It is a Monday afternoon, and Paris is unusually still. As Frédéric parks the blue beetle near the offices of Christian Dior on the rue de Teheran, there is barely a soul to be seen. I question him as to why it seems abnormally quiet.
"It is week 33", he responds.
It hadn't occurred to me, when Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I were planning our vacation, that week 33 - the middle week of August - is a common time for Parisians to vacate the bustle of the city and enjoy an excursion of their own.
"My colleagues are all on holiday, so there will be no-one inside", Frédéric adds, as we walk from the car. "Oh, maybe Thierry will be… I don't know".
My stomach instantly fires with nervousness and the look on my face makes Frédéric laugh. With a swipe of his access card, the three of us enter the ground floor lobby of the building and cross the marbled hall toward a row of digital turnstyles. Fred acknowledges a blonde receptionist sitting behind a large marble desk branded with the word "Dior", and legitimises our presence as his guests. She smiles at him and waves us through politely.
We take the lift to the sixth floor and as the doors roll open, Fred calls out down the empty corridor.
"Boss, are you here?!"
"Yes!" comes the response from a room unseen.
Fred looks at me and smiles broadly.
"Thierry is here", he says, relishing the terror-stricken change in my expression. He giggles impishly; his brown eyes are sparkling. My wife squeezes my hand. I am panicking inside.
I'm about to meet my idol.
* * * * *
As two separate entities under the LVMH umbrella, both Christian Dior and Guerlain share the same premises. The walls from foyer to rooftop are decorated with framed advertisements, hand-painted artworks and vitrines decorated with rare and coveted flacons iconic to both brands. But whilst part of the same consortium, it feels as though there's a clear partition between the two. I ponder for a moment how this setup works in a practical sense… I visualise two old housemates living in a share situation, striving to get on… each declaring a particular armchair in the den as their own, and stickering food in the pantry with their own name. Housemates they may be, but security is rigid and competition between the pair is visible.
* * * * *
My wife and I follow Frédéric to an end office and stand just outside the open door. I peer around the corner and see Master Perfumer Thierry Wasser and Fred greet one another. Thierry's desk is blanketed with sample vials and labelled mouilettes that have been pinned into finger-like fans. They wave at me hello. Thierry turns to us. He is wearing a monogrammed white lab coat, and he snatches his spectacles from his nose with one hand as he extends the other. His smile is broad and engaging.
"Its a pleasure to meet you both", he announces… Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I are taken by his sincerity. Thierry's accent dances between French and American. "So I hear you are from Perth, Western Australia?".
We respond affirmatively, and Thierry mentions the sustainable plantations of Santalum album growing in the tropical north region of Western Australia, and in the same breath, his experiences with Boronia oil - a product native to our state. We are impressed and delighted at his knowledge of the raw materials in the region.
We talk for a few moments, and Thierry asks if Fred will be showing us the Guerlain laboratory. Fred responds in French, and Thierry tells us "Go right ahead, I'll follow you in a moment".
As we are led down another hallway, my wife and I speak in glances. "He's coming with us?!" I ask her telepathically.
"I think so", she responds, without moving a muscle.
Our inner conversation is intercepted by Frédéric. He smiles and responds as if he had overheard our mental discussion. "So Thierry will spend some time with us. What an honour", he says, as we slip through a pair of glass sliding doors.
"An honour indeed", I reply.
* * * * *
Frédéric's work space is in a large room, sectioned into four distinct work stations. Horizontal glass shelves hold hundreds of essence bottles - mostly for show - and the back wall is lined with labelled amber glass flacons.
"Here is where I work", Fred announces with a sweep of his hand.
A large bench extends around 3 sides of his station with refrigerators and cupboards below. Several expensive weighing instruments are visible, and a rotating tiered carousel of Guerlain bottles catches my eye. The space is neat, clinical and largely unembellished. Two very large, very conspicuous pin-back buttons are displayed on Fred's desk, both depicting Thierry Wasser, presumably visiting Guerlain's suppliers of raw materials. Thierry's comical expressions make me laugh.
"What are these?", I ask.
"This is Thierry on location. This year, I wore this one to the Olfactorama awards ceremony of Le Prix du Patrimoine Olfactif when Mitsouko was honoured for its beauty", he responds. I laugh, because each of the buttons are easily the size of a lunch plate, and I can visualise it pinned to Fred's lapel.
Thierry walks into the lab and perches himself on a bench, his legs swinging over the edge like a marionette. I see miniature versions of Fred's buttons pinned to his lab coat that I hadn't noticed before. A man with a sense of humour, I reason.
