A chemist, an artist, a Master perfumer: Ralf Schwieger. Blending finely contrasts of precise and measurable -chemistry, and somewhat messy and unpredictable – art, expressing himself in a unique, his way, making perfumes with a personality.
An Original. Chiseling raw materials into perfumes that are works of art, with precision and grace: the sculptor of scents.
Ralf Schwieger was the special guest of Pitti Fragranze 2021!
Opening of his Retrospective (1999-2021) curated by Chandler Burr, which allowed visitors to smell all perfumes exhibited, was followed by a conversation during which he very openly and directly spoke about all the creations featured (listed below), answered questions from the public, and gave us deeper insight into fragrances by letting us smell the most important MANE raw materials for each and every perfume.
What a wonderful learning opportunity!
After the event, we sat down in the Cafe inside Stazione Leopolda for a cup of chamomile tea (him), and a cappuccino (me), and this is what we talked about.
EC: The Retrospective of your creations, a major exhibition of your work in the period from 1999-2021, curated by Chandler Burr and followed by conversations with perfumers has proven to be THE event of Pitti Fragranze 2021 (the first Retrospective, featuring chosen perfumes created by Jean-Claude Ellena took place at Pitti in 2019).
I saw people approaching you after the Conversation part of the event, asking questions, sharing, and wanting to know more about some creations they love the most. How does it feel?
Ralf Schwieger: I’m happy to be here, at Pitti, in Florence, and to be able to share. There should definitely be more exhibitions like this!
EC: Agree. I wish that these Retrospectives could travel around the world and be exhibited in major art galleries. Visitors are obviously enjoying them, and it’s also very educational.
Besides brands, perfumers, buyers, and distributors, there are quite a few journalists, bloggers, and reviewers present. How do you feel about perfume reviewers and bloggers?
Ralf Schwieger: I think they are an important part of the industry, a necessary part. Their feedback matters.
EC: Let’s talk about feedback. When you are working in your lab, you get feedback from project managers, evaluators, people inside the company (MANE). Do you feel sometimes estranged from the market, end buyers, and their feedback?
Ralf Schwieger: Facing your market directly and getting direct contact with customers is so important for a perfumer. I believe that this segment should be an important part of educating future perfumers. I actually think that every perfumer-to-be should work and spend some time in a perfumery store!
You know, when I was thinking if I should choose to go to an art school or pursue chemistry, or maybe medicine on my educational path, one detail made the difference years later.
A good friend of mine’s parents had a small business, they were decorating windows of perfumery stores. I would go with my friend to those stores, attracted by perfume.
Actually, that’s how I got introduced to the world of perfumes, apart from being in touch with the perfume my mother wore!
As I visited these perfume stores, I managed to accumulate quite a lot of flankers. I talked to the owners, to employees, discussed perfume, and I think that this part of my informal education about perfume was an important puzzle in my future career development.
At the perfumery school, there are no actual conversations with end-users, you don’t get any feedback while developing a fragrance. You talk to your friends, your family, but yes, you lack the immediate response, immediate and neutral feedback.
EC: Do you agree that that the more people get educated about scents, they’ll understand them better? I look at these Retrospectives as being extremely educational as well. What should we all pay more attention to?
Ralf Schwieger: I guess that scents are maybe too abstract when people talk about them if we compare perfumery as an art form to other art forms.
People, in general, don’t really know how to talk about scents, how to describe them, how to express what they feel, and how to communicate their sensations. Kids might be more open than adults.
I think the first step should be to teach people how to describe scents with words, expand their vocabulary, and how to focus on scents, think about scents and what they’re smelling, and then try to put it into words.
EC: Do you still see beauty in the chemistry of raw materials you use to create perfumes?
Ralf Schwieger: Ah, yes! As you know, the main part of any perfumery school is to study raw materials. Thoroughly. I love that part!
I always liked to cook, to transform a bunch of ingredients into meals. To use spices, learn new ways to use known spices, and experiment with lesser-known ones.
I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to smell and use the actual concentrates and essences of materials I was using in the kitchen, like, for example, basil, tarragon, thyme, and lavender. I still am.
For example, thyme as a material is much more powerful than basil, you need to balance it carefully. Some materials are heavy, some lighter, some easier to use, and some more difficult: it is so exciting for me to explore raw materials, even today!
EC: Would you say that if you weren’t a perfumer, you’d be a cook?
Ralf Schwieger: No (smiles)! As much as I enjoy cooking, I believe I would have probably become a jeweler or a sculptor. To carve pieces of art out of crude, raw material, that sounds much like perfumery, no?
EC: If you have to choose one perfume you’d like people to identify you with, which one would it be?
Ralf Schwieger: Eau des Merveilles (Hermes). I still think that it was a good project, from the very beginning. Very often, perfume projects don’t go that smooth, or so well, but this was just perfect.
I’m still very happy with the way it smells. I still like it.
I also very much like what I did with Vanille Insensee (Atelier Cologne), I think I have a very good accord there. I used a bit of Evernyl (MANE) there with Vanillin because I didn’t want it to be the main player in the perfume. I wanted to highlight the dark side of Vanilla pods, but also to keep it transparent – which I achieved by using Evernyl.
Vanilla Insensee thus never becomes “heavy” as some vanillas can be. I am very happy with what I did with Vanille Insensee, but I find Eau des Merveilles more abstract.
EC: We’ve also talked before this interview about the gourmand perfume trend, while we were talking about what’s most felt in the air here. You tend to lean on the abstract, lighter side of the spectrum. If edible, tell me as a perfumer, and as a cook, what it would be for you?
Ralf Schwieger: If we’re talking about “edible” in perfumes, I do not prefer sweet. I’m more into green perfumes. Sweet pleases easily, it’s easy to do, easy to satisfy the market. I also don’t find sweet perfumes to be intellectually demanding. I, for example, like the smell of cucumber. Furthermore, I tried to bring the scent of cucumber in perfume to the market, more than once. And it wasn’t easy, not at all.
Cucumber, as a note, as an accord just doesn’t seem to attract much interest. It is already present in the cosmetics industry, often used in skincare, so I would even say that people are used to it and that Cucumber could easily flow over into perfume. It must be a fresh cucumber, of course, not smelling like a pickle! I like it because it’s so fresh, transparent green and very neglected in fine perfume.
Actually, I’d like to see more “vegetarian” perfumes as a future trend: more greens, more fresh and crunchy veggie-like, transparent, and certainly not sticky sweet fragrances!
OK, now when I think about transparency and light, Lipstick Rose (Frederic Malle) might be a bit on the “heavy” side compared to this concept of “vegetarian” perfumes I’m talking about here, but I like to think about it as being more “fatty” than “heavy” because of Tonquintone I used.
(Note: during the Conversation part of the event, we were able to smell on blotters all raw materials mentioned in this interview).
EC: What’s your impression about the niche perfume market in general when you look around Stazione Leopolda?
Ralf Schwieger: I’ve been walking around the fair today, and there’s so much to smell! So, so many small brands, new projects, it’s really overwhelming! There are SO many new brands. I don’t think that I’ll possibly have time enough to smell everything that sounds interesting!
EC: What does Pitti smell like this year? What did you smell the most between the stands?
Ralf Schwieger: There was some oud in the air, definitely. Somewhat lighter ouds. Different ambers, too. But it’s not only here, at Pitti Fragranze: I have spent some time in Greece this summer.
What seemed to be most present, and most popular are heavy, ambery materials. It’s the same here. I felt a lot of dry ambers, very strong ones. I find it a bit overwhelming. