Perfumer Ernest Beaux, who created Chanel No 5, once said, “When I do vanilla, I get crème Anglaise; when Guerlain does it, he gets Shalimar.”
Creating next-level vanilla fragrances is still Guerlain’s signature move. Since 2008, Thierry Wasser has been the in-house perfumer at the maison, responsible for new creations and overseeing their fragrance portfolio.
A tribute to the women of the world, Mon Guerlain marks the storied house’s 190th anniversary. Wasser created the scent to “celebrate and thank all the woman from 1828 to 2018 with that portrait of a woman.”
Mon Guerlain (from $78 CAD and $66 USD at sephora.com) is a singular mix of jasmine, lavender, sandalwood and vanilla. It’s pure Guerlain and very, very French. The swooniness (hope that’s a word) of the jasmine is brightened by the lavender and then enveloped in the warmth of sandalwood and that familiar swoop of Guerlain vanilla.
I sat down with Monsieur Wasser in Toronto recently. As you would hope for a famous perfumer, he smells very, very good. I got a kiss on either cheek and I swear he was freshly shaven for our noon appointment.
Wasser spends a third of his time travelling the world, some of it meeting press, but most of it sourcing the natural ingredients to make Guerlain’s juices. So when he mentioned that the launch of Vanilla Coke negatively impacted his work, we asked for details. The following is in his own words.
how guerlain gets its vanilla
Thierry Wasser: We are not the main customer for the world vanilla production. Vanilla is first of all a flavour: for ice cream, chocolate, for drinks. There is production, there are quantities. It’s a natural product, so the resource is not extendable immediately.
When Coca-Cola launched Vanilla Coke, they sucked out the world reserve of vanilla and it became a huge crisis, especially for small actors like us.
So it became a hunt. We were looking at quantities that were absolutely ridiculous at ridiculous prices. Since Guerlain and vanilla is a long-time love story, at least since Shalimar in 1925, we depend a lot on vanilla.
Buying this raw vanilla was such a drama for us, because of Coca-Cola, that I started to look at other origins, but from the same botanical species.
Madagascar is the main world producer of vanilla called Vanilla Planifolia, which is the original vanilla from Mexico. But because of Coca-Cola, I had to find other beans.
I found Vanilla Tahitensis from Papua New Guinea; it's the one we use. It's not grown in Tahiti (it’s the same botanical), but it comes from Papua New Guinea.
It has a fresh kind of anise-y feel. Instead of being dark and leathery like Madagascar vanilla, it’s fresh and fruity. It’s like dry fruits, like dry raisins or dry apricots.
And since we use the raw product, we buy the beans and we chop them ourselves. My Head of Manufacturing uses a blade from the beginning of the 20th Century (Jacques Guerlain used it to chop the vanilla by hand). It’s days of work and his arm must be so big. If he goes to a swimming pool he will swim in a circle because he has one arm so much stronger than the other. It’s a lot of inconvenience doing that. But that’s his choice.
I asked him ‘Don’t you want a machine?’ But he said no, ‘because it might be different. The smell might be different.’
synthetic vanilla – or why mall candles smell so terribly fake
Beautygeeks: I feel like vanilla gets a bad rap because there are so many cheap-smelling vanilla fragrances.
Thierry Wasser: Yes. In the 19th Century, a synthetic vanilla molecule called vanillin, made from wood chips, was invented. Vanillin is only the taste of a vanilla bean. It has none of the other qualities of vanilla.
When we talk about a fruity note or a leathery note, that’s vanilla. Vanillin is only the taste. For smell, you need vanilla.
And vanillin is cheap. You have cheap fragrances, you have vanilla candles, but it has nothing to do with vanilla beans. The scent is very, very different.
What we buy from Papua New Guinea, the beans are shipped to Grasse and we do an extraction in alcohol, a ‘teinture de vanille’ (note: unchanged since the 19th Century) after which this absolut is treated with C0₂.
It’s a very complex process and it becomes such a pure vanilla, it’s so good that you’re like…
At this point, the elegant Frenchman in the immaculate suit rolls his eyes back in his head and utters a charmingly accented version of a Homer-Simpson-about-to-eat-a-donut growl.
If you make the same noise when you smell Mon Guerlain, we'll understand.
Will you tell us if you do?