Monday 22 September 2014

GUERLAIN CHRONICLES Part III - "An Afternoon in the Laboratory with Thierry Wasser".

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.

Monday 15 September 2014

GUERLAIN CHRONICLES Part II - Maison Guerlain - A Paradigm in Retail Exactitude.

Our host, Junior Perfumer at Guerlain Frédéric Sacone has an important appointment in the capital and has left us to explore. It is a warm afternoon, and the Champs-Elysées is teeming with tourists. Every few meters a shiny new coach pulls up, belching visitors from the Far East onto it's cobbled walkways. My wife and I lose one another in the throng for a moment, but find each other again and knit our fingers together securely. We zig-zag through the masses with an urgency usually reserved for impending restroom breaks, but today we walk with a different purpose. Our growing frustration with the slow, shuffling crowds is dissolved only by the sight of Guerlain approaching at number 68. I draw my breath in sharply, and my wife lets out a sigh. "There it is", we chime simultaneously, as if rehearsed. Our steps quicken, and we suddenly begin to feel self-conscious, like two kids chasing an ice-cream truck. We slow our pace and take in the spectacular facade. "Wow!" we exclaim, lingering in front of the boutique entrance. We take out our camera and capture a few frames... passing pedestrians from all points on the globe stare at us blankly and glance through its doors before continuing on their way. How could they know what this truly means to us? To be standing on the doorstep of Maison Guerlain. At last.

* * * * *

Guerlain have been trading at No. 68 Champs Elysées for precisely 100 years. In 1914 - four years after the passing of Aimée Guerlain - the flagship store shifted from its previous habitation on the rue de la Paix to the current high street address on the world-famous bustling boulevard. The building itself, constructed in exquisite Art Nouveau style, has retained its splendour since, but its interior has seen incremental changes over the decades. In 2005 the space received perhaps its most significant facelift - a massive undertaking realised by French design dignitary Andrée Putman and architect Maxime d'Angeac. The interior of the site is heritage listed, so the modernization proved incredibly challenging: Putman and d'Angeac needed to assimilate and execute changes that subsumed a strong sense of tradition. More recently however, Interior Designer Hall of Fame recipient Peter Marino has woven more magic into the intricate tapestry of the House. In 2013 Guerlain unveiled an entirely reinvented space - one which not only honours historical convention, but also exhibits an appreciation for original materials; crystal, marble, mirrors and marquetry. Simply said, Marino's manifestation has resulted in one of the most extravagant and palatial retail environments the world has ever seen.

* * * * *

The ground floor foyer is exquisitely fitted in rich red / green / amber panels of marble. Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I are greeted warmly by a swan-necked mademoiselle who strikes a stunning silhouette in black. A gruff security guard with microphone in his ear stands to one side, but his gravity is broken when he too shoots us a smile. We take in the opulent space for a few moments, stopping to sneak a photo of a trio of exquisite 1.5 litre Shalimar presentations standing on a counter that have been decorated with jewels. I quickly review the stolen frames I've taken with my smartphone. "You may feel free to photograph as you please, Monsieur", Mademoiselle whispers with a wink. We are relieved, and I retrieve my Nikon DSLR from my bag. We ascend the wrought iron / marble staircase to the first floor and gasp as we enter a shimmering corridor... the glinting hall of mirrors whose rippled, reflective panes hide a wealth of Guerlain artefacts from centuries past. We study the inset shadowboxes carefully, ooh'ing and aah'ing at the vintage flacons. 

