There are perfumes, and then there’s Guerlain‘s exclusive L’Art & La Matière collection. In fact, when it comes to the artistry, beauty and complexity of perfumes, few names can match the savoir-faire and history of the French beauty brand.
In this scent atelier, helmed by master perfumer Thierry Wasser, Guerlain’s perfumers channel their artistic sensibilities, passion and know-how for sourcing the finest raw materials. The result? Daring and singular fragrances, shepherded by Wasser who joined the storied house in 2008, making him the fifth perfumer ever in its history. Discerning perfume aficionados L’Art & La Matière as individual chapters on scent in Guerlain’s masterful storybook. In this collective of expertly crafted olfactory masterpieces, every creation in Guerlain’s L’Art & La Matière constellation is born of an artistic emotion. Vogue Singapore speaks with Wasser on what it takes to create perfumes that transcend time and beauty to capture the imagination.
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On what separates Guerlain’s L’Art & La Matière collection from the rest
Thierry Wasser: “This collection was born in 2005 and the aim of it was to have a variety of stories to tell, because each fragrance has its own individuality. This family today has 21 members, making it very special. In 1999, Guerlain invented the principle of collection with Aqua Allegoria, and in 2005 with L’Art & La Matière. Now, obviously you can see today a lot of different collections in other brands.
“Every time you tell a story about one ingredient or two placing it under the spotlight, you’re staging artistically. With L’Art & La Matière, you artistically stage the raw material.”
“The two new Oud fragrances, Cherry Oud and Oud Nude are the latest example, but you also have Neroli Outrenoir which is orange flour and black tea. You have Joyeuse Tuberose which is just tuberose. And if we did choose to stage a raw material, it is because of our century-long experience in sourcing. Because the main difference between Guerlain and the rest of the flock is that we produce for ourselves what we invent. So if you do have a little factory, and you go around the planet sourcing, you’re in the front row to witness what you can do with the raw material. That’s exactly the spirit of the collection.”
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Farm to fragrance: Thierry Wasser on sourcing and sustainability
“When we talk about Oud, it’s a fairly new route. But if you talk about jasmine or rose like Rose Cherie or Rose Babare, or Santal Pao Rosa, we purchased sandalwood in the 19th century already. We also purchased rose in the 19th century. We also purchased bergamot till the 19th century so our knowledge about the sourcing route is not new to us. And since there is a transmission [of skills and know-how], generation after generation, I learned the trade from Jean-Paul Guerlain, who taught me about each one of those raw materials. We have been buying these ingredients for almost 200 years. Our sourcing routes are so secure.
“With sandalwood, it was brought in from India, because sandalwood almost disappeared as an endangered species. But I discovered a new source in northwest Australia. It’s not Santalum spicata but there’s Santalum album from India. So we have a partner in Kununurra, northwest of Australia with 2,500 hectares of plantation, with trees from age 23 to zero every year.
“In this nursery, every time you take out trees, you re-prepare the soil and you replant. So you’re in a totally virtuous cycle and it is what people call sustainable. So I allow myself to use sandalwood in the new creation because I have a source.”
“And that’s where you understand that creation and sourcing are very closely linked together because you will not shoot your own foot by using raw material that might become unavailable soon.”
What comes first? The idea of the perfume or the raw material?
“Before I secured that Australian route, I wouldn’t dare use sandalwood. But since we started working with that producer, we also had a competitive edge because we were the first ones to be able to source in Australia. We made the quality he makes together. So that’s a true partnership.”
Has your background as an herbalist informed how you create perfumes?
“It doesn’t impact how I create, but I think being an herbalist and Swiss has a strong impact 0n my point of view. Because I grew up in nature, I was collecting medicinal plants and was very close to it. And since I was doing that as a child instead of going to school, my mum was really upset. But today, it becomes very, very handy and a second nature. Today if I look at the rear mirror, I think yes, it does make sense.”
Tell us the interesting facts you discovered about Oud while you were creating Cherry Oud and Oud Nude.
“Actually, you don’t do wood fragrances without having and sourcing oud. Oud is very tricky because you have wood everywhere in South and South East Asia. It could come from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, you name it, and there are a lot of cousins. Botanically speaking, the main family of oud is melaleuca trees that you have.
