will have to open our doors and windows to the world to have a big appeal and understand the differences between who is our customer and what the market demands in terms of quality of raw materials.  If I create something more mainstream using an essential such as Ylang Ylang from the niche raw materials that Guerlain is famous for– our signature if you will,  on everything we send out, this must be taken into consideration.  This is something François Demachy and myself agree on – always maintaining the standards on the name.


    MB:  Do you find that you should research absolutely everything about the House before you entered the position? Or do you feel your creativity will add a new freshness and you will learn along the way?

    Ah, there is much to learn and that is why I respect Jean-Paul so much. I need to be Guerlainized like the Guerlinade – the signature accord – we have to evolve and make a new Guerlinade to move forward.  


    MB:  Was there any particular Guerlain feminine scents that affected your career in general?

    TW:  YES!  I loved Shalimar, Mitsouko and L’Heure Bleue and for me, are still incredible in their vintage collection.  In the non-vintage collection, I would have to say Nahema or Samsara are also great.

    MB: What legacy do want to contribute to the house?

    TW: We just celebrated the 180th Anniversary of the company. I hope when it is the 200th Anniversary , they will say Wasser contributed some good fragrances in his time.  

    MB: Chances are they will say “Still making wonderful scents after twenty years”!

    Guerlain Homme will launch September 2008end of article

    Marian Bendeth

    About the author

    Marian Bendeth is a Global Fragrance Expert based out of Toronto, Canada. Marian has won three fragrance industry editorial awards for her writing.

    All articles by Marian Bendeth

    From the Basenotes Fragrance Directory

    The following fragrances and houses are mentioned in this article. (In order of appearance...)

    LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton

    Dior Addict by Christian Dior (2002).
    Hypn˘se by Lanc˘me (2005).
    Hypn˘se Homme by Lanc˘me (2007).
    Chopard pour Homme by Chopard (2006).
    Hot Play by Lacoste (2007).
    Palazzo by Fendi (2007).
    Fuel For Life pour Femme by Diesel (2007).
    Guerlain Homme by Guerlain (2008).
    Vetiver by Guerlain (1961).
    Habit Rouge by Guerlain (1965).
    Shalimar by Guerlain (1925).
    Mitsouko by Guerlain (1919).
    Iris Ganache by Guerlain (2007).
    Quand Vient La Pluie by Guerlain (2007).
    L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain (1912).
    NahÚma by Guerlain (1979).
    Samsara by Guerlain (1989).

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