Today, we are practically alone on the first floor - the space made famous in 1939 when Guerlain opened one of the world's first spas... a beauty institute that has endured to this day. From the central hall of mirrors, several rooms fan out, and we follow the obvious path toward an incredible central perfume organ that sparkles under the recessed halogens. We walk around it, examining bottles resting in its 'branches'... it's sculptural form renders us almost too timid to touch them, for fear of spoiling its symmetry. The walls are lined with marquetry and modestly-lit shelves hold enchanting bee bottles, many embellished with handsome neck-ties and delightful 'poivre' puffers. The central organ area opens into a spacious room with modest furniture and wood panelled walls. This is the Sur-Mesure consultation room where one can have their very own perfume composed - by appointment of course. The bespoke perfume service at No.68 is a lengthy process - one that any perfumisto would relish - taking approximately one year to have one's very own signature scent composed by Master Parfumeur Thierry Wasser. Two backlit walls are lined with large bee bottles, and the final prize - a leather coffret comprising 24 baccarat crystal quadrilobe flacons filled with your very own preparation - is displayed for one to pore over. My wife and I examine it with a slight pang of envy. 

We cross the hall of mirrors once more, and venture into the other adjoining rooms... one a beautiful showroom with exquisite Guerlain silk carré, perfumed fans and scented gloves for purchase. I see Mrs Sorcery of Scent lingering a long while over a pair of short La Petite Robe Noire mitts made of the finest buttery black leather, and I suddenly recognise "that look" in her eyes. We stroll through to the blanched lavishness of the Orchidée Imperiale Salon and cosmetics rooms where age-defying products and enchanting limited edition powder boxes are on display under perspex covers. It suddenly strikes us that not once have we been approached by a sales representative... we have of course seen them, but they keep a very low profile, allowing us instead to peruse the rooms and products at our leisure. The moment I look for a consultant, she materialises as if from the ether, almost as though she has heard me summon her by telepathy. "Bonjour Madame, Monsieur", she says, her eyes the colour of aquamarines. We enquire about a product, and she educates us passionately. "Where are you from?", she asks enthusiastically.
"From Australia", I respond. "You can't imagine what this visit means to us. We have travelled a long way to be here". I explain our love of the brand, its perfume and its history. Mademoiselle beams. She casts a quick look over each shoulder and whispers "Follow me!" Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I look at one another for a moment and chase after her... she is walking briskly through the rooms and brings us to a concealed door in a marble wall that we hadn't noticed before. Mademoiselle cranes her neck to see if anyone is watching, and then turns to us.
"I want to show you a very special place. You are passionate about Guerlain and have come across the world. We never show anyone this room... it is a secret. But I think you are deserving". With that she lifts a finger to her lips and mouths "shhhhhhhh". She opens the door and enters, beckoning us to hurry inside. We do not wait for a second invitation and scamper across the threshold. Our pupils take a moment to adjust... the well-lit salons are now behind us. 

We are standing in a room that has been decorated in a light taupe marble. A sofa and handful of plush occasional chairs create a conversation area at the center of the room... they are upholstered in a complementary hue. Broad windows run along one side of the room, and potted plants bring a stroke of green to the hushed ecru palette.
"This is a very special space", Mademoiselle announces. "It is the original office of Jacques Guerlain and later, Jean-Paul Guerlain. Here they would sit for many hours, writing the formulae for the Guerlain classics... Mitsouko, Shalimar, Chamade and others. Here exists their original writing desk". She points to a beautiful antique French desk in ebony, and for a millisecond, I see their ghosts sitting there. My wife and I suck in the air and instantly feel the weight of the room around us. The three of us stand motionless for just a few seconds, as if observing a moment's silence. My eyes take in as much as they can, fearful that the image will one day soon leave my memory. Just as I think to reach for my camera, Mademoiselle opens the door beside us - a rectangle of white light penetrates the solitude of the space, and I recognise it is time to leave. We scurry outside and return to the enlivening white of the halogens. We thank Mademoiselle profusely, and she shoots us a wink - the long lashes around her aquamarine eyes flutter like ostrich-feathers. They are carefully painted with mascara. Guerlain, no doubt.