We strike up a conversation about Guerlain and the work he and Frédéric are doing to preserve the House's legacy.
"I am in an extraordinary position", he says. "I have a very good relationship with this guy…". Thierry gestures towards a large artistic illustration of Jean-Paul hanging on the wall.
"He is very dear to me, and he is the direct bridge between today and the 1800's. His knowledge, experience and advice is incalculable".
We discuss the Guerlain timeline, and how the decades have impacted upon the classics, such as Shalimar, Jicky and Mitsouko. Thierry affirms that seasonal variation and restriction of materials have all played a part, but also declares that the production of several perfume bases used in a handful of Guerlain creations - once sourced from companies such as Givaudan - were simply stopped cold.
"This is why, for instance, we do not have certain perfumes anymore, or perfumes in certain concentrations... Parure, for example".
We discuss sourcing raw materials. "This is like a full time job", he says with a smile. "The importance of partnerships is paramount… the relationships we have with our suppliers and the transparency of sharing our knowledge".
Thierry goes on to illustrate his point. "Guerlain has several suppliers for Vetiver, for example. When we are working with remote communities in these regions, we share our knowledge so that both we and they will benefit. What we have learned, for instance, is that soil that has grown vetiver has a higher yield when replanted with corn and certain other produce. In some of these communities, it is therefore in their best interests to plant vetiver - which we can use - so that the soil is richer for their future harvests. This type of knowledge comes through years of trial and error, and from this guy", he says, pointing to Jean-Paul once more.
Frédéric is quick to hand each of us several mouillettes soaked in vetiver oils sourced from India, Haiti and Indonesia. The olfactory profiles are profoundly different. A silence falls over the laboratory as we all sniff and contemplate.
Thierry explains the importance of sourcing ingredients of the highest quality. He asks Fred to prepare two blotters for each of us, soaked in lavender. "One is lavande, and the other lavandin", he says. We sniff the mouillettes and the dissimilarity is obvious.
"Lavande is so French, that when you uncork the bottle, it speaks with a French accent", Thierry says, thickening his French pronunciation so that the light American twang is gone.
"Lavandin is a hybrid, and is used by rival companies and passed off as lavender".
We agree that the lavandin smells resolutely camphorous.
"How can this not have an effect on the end result?", he asks. "Guerlain uses lavande", he says, before screwing the lid tightly on the aluminium canister.
To further illustrate the contrasts between regional raw materials, Fred produces three more cards soaked with oils. Thierry continues. "These are the same variety of rose… one produced in Iran, one in Turkey, and one in Bulgaria".
We sniff, and I instantly recognise the Bulgarian variety used in Guerlain's Idylle and La Petite Robe Noire. We are enchanted by the contrasts.
The room is heavy with contemplation and Thierry breaks the silence by asking if we smoke. We decline, but follow him and Fred to a narrow balcony overlooking a central courtyard. The balustrade is lined with potted citrus plants which act as a screen. Thierry tells us a story about a man who was arrested attempting to climb over the rooftop and into the courtyard a while ago. "But this place is more secure than Fort Knox", he declares, and I'm sure he isn't kidding.
From this vantage point, we peer down several stories and see two Dior employees sitting at a table, reviewing product artwork.
"Oh, lets see what Dior's new makeup line will look like!" Thierry whispers playfully. We all laugh aloud, and then conspicuously avert our eyes. Thierry points to a small row of potted plants against the wall by the door.
"I'm furious!" he says, looking at Fred in disbelief. "In these pots I am trying to grow sandalwood… the other day the gardener yanked out my one-and-only Mysore seedling, thinking it was a weed!"
My wife and I lean over the pots to inspect the plants closely.
"Touch those leaves", Thierry says, pointing to a low bushel of Mimosa pudica. We caress the plant with the tip of our finger and gasp as its leaves shrink away from our touch. Thierry and Fred enjoy our reaction. For a moment I reflect upon what a unique and unexpected experience we have been blessed with… larking at the Guerlain laboratory, like two kids in a candy shop.
With cigarette break over, we return to the lab.
We are asked if there are any specific materials we would like to sniff, and I respond immediately. "Ambergris".