“Within that family, you have a lot of different subspecies. And also, the climate is not the same in Assam or in Malaysia. So, obviously, there are different qualities, some are darker, some are more animalistic. Also, the know-how of the transformer through the distillation is very important. You have to very carefully choose your source. With sandalwood, you have to take the tree out. So obviously you have to have a system which allows you to plant again and each tree down is compensated by three or five trees up. Otherwise you don’t go anywhere. You start to have the same problem that we encounter with sandalwood in India.”
The name of the collection is L’Art & La Matière. What’s the interplay or the link between art and perfumery for Guerlain?
“When you say Cherry Oud, it is oud and cherry. When it is Joyeuse Tuberose, it’s tuberose, but they’re all staged. So let’s say that you have a main character, a lead actor. Like the director, you put the actor in a spotlight on stage and you manage the stage. You decorate the stage because if it were pure sandalwood it would be sandalwood oil. So you have to stay and that’s where the artistic part comes in. So that’s why it is L’Art & La Matière.
“We have different artistic inspirations because Guerlain family members, for as long as we can remember, were art collectors and art was a muse for Jacques Guerlain, for example, who loved the impressionists. L’Heure Bleue is a perfect example of impressionism in fragrance design. Or literature. You look at stories of Shalimar and Mitsouko. Obviously, the guy never left Paris because they were no planes at the time. Jacques Guerlain had a wild imagination through literature. You travel a lot with your mind. So that’s an artistic way of looking at it. Generation after generation, we have been inspired by artistic pieces which speak to you. If you take the Musc Outreblanc, it’s like a take on a whole Rodin piece. You know, you have a stone which is cold, white, marble. And then picture that guy who chisels something out of cold, white, marble. Musc Outreblanc is layers of white on white and white. But how do you shape it?
“Oud Cherry is fun. The association of oud which is rather deep, serious and dark, with cherry. And the cherry and the oud are an odd combination.”
“But I think when you look at Jeff Koons’s art, it is very irreverent. It’s not taking itself too seriously because the object of the art itself is like a little dog made out of balloons for kids, for example. So it’s not taking yourself too seriously. And I think Oud Cherry has the same light spirit. So that’s where you make links between what you do and an artistic way of expressing yourself.”
So if Oud Cherry is Jeff Koons, then whom is Oud Nude for you?
“Well, the colour, the shininess, the warmth, eventually will be close to a Brancusi. Brancusi was very gold and ambery-oud [fragrance] has the colour of brass, but it’s not. You don’t make those links always. Eventually, we communicate through that because it helps visualise, but very often, your inspiration comes from inside.
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“Neroli Outrenoir was inspired by the art of Pierre Soulages. Pierre Soulages is a French painter who paints black paintings that are very textured. He doesn’t use a brush to paint, Soulages. He’d take pieces of tyres and paint with it to give texture. A Soulages painting or profile is very textured and all black. But what’s interesting is how the light hits the texture and it gives the movement and the Neroli Outrenoir follows exactly the same path. You have the light which is the orange flower, reflecting on black tea, and it gives a movement in the fragrance, which is this homage to Pierre Soulages, while Joyeuse Tuberose is just a fun creation. We chose no link per se with a piece of art, but it is an artistic way to put a character on stage.”
I think it makes the fragrance more tangible.
“True. Fragrance design and fragrance is very abstract. It’s invisible, which is something we have limited vocabulary about. You don’t have a specific vocabulary to express fragrances. So you have to take from other vocabulary of expression to describe a fragrance because the abstraction in fragrance design is total.”
“And this is what’s cool about being at Guerlain: that you have the know-how of manufacturing and I know my fragrances as well as I know Jean-Paul’s, as I know Jacques’… even Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain’s, because the oldest formula I manufacture today is from 1853, Eau de Cologne Imperiale de Guerlain. So I have to know it. I have to know Jicky as well as I know Oud Cherry because I manufacture it. And that’s absolutely unique in the world.
“Who today sources and manufactures a fragrance from the 19th century? Nobody.”
“And perfumer to perfume, you know there are not a lot of perfumers in this trade. When I was talking to Jean-Paul Guerlain, who was taught by his grandpa, I talked about the manufacturing process and perfumery techniques. He was a man who learned our trade from someone who was born in 1874. So when in the 21st century I talked to Jean-Paul Guerlain about what we do at Guerlain, our know-how, he goes back to the 19th century in a direct line. Who can say that? So that’s also what makes us special and when we do invent a new collection in 2005, L’Art & La Matière or Aqua Allegoria in 1999, we have all the legitimacy to back our purpose. We know what we’re talking about. For generation after generation. The transmission was there.”