Ralf Schwieger : Portrait of an Artist
The winter light is casting pearly grey shadows upon Paris, as if transforming the city into a sepia photograph. The neat rows of trees in the Jardins des Tuileries are shrouded in a light mist which also covers the tall towers of the Museum and hovers above the transparent glass facades of the Pyramide. Looking up I glimpse the glow of lights inside the galleries containing treasures of art for which the Louvre is rightfully renowned. However, today I do not intend to enter its halls, because my purpose is to meet the perfumer behind fragrances which themselves can be termed works of art. Although it is the first time we meet, it is not difficult to pick Ralf Schwieger out of the crowd. The man approaching me has a handsome face that recalls paintings of Romantic period artists. He is dressed in a tailored black jacket which further completes the portrait. Although he is a relatively young perfumer, Mr. Schwieger is the author of several noteworthy fragrances such as Hermès Eau des Merveilles, Frédéric Malle Lipstick Rose, Marc Jacobs Men, Paula Dorf Zita and Yves Saint Laurent Baby Doll. Given the incredible growth of competition within the industry, such a portfolio speaks for itself. ...
Is perfume an object of art or is it a luxury commodity? The current oversaturation of the fragrance market not only threatens to make the former claim ambiguous, but obscures even the latter. Scent surrounds us everywhere, and the ubiquity of fragrance makes it easy to forget that the level of mastery required for perfume creation is as high as that for any other artistic endeavour. Mr. Schwieger received his perfumery training at the Givaudan-Roure perfumery school and when he speaks about his period of tutelage under perfumers like Françoise Marin, it is apparent that this was a very special time for him despite the rigorous nature of the program. “I enjoyed smelling raw materials and learning about them. Of course, one cannot start composing fragrances right away, since the perfumer needs to be well acquainted with the raw materials library, which includes thousands of ingredients, about 3000 synthetics and 400 naturals. Only then can one start creating, first by learning how to build accords from various materials.”
Although there are many accords that are now established as classical, the novelty of creation lies in the ability of the perfumer to experiment with new combinations and often with new materials. The ability to select a truly special combination out of the millions of possibilities is indeed a talent that comes after many years of learning. “Harmony is the main characteristic of a beautiful perfume. It is something peculiar, something that would catch one’s attention and hold it. Of course, it is the most difficult aspect of perfume creation.” Mr. Schwieger pauses before continuing, “Creating fragrances is very difficult. Even after 10 years, I find it difficult. Of course, it is also very individual. Some perfumers like Francis Kurkdjian [the creator of Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Mâle] have had lots of success after the first few years, but most do not. It is a learning process that never ends.” Mr. Schwieger displays remarkable humility whenever asked about his accomplishments, yet the extraordinary character of his fragrances cannot be denied. Mr. Schwieger’s signature works magic in Eau des Merveilles, a vision of the dusky radiance of ambergris set against a woody backdrop. The most unexpected discovery is that this marine etude, an olfactory vision of William Turner’s paintings, is rendered without relying on conventional marines notes.
The path Mr. Schwieger took to perfumery was not quite straightforward. “In the perfume industry, many people follow their fathers, but I suppose that I never did what was expected of me.” Initially, he studied chemistry in his native Germany, but very quickly he realized that basic research was not what he wanted. He does not pause when asked why fragrance appealed to him initially, “Mystery.” Why is it that we smell; what do we smell; how do we react to scents? Indeed, the mystery and allure of perfume is the emotional connection experienced by its wearer, much like with other objects of art. The instances when perfume strikes one to the core, awakening emotions and unearthing lost memories, are times when one truly experiences the power of a great perfume. The role of perfumer in this process is much more than that of a technician who can masterfully set up a series of cues, but rather that of an artist who imprints one’s own dreams and visions upon the composition.