* * * * *
It is difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes a retail space successful. My family come from a very strong retail background, and I too have worked in high-end retail for many years, but there is no single theory or strategy that will trigger a customer's decision to buy. Rather, its a profusion of factors that will influence one to loosen their purse strings. One can recognise that sensible fittings, intelligent lighting and ease of access each play a role in providing a relaxing environment in which to shop, and one can argue that repetition, colour and symmetry are all key to merchandising, but for me, I personally need to make an emotional connection with the object in question. I enjoy retail environments where focus is put on the product - not necessarily one where a sense of 'fullness' prevails. Maison Guerlain - to my mind - is exemplary. The salons, whilst infinitely luxurious, are not 'busy'... much consideration has been given to each space and where the eye should fall. In this regard, there is a silent and reassuring sense of French ease and straightforwardness here. Despite the opulent materials used in the renovations, one does not find any of it competing with the product - instead, product is highlighted by the negative space that surrounds it. Maison Guerlain's high ceilings, broad corridors and wide tables demand it. Marino's transformation has ticked all the right boxes, exhibiting a keen regard for spacial awareness, materials and scale. This author simply cannot find fault with it. Anywhere.

* * * * *

We return to the ground floor, walk through the marbled foyer, and into the renovated cosmetics hall that until recent years, was simply a pop-up shop situated beside the main boutique. It is lined with putty/white coloured marble, and a broad, striped marble staircase winds down and out of sight. Below, the new restaurant "Le 68" with its sweet indulgences, and a souvenir shop. But for us, those pleasures will have to wait for a future visit.
The cosmetics area - in stark contrast to the rooms on the first floor - is bustling with visitors. We analyse the products on display and admire the renovation's fanciful mirrored surfaces and crystal-studded wall art. At the cash desk, my wife and I inform Mademoiselle of our intended purchases, and she disappears behind a sparkling gold wall to ready them for our journey back to Australia. Upon presentation of our passport for the EU Tax Back program, the young ladies at the counter are in raptures. "It is so cute! Every page has a different animal printed on it! Look! A kangaroo... a koala... and a, um... what IS that??" 
"A Tasmanian Devil", I respond with a laugh. We are fully engaged in conversation with these women when Mademoiselle returns with a beautifully ribboned bag. Their warmth and interest has been genuine, and we are sorry to be leaving.
"We are sorry to see you go too! Please return again soon!" they chime, and I feel they are sincere.

As we make for the exit of the hallowed boutique on the boulevard, Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I take one last look around us. We step around the group of ladies chattering excitedly at the La Petit Robe Noire installation; pass a man and woman talking intimately over a shared scented mouillette, and pause for a moment so that a tourist might take a clear photo of the impressive marble stair. Suddenly, we can see past the spectacular renovations and recognise a space that - irrespective of how it looks today or how it might look tomorrow - has always been (and always will be) a shopping destination for perfumisti the world over. And in my eyes, there can never be one as important.

NEXT WEEK: GUERLAIN CHRONICLES Part III - "An Afternoon in the Laboratory with Thierry Wasser".

*Photos are the author's own, and also taken from Interior Design webzine, and the official Guerlain website.

Monday 8 September 2014

GUERLAIN CHRONICLES PART I: "Who the **** is Frédéric Sacone?!"

It is the second week in August when our plane touches down in Paris. Of course, it is pouring with rain. There had been unnerving turbulence on the 2 hour jaunt from Bratislava, and my nerves are shot; my stomach a writhing pit of serpents. For this fellow - whose fear of flying often gets the better of him - the feeling of terra firma underfoot as we briskly cross the tarmac to reach the main building, is nothing short of a blessing. My wife and I push through the passengers at the baggage carousel, skim past customs and exit the arrivals area. Frédéric Sacone, Junior Parfumeur (and assistant to Guerlain master perfumer, Thierry Wasser) is there to meet us. He snakes through the crowd and greets us warmly before his eyes drop to the bulky case I'm wheeling. I can see a crease forming in his brow. We have never met, and a few awkward moments of silence hang in the air before we make our way through the rain to his car. "Zees way", he says with a spectacular French accent, ushering us toward a parked navy blue Beetle convertible.
"Oh!" I exclaim, measuring the size of my case to the size of his trunk with my eyes. The same wrinkle I'd seen on Fred's brow earlier, I could now feel criss-crossing my forehead. But in the deluge the three of us work fast to stow it in the back seat, with a few grunts and laughs. As we pull out of the car park, the car windows have fogged as a result of both our physical exertion and the rain in our clothes. With wind-screen wipers thrashing to and fro, Frédéric navigates the spiralling roads and roundabouts around the airport and I begin to feel giddy again. We curse the European summer and laugh as we enter the freeway and make our way towards his home in Picardy. We chatter all the way.
The ice had been broken.

