When I travelled to Singapore to meet Guerlain master perfumer Thierry Wasser (who was there to talk about the brand’s haute fragrance line), I wanted to delve into the mysterious world of luxury fragrance and discover what makes an haute collection of scents so special. What I found out was even more fascinating than I’d anticipated.
First, the collection: Guerlain’s line of haute perfume, L’Art & La Matière, is described as taking fragrance to the level of masterpiece. Each of the 20 perfumes is inspired by art, with a singular raw material under the spotlight.
With a rich history and a royal following, Guerlain clearly knows how to produce something that is truly unique for its consumer. In 1853, brand founder Pierre-Francois Pascal Guerlain created the now famous bee bottle to house Eau de Cologne Impériale, a floral citrus scent concocted especially for Empress Eugénie, who married Napoleon III.
Luxury has become so expected these days that Guerlain has upped the ante with L’Art & La Matière, which is not only brimming with richness but is also based on ingredients that are difficult to obtain. “The point is not the quality of the material, it is the scarcity of it,” says Wasser of the fragrances in the collection. This rarity means collections are smaller, not mass-produced and by definition more exclusive. “I can use raw materials which are rare [because this collection] doesn’t have a large distribution,” he continues. “[The idea is to] put on stage one or two raw materials.” Wasser explains that he sees each raw material as the main character, which he then directs and brings to life. “You put the lighting in, you set the stage – that’s where the artistic part kicks in,” he adds.
As the name suggests (L’Art & La Matière translates to “art and the material”) this collection is also inspired by the art world. Take Néroli Outrenoir. Inspired by the works of French painter and sculptor Pierre Soulages, this clever scent pairs luminous notes of white neroli with black tea for a fragrance that seems at odds with itself but somehow creates an engaging fragrance that plays on light and dark.
“It’s not just that [Soulages’ art] is black, it’s also very textured,” says Wasser. “When the light hits the [art] piece you can see the movement and the design. So the idea was to play with the contrast between the orange [tree] flower, which is white, and black tea, which is black, the contrast between black and white.” New to the range are two oud scents.
Oud Nude, which blends the blonde woody notes of oud with white almond, raspberry and vanilla, is an illuminating and creamy fragrance that keeps the oud firmly at centre stage. Then there is Cherry Oud, an intense scent inspired by the bold artworks of Jeff Koons, which plays with darkness and is supported by rich red cherry and Turkish and Bulgarian roses.
Both ouds have that warm intensity of wood, but it is Wasser’s staging that makes them sing. “If you have an oud by itself, it’s just an oil,” says Wasser. “So you have to stage [it] with other ingredients.” For Wasser, who is well known for traveling to the source of his ingredients (whether Indonesia for patchouli or Australia for sandalwood), there are no rules about where inspiration should come from. But he doesn’t think about the end user. “Never. I don’t have a certain woman in mind because I am trying to convey a story with each fragrance. It’s more important that a person likes that story once it is created.”
I ask Wasser if he thinks he has a gift for fragrance creation but he dismisses the idea. What he does concede to is his innate curiosity. “A scent doesn’t have a shape; it’s totally abstract and they’re not well documented,” says Wasser. “So the memory of that abstract material is important.
So I’m evidently gifted with some memory. But it has nothing to do with the nose. I’m a little more curious and I work that sense more than others, that’s all.” This humility belies Wasser’s talent for creating scents that are works of art. The perfumer talks often about the “humanness” of each scent. Having seen the work that has gone into acquiring each ingredient (the hands that pick every flower, the women who labour in the fields), perhaps he feels each fragrance in L’Art & La Matière is a team effort. Indeed, what makes these fragrances special is not only their exquisite scents but the stories they carry making and the passion that goes into bringing them to life.