“A beautiful perfume has to have a novelty about it, yet beauty has to be easily understood,” reflects Mr. Schwieger, offering the example of Thierry Mugler Angel, a fragrance that has defined perfumery trends since its introduction in 1993. “The combination of accords in Angel is unique and unusual, nothing like what existed before.” Yet despite this novelty, Angel has elements that possess a tinge of the familiar—the cotton candy sweetness of maltol, the bitterness of chocolate and the nuttiness of caramel. The mastery of the perfumer is in being able to make the personal connection for the person who is to enjoy his creation. When Mr. Schwieger created a fragrance for Frédéric Malle, he envisioned a representational perfume of red lipstick. The retro glamour of Lipstick Rose suggested by the combination of powdery notes of iris and heliotrope hides an unexpectedly provocative element. A femme fatale fragrance, it tenderly suggests the scents of vintage lipstick worn by one’s mother or aunt, a combination that is simultaneously striking and alluring. Experiencing the unusual juxtaposition of facets in Lipstick Rose, one can understand why Malle was taken by Mr. Schwieger’s work, even though among the perfumers whose work he selected at the time— Edmond Roudnitska Maurice Roucel, Jean-Claude Ellena, Dominique Ropion, to name a few— Mr. Schwieger was among the youngest.
In much the same way that students of fine art study by copying the great masters of the past, perfumers learn the laws of perfumery by recreating (or matching, as it is called in the industry) perfume classics as part of their training. Great perfumers can be credited not only for the beautiful objects they create, but also for inspiring new principles and trends. Examples include Jean Carles, the creator of Carven Ma Griffe, who introduced a method for studying perfumery named after him, or Sophia Grojsman, who ushered in a new monolithic style of composition with Lancôme Trésor and Yves Saint Laurent Paris. When asked about the perfumers whose work he finds inspiring, Mr. Schwieger names Edmond Roudnitska and Jean Claude Ellena. “I love the spicy-woody notes of Roudnitska’s Eau d’Hermès. Similarly, Jean-Claude Ellena’s Cologne Bigarade is an incredible composition, and I find green fragrances like Chanel No.19 to be very beautiful. In general, I am fascinated by the chypre family.” Originating with François Coty’s Chypre, the family of exhilarating juxtapositions of fresh and woody, cool and warm, floral and animalic, is what inspired Mr. Schwieger’s Eau des Merveilles, the most chypre expression of which can be found in the parfum concentration. “In order to create harmony in the parfum, the floral notes tend to be increased; however, since Eau des Merveilles did not have many florals, it was made more chypre by increasing the intensity of its woody patchouli accord.” I ask whether there are some materials towards which he tends to gravitate. Mr. Schwieger brings the discussion back to Eau d’Hermès. “It inspired my fascination with woods and spice notes, such as cardamom and pepper. It has a whole spectrum of notes, ranging from transparent to opaque, and the result is very special.”
Mr. Schwieger does not romanticize the world of perfumery, nor does he see the profession of the perfumer as an easy road to travel. “To be a perfumer, one must have curiosity and discipline. Being open-minded is a very important trait, and so is being able to take risk. Most importantly, one must not be overcome by frustration, which is an important part of a perfumer’s life,” notes Mr. Schwieger. With the exception of Chanel, Hermès and Jean Patou, most houses commission fragrances from perfumers working for companies like Givaudan, International Flavors & Fragrances, Firmenich, Quest International, Takasago, and other smaller firms. The brief detailing the new fragrance concept enters a competition among perfumers from these companies, and only one submission wins in the end. Receiving a rejection of one’s best efforts can be devastating, yet the perfumer must be prepared to handle the pressure. “There is a commercial measure that one has to fulfill, and one definitely has to be a salesman at times,” says Mr. Schwieger, and it is clear from his tone that this latter aspect is not something he relishes. The days when Germaine Cellier or Edmond Roudnitska could take years to perfect and polish their ideas are not likely to return. One cannot deny the fact that the brisk pace of new launches demands the shortening of fragrance creation time frames. While even in relatively recent times perfume houses devoted several years to a project, nowadays a year or less tends to be standard.