It has stopped raining and the sun is struggling to press through the clouds. As we turn off the main freeway, the blue beetle trundles down small streets that are lined with stone cottages. Mrs Sorcery of Scent and I revel in the French-ness of it all. We pull away from the main road and enter the emerald grounds of a 16th century chateau. It looks charming and majestic. A sweeping driveway which is partly flanked on both sides by leafy trees takes us to a gated side entrance that opens onto Fred's garden. I notice it is teeming with flowers which, after the storm, release their pretty perfume on the air. His home - a two-storied section of the mansion - backs on to a dense forest. For a moment, as we exit the car and reach for our luggage, my eyes are lost in its green. Frédéric's two long-haired felines - one with eyes of amber and the other of sapphire blue - welcome us with a rub across the legs and a friendly mew. My wife and I find it hard to contain our appreciation of Fred's home which has been decorated spectacularly with furniture and objects from his travels. Our guest room is revealed through floor-to-ceiling glass-paned doors, and Fred insists we make ourselves at home. Around us, the heart-hammering perfume of all things Guerlain... the scent of Eau de Cashmere hangs above the bed, and unseen pockets of perfume suddenly reveal themselves as we pass Guerlain candles resting on side tables and windowsills. Two exquisitely-wrapped gifts lie at the foot of the bed, swathed in a familiar crimson ribbon. I pinch myself, astonished that this man would open his home to two strangers with seemingly few things in common - except of course - for our love of Guerlain.

* * * * *

Frédéric Sacone - the youngest of three brothers - grew up in the Montparnasse district of Paris. A  happy child, albeit somewhat withdrawn, Frédéric nurtured a love of animals and plants, and was intrigued by the healing properties of aromatherapy. As a young adult, this urged him to take on studies in Pharmacy and Biology so that he could learn how aromatherapy functioned on a cellular level. Finally as a new graduate, in 1993 his studies into biochemistry opened the door at Takasago, an international corporation that develops flavours, fragrance and aromachemicals. There, he spent over 8 years as a laboratory sample coordinator and perfumer's assistant... time spent arming him with the experience and practical know-how that would see him transition to the global giant Firmenich in October of 2001. There, he worked just a few months before he met someone within the organisation who would impact upon the course of his career forever: Parfumeur Thierry Wasser. By January 2002, Frédéric had become Wasser's assistant, and the pair struck a special working relationship that has endured to this day. In October 2008, when Wasser was invited to leave Firmenich to step into the shoes of iconic nose Jean-Paul Guerlain, Wasser insisted Frédéric join him.
Fred didn't have to think twice.

Frédéric possesses an artistic soul. Had he not pursued a career in perfume, he acknowledges he would have become a painter, sculptor or pianist. He studied piano for seven years at the conservatory in Paris, and if he weren't able to channel his creativity through fragrance, he would have certainly taken up studies in the visual arts. In his down time, he enjoys painting, baroque music, and films by Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar and Jacques Tati. He also has a keen interest in the religious literature of the great philosophers Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, and as a result, he relishes the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures. He holds a special place in his heart for India, which he has visited 8 times since the mid 90's. Fred's travels have taken him to far-flung landscapes such as Morocco, Madagascar, Vietnam and Indonesia.
"Travel stimulates my olfactory creativity", he affirms. "But more important than beautiful postcards of these places, are the people there who've touched me the most".