"Ah! Whale puke!" Thierry says, with a laugh. Fred produces a tincture for us to sniff as Thierry reaches for his smartphone. He pulls up a photo of a lump of ambergris sitting on a scale, and informs us it is a piece Guerlain secured some time ago. The digital display in the picture reads well over 3 kilograms. Thierry disappears momentarily and returns with a screwtop plastic container holding several tomato-sized lumps of the real thing. Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I take one in our hands. It is more porous than I'd imagined, and it feels semi-firm… I squeeze it and liken its tension to that of a squash ball. I hold it to my nose and it smells oceanic, balsamic and slightly sweet. Meanwhile, Frédéric has materialised several more containers: one holding deer musk pods, and one, castoreum pods. We find the furry musk pods are odourless, and Thierry explains they first must be split to retrieve the fragrant grains inside. The castoreum is pungent and leathery. We replace the cap tightly, and Fred proffers us a small lidded container.
"Civet paste" he says, and he and Thierry exchange knowing looks.
A deft interpreter of glances too, I surmise that we are about to be served our final exam at the School of Raw Materials. We sniff and my wife recoils immediately. The gentlemen laugh. I linger for a while and take in its odour.
"I smell Jicky!" I proclaim, and the pair grin. Fred retrieves a pair of aluminium canisters from a refrigerator and dips a fresh mouillette into each of them.
"Voilà, castoreum and civet", he says. I sniff them and recognise them from what I'd just smelled.
"Are these tinctures?", I ask. The pair exchange glances again.
"Non. These are our reconstructed civet and castoreum", Thierry reveals. "These are the culmination of 2-3 years work for us. We strive to be as faithful as we can to the raw ingredient… we take it very seriously".
I am astonished that I am smelling a blend of synthetic molecules, and struggle to reach for a divergence from the real components.
"This is amazing!" I declare, and Mrs Sorcery of Scent agrees. In this very moment, I grasp the efforts Wasser and Sacone have gone to, to preserve the Guerlain legacy… one solitary and singular component at a time. Their recent efforts in re-tracing the Guerlain timeline by recreating known and lost Guerlain perfumes from the 1800s up until the 1950s (precisely as the original formulas dictate) has given them a true insight into the Guerlain DNA. Moving forward, I can't help but feel the heritage of the House is secure.
My wife mentions her love of iris, and Fred presents orris butter for us to sniff before the words even leave her mouth. "Apres l'Ondee and L'Heure Bleue!", I sigh, and Thierry acknowledges my conclusions. Again, I am taken by the quality of the ingredients and how they translate directly into the perfumes.
The conversation shifts to the different international markets, and Thierry takes some moments to describe where Guerlain are focusing their efforts.
"Guerlain is infinitely French, but of course there are other areas we would like to penetrate".
I mention Australia (of course), Russia, China and the Middle East over the course of the conversation, but Thierry doesn't give too much away… just a whisper of something over the horizon in the United Arab Emirates.
Conscious that we have consumed almost 2 and a half hours of Theirry's time, we begin to wrap things up, but not before mentioning the new launch of L'Homme Ideal, and the success of La Petite Robe Noire. I ask how he feels about working with both the old and the new.
"Today, we are sitting on 2 chairs - the heritage chair, and the new chair - and both feel somewhat uncomfortable", he confesses. "Whilst we have an obligation to lovers of our classic perfumes, we have also to recognise that we must do things very differently today. Marketing, of course, plays a big part in what we do. No matter what, we must always answer to LVMH".
I find Thierry's response both sincere and somewhat reassuring. I have seen first hand the efforts he and Fred are going to in order to maintain the House's tradition, whilst at the same time, one cannot deny the success of scents like La Petite Robe Noire as a product of the money-backed marketing engine of LVMH. To my mind, there is a place in 2014 (and beyond) for both.
With time no longer on our side, we slowly leave the laboratory and retreat to the hallway again. We admire exquisite Guerlain pieces from Frédéric's personal collection that have been locked away in glass vitrines before returning to Thierry's office where we exchange our reluctant goodbyes. Our enduring impression of him is of a man who is charming, articulate, intelligent and commanding… with a devilish sense of humour to boot. As we take the lift back to the lobby and wave goodbye to the patient blonde receptionist, I reflect upon the experience. Frédéric and Thierry have demonstrated how they strive to uphold the Guerlain legacy, whilst submitting to the ebb and flow of a new age.
To all my readers; to the perfumisti, the bloggers, the skeptics and the Guerlainophiles, I can sincerely state - hand over heart - that Wasser and Sacone live and breathe this brand. Their endeavours not only serve to honour Guerlain's illustrious past, but to shift with the times as modern civilisation evolves.
Maison Guerlain could not be in better hands. Period.