Yet, if asked what draws him to perfumery despite all the negative aspects of the job, Mr. Schwieger does not hesitate with his answer. “The best aspect of being a perfumer is the creation itself.” He smiles, adding, “If one is not bothered by the administrative hassles, the development of a fragrance is always a satisfying process.” Nevertheless, the process of creation and the relationship the perfumer builds with each one is different, and depends on a variety of factors. “It is a process that is partly intellectual, partly intuitive. I feel that Eau des Merveilles is special for me, because it was my first own project.” Mr. Schwieger mentions Marc Jacobs Men, with his characteristic modesty, “Well, it is more of a variation on Diptyque Philosykos.” Whatever the case may be, its Provence fig accord splashed with winey rose and lily of the valley has softness and warmth that are quite unusual in a fig composition, while the delicate, but pronounced floral elements set it apart from other contemporary masculine fragrances.
We sit inside the café in Montmartre with the sugar white dome of the Sacré-Coeur basilica rising in the distance. I notice an interesting ring Mr. Schwieger is wearing and comment on its beautiful combination of various metals and its slender facets that move within their settings. He blushes slightly and admits that he made it himself. “I like to capture the movement. If something is static, it might get boring after a while. Sometimes I think of creating my own line of fragrances, combining perfumery and jewellery in some way by designing unusual flacons.” If perfume can be called invisible jewellery, such a synergy might indeed be perfect.
“If you created a fragrance to represent Paris, what would you include?” I ask. Mr. Schwieger points at the creamy grey walls outside the windows. “The entire Paris is comprised of this colour, the fragrance would have to include sandalwood and perhaps amber to capture it.” The scents take the form of colours for Mr. Schwieger as he contemplates the composition. “For instance, musk is white and dense, it makes everything opaque. If you are familiar with Jean-Claude Ellena’s compositions, you will notice their transparency. This is because he does not use many musky notes and prefers to work with the more transparent materials.”
If Mr. Schwieger is asked what about the fragrance market he finds most disappointing, his reply would be unequivocal, “Boring fragrances. It is tiresome to smell a new release and feel a sense of déjà vu, to encounter hundred copies of Davidoff Cool Water,” a note of impatience becomes clear in his normally even-tempered demeanour. “Unfortunately, as a perfumer, one often encounters limits on creative freedom and has to work on fragrances that are copies of whatever is successful on the market. To what extent one is willing to do so is a personal decision; however, the competition sometimes does not leave much choice in the matter.” Yet, his perspective on the future of the fragrance market is optimistic. “Yes, we often hear that it is difficult to be innovative in the current climate, but the market is open towards new and daring things and lots of changes will come in the next ten years.” Dior Homme has just made its debut in France, and it becomes the topic of our discussion. “I feel that Dior Homme is currently the most innovative new release in the prestige market, and I think that it is a step in the right direction. Yet, we shall see what the consumer response will be like.”
We stop by the antique shop, which beguiles with its shelves holding crystal vials shimmering in the bright light. "They say that the niche concept is new, but in the past many fragrance houses started out on a small scale," observes Mr. Schwieger as we glance at flacons ranging from whimsical to functional. I spot a few familiar Coty bottles as well as Piguet crystal cubes holding remnants of Visa, Futur and Bandit. "The niche will definitely play an important role, because it is easier to launch a daring fragrance on a small level," offers Mr. Schwieger. Given the avant-garde quality of lines like Serge Lutens and Frédéric Malle, the trendsetting releases from L'Artisan Parfumeur and the commitment to quality evidenced by Annick Goutal, the niche offers plenty of excitement. "On the other hand, nothing is more disappointing than boring fragrances from niche brands," he adds, and I cannot agree more with the sentiment.
The grey shadows of the day slowly turn to dusk. The streets are festooned with Christmas lights scintillating against the dark blue evening sky. The scent of cigarette smoke and coffee drifts in the crisp air, occasionally joining the aroma from bakeries lining the street. We say goodbye, and as I walk through the Jardins des Tuileries in the waning evening light, I try to imagine Mr. Schwieger's olfactory painting of Paris. If it were a real perfume, there is no doubt that it would posses the same unique qualities that make other fragrances by Ralf Schwieger so special.
Photo of Ralf Schwieger from Editions de Parfums.