When one comes to know Frédéric as a person, one has a greater understanding of how he approaches his work: with integrity, passion, exactness and love.

* * * * *

In the days following, Fred proves himself to be the most exemplary host. My wife and I sit at his kitchen table with perfumed mouillettes under our nose whilst he bakes a fresh mango / coconut tarte tatin and we discuss which smells more exquisite. We drink plenty of wine, sample delicious regional cheeses, and carefully dissect tasty salad dressings he has made which dance on our palate. We take the blue beetle to Paris and enjoy her sights with the top rolled down... tearing around the Arc de Triomphe with the wind in our hair (much to the envy of the Japanese tourists caged in their coaches). Fred ensures our tummies are filled with enormous cocktails and traditional French cuisine from hole-in-the-wall bistros known best for their food and not for their decor. We are shown jaw-dropping castles in Chantilly, visit quaint antique stores in Pierrefond, and are chaperoned through dense jade-coloured forests whose odours simply enchant us. My wife and I feel humbled and spoiled silly. But before we leave Paris, there are two more very important stops to be made on this trip to the French capital... one of course being the newly renovated Maison Guerlain on the Champs-Élysées; and the second, a very special visit to the Guerlain laboratories to meet with Thierry Wasser.  
(These experiences will be detailed in parts 2 and 3 of this Sorcery of Scent series).

* * * * *

If the truth be told, Frédéric's name was virtually unheard of until earlier this year when Thierry Wasser decided to retrace the steps of Aimée and Jacques Guerlain by reprising a series of vintage perfumes that are now featured exclusively at their flagship store in Paris. Wasser and Sacone spent many hours leafing through the antique texts, resurrecting old formulas so that we, the public, might peer through a small window at 'the golden age' of Guerlain. Their tireless efforts have resulted in the recreation of 27 scents to date, each of which appear precisely as they would have up to 134 years ago.

If asked "Who the *** is Frédéric Sacone?", I have the honour and privilege to respond:

"My friend. A man whose loyalty to his boss and mentor is unwavering, and whose efforts in his role as Junior Parfumeur and support to Wasser at Guerlain are nurturing faithfulness, beauty and luxury for the brand".

A figure who would likely rather avoid the spotlight than step into it, Fred is as humble as one can imagine. 
"Scent creates an emotion. For me, it's not the perfume but the people who smell and enjoy our creations that move me the most."

NEXT WEEK: GUERLAIN CHRONICLES Part II - "Maison Guerlain - A Paradigm in Retail Exactitude".

Sunday 7 September 2014

REVIEW: NARCISO Eau de parfum - Narciso Rodriguez

American designer Narciso Rodriguez wowed the world with his 2003 feminine "Narciso Rodriguez For Her" which received the British FiFi Award for Best New Fragrance in 2003, and the Fragrance of the Year accolade in 2004 for the "Women's Nouveau Niche" category. A composition focused chiefly on florals, amber and musk, For Her shone a whole new light on resolute femininity and sensuality. This month - September 2014 - Rodriguez has just launched a new scent, NARCISO, which I predict will enjoy the same fame as it's sultry, vampish predecessor.

 Packaged in modest nude and white hues, NARCISO's flacon is a weighty square of glass that feels wonderful in the hand. The inside of the receptacle is painted a milky white... something suggestive of the perfume inside. Opening with a cashmere soft mantle of gardenia and white rose Narciso is an overture to femininity. These floral notes are underpinned by a sensual amber facet which lends a creamy/milkiness to the composition. At its heart lies the same exceptional Egyptian musk that made For Her a hit... Narciso borrows this from it's older sibling, whose DNA can be clearly recognised here. This being said, Narciso feels contemporary and individual. A delicate sigh of vetiver and blanched woods in the base gives the support required to hold these notes aloft.

