Interview by Karen Marin, Essencional magazine.
What a treat – and absolute pleasure – it was for me to interview Ralf Schwieger, the nose behind such masterpieces as Hermès Eau de Merveilles and Atelier Cologne’s Orange Sanguine. Moving from childhood memories to a discussion on the creative process plus the ever-changing role of the perfumer, he never ceases to surprise with glimpses into the challenges of his craft and his creative triangle of inspiration.
What is it about fragrance and the perfume industry that attracted you in the beginning?
I think I was always interested in the senses – smelling was important, putting my nose towards things. I liked to smell. My mother always wore fragrance, it was important for her and she wore Arpège, the classic. It’s a funny story how it all started. The parents of one of my friends from childhood had a company specialized in window dressing of perfumery shops in all of Northern Germany. I worked for them in the back office, but the best part for me was that I got so many testers and fragrances for free when I was sixteen or so until my early 20’s. This helped me to build my fragrance library. It was the late 1970’s, early 1980’s, when chypres and orientals were in fashion which perhaps they are not so much in vogue now. KL Homme by Lagerfeld and Aramis Devin were some of my favorites from then but so many of these are forgotten now. I still like chypre and woody notes. I don’t like heavy, cloying notes and I feel transparency is always a good thing to achieve in perfumery.
I was also interested in art and science. I wanted to go to art school but I thought I was too shy, then I was also interested in the natural sciences like medicine, chemistry, and biology. I studied chemistry, and I knew that fragrance was part chemistry. The job description of a perfumer seemed like a kind of hybrid: maybe it’s not really artistic but it is design. So in a way it was a good synthesis that brought together these two influences.
You were born in Germany. What influences - from your childhood, from the culture you grew up in - carry over into your work today?
Well actually, I was always trying to leave and to have opportunities to travel and even live in other countries because I was curious. I was lucky to be accepted by the Givaudan-Roure perfumery school which was in Grasse. In fact people tell me I’m not the typical German, that I’m more French than German! Where I grew up, it was next to the forest but I don’t know that you can say that is reflected in my perfumery. I do like woody and mossy notes though.
How do you approach the creative process? Do you envision a scent in your mind before you bring it to life? How do you work?
There are different ways to proceed if you have something in mind, especially when it’s triggered by something you smelled before, such as a frangipani flower that you want to make more glorious. But you always compare what you are doing to the image in your mind. What is interesting in perfumery, and what I prefer most, is building new accords, new building blocks, to use unusual combinations or overdoses where you have an idea of a certain tension between raw materials that could produce an effect but it’s not yet clear in your mind, so you are trying to approach it and build on it. I like to find raw materials and unusual combinations which have not been used very often, and it’s still possible to do that in perfumery. You rarely smell it on the market since it may not be commercial. It has been embellished or toned down.
What is fascinating with perfumery is to explore new accords. When I worked with Atelier Cologne some of the citrus notes were overdosed and that was not common on the market. High dosages perhaps but not in a classical structure. I remember the blood orange accord was one of the first. Sometimes it can be too much, but here there was a little fougère accord, the citrus and the lush orange juice-like notes. It was a nice achievement. Because Atelier Cologne was new and just starting, I was able to propose something new and they were able to adopt it without testing. It was nice that they took the risk.
I like to do my own thing, but it’s nice to collaborate with someone who may have better ideas. When working with Nick Steward at Gallivant on Bukhara, it was great to have someone with a certain vision of how the fragrance should be coming from the feeling and mood of the place. Then the perfumer is a translator of feelings. Once I did a fragrance for Etat Libre d’Orange where they gave me two films to watch and I created the fragrance from that. You really want to achieve what someone else has in mind, and it’s the interpretation aspect that is interesting. That’s why I like to work on niche or one-to-one projects.
Tell me about a creation you are proud of.
What I may be most known for is Hermès Eau des Merveilles. There we worked on something salty, and although people talk about salt all the time now, 20 years ago it was not so common. It meant translating a way to perceive salt when salt does not have a smell. Instead, we focused on the impression of bathing in the ocean, we tried to translate having a salty skin, and I think we were really able to do it. It was such a long process, so many influences from inside and outside, so to achieve something like that, it’s not so easily done, especially in commercial perfumery. I was quite proud of that. This was almost like a classic development where we worked with someone who knew how to smell, who tried to push the process forward without being worried about delivering a “Me Too” fragrance.
Tell me about a fragrance you worked on that was particularly challenging.
What is difficult is when you really aren’t in the forefront but everything lies on your shoulders. When your name is associated with the brand, you have a certain responsibility. I did a collection of 6 fragrances for a new brand called Helio. It’s quite small, a guy from Vancouver with a West Coast perfumery who wanted to create a West Coast vibe. With large companies there are so many cooks in the kitchen, but in this case, there is a responsibility not to make mistakes. Commercial perfumery, where you go through tests, and it’s a type of competition that comes back where you have to modify the top note to make it easier for a certain population to test well, that’s very technical and difficult, but it’s a teamwork approach.
How has the role of the perfumer changed since you first started and now?
When I started in the 1990’s there was already an evaluation department, but it was fairly new. The old-time perfumers already complained about it, but the role was still rather soft when you compare it to today. Today everything is so much faster, everything that is cooked in the kitchen will be tasted. There is not the filter anymore of the perfumer trying to direct it; the direction is often done by evaluation and you see it in the speed to market and with so many fragrances on the market. All the big launches are tested, even in blind tests. Testing fragrances gives this idea that the customer is actually influencing the creation which is a bit ridiculous. It’s a bit odd because it cuts the innovation and creativity.
What kind of fragrance have you not done yet that you would like to create?
Something like a beautiful soliflower – only rose, or a nice white tropical flower. I recently worked with ylang again. Or notes that are unfashionable that you want to revisit again. You can do it in a commercial way but often I do something that’s a little more out there and then I can use the accord for something more commercial. Maybe a real nice vetiver because I haven’t really done one. What I really don’t like is smelling one big note on the street, like a heavy sandalwood or a dry ambery note. If that’s modern perfumery, then I’m already old-fashioned. I see new perfumers working on themes which I find are not very esthetic but they are considered modern, so this idea of what is modern is very intriguing.
I read that you are inspired by art, science and industry. How do they fit in with perfume creation? Are you using Artificial Intelligence?
I’m not using AI at this point. It can be fascinating but no, I try to get by without it. For me, art, science and industry form a creative triangle: art can be messy while science needs to be exact and industry is what is laborious and takes time. You can’t be creative every minute. One day you are more industrious. I like to read about science. It all triggers different parts of my brain.
May it all continue to inspire wonderful new creations.