Narciso is perhaps one of the more exciting feminine mainstream releases for 2014. She commands attention in all the right ways... a nude figure reclining suggestively beneath crisp white sheets.  

Well played Señor Rodriguez, well played.
Narciso eau de parfum is available in 30ml, 50ml and 90ml sizes and can be found on counter at Myer in Australia now.

A series of rolling launches will see her available internationally from September / October.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

REVIEW: New from Olivier Durbano - Prométhée

Of jeweller / perfumer Olivier Durbano, what can be said by this author, that hasn't already been said? At the peril of sounding like the pom-pom shaking cheersquad for Team Olivier, there is very little the French architect-turned-jeweller can do wrong in my eyes. Not only does he create eye-popping strings of semi-precious stones that adorn the swan-like necks of the Parisian glitterati, but since his first foray into fine fragrance in 2005, to date he has conjured no less than nine exceptional perfumes inspired by the very minerals that enchant his eye. Now, in 2014, Olivier is set to release his 10th scent which will be cast onto the world stage at Pitti Fragranze in Florence this month. 

Sorcery of Scent is delighted to have been given an advance preview of "Prométhée", the latest in Durbano's series of perfumed 'stone poems'.

Prométhée feels very much aligned with its 2013 predecessor Lapis Philosiphorum. Lapis Philosophorum marked something of a departure from the eight fragrances that came before it as it was the first in the series that represented a fictitious stone... a stone of legend. Today, Durbano continues along that same trajectory, leafing through the foxed pages of lore and mythicism to find his inspiration. Prométhée (or Prometheus) is the name of a Titan that fought alongside Zeus and the other Gods in the Olympic pantheon. In one of the ancient Hellenic sagas, Zeus had hidden fire from mankind, but Prometheus stole it back in the form of a giant burning fennel stalk, and returned it to humanity. As punishment for his traitorous actions, Zeus condemned Prometheus to the Kazbek Mountains where he was shackled to a rock to suffer for all eternity as an eagle fed on his liver. As an immortal, his wounds would regenerate each night and Prometheus would wake, only to face the same agonising fate the next day. The legend of Prometheus and this rock has inspirited Monsieur Durbano and culminated in an eau de parfum whose sepia-coloured juice commemorates antiquity. 

Prométhée is a woody scent that has a curious anisic slant. The opening reveals part of the fable... a rich, virescent accord of fennel dominates, and is thick like a woollen mantle. In the perfume's flight, this note darts between the fresh green of parsley and the sweet, licorice-like quality of anise. A deep camphorous sigh of myrtle meets the nose over a scattering of pepper and spice. A broad vein of oliban lends a dryness that - as with all of Durbano's creations - evokes a sense of mineralic earthiness... here is the dusty, parched aspect that is suggestive of stone, and has become Olivier's very own Guerlinade.

The nucleus of this perfume is dense with aromats... dry grey-green sage, silver-leafed lavender and the curry/anise attributes of fenugreek all whisper of perennial shrubs and mountain greens. Resinous accords of storax, labdanum and myrrh in the base lend a rich balsamic complexity, and vetiver and cedar a woodiness that remains on skin for many hours. As with al of Durbano's creations, this one too is genderless... it is proof positive that Olivier is at the top of his game.

When asked about the natural progression of his perfumed Stone Poems, Olivier Durbano comments:

"Lapis Philosophorum, number nine, was a step away from the first, but I always feel a link with the stones. It was a mythic stone, and for me with Prométhée, there is a fine link between mythology, stones and faith, with the light, the fight and the fire. Each creation has a direct link with one year of my life, so it is always an evolution in life to discover myself and most importantly, to share experiences. For me it has been 10 years now, and in the future I will continue to trace my life with Stone Steps".

Olivier's Prométhée will endure, just as the myth has. I'm already intrigued and excited to learn where Durbano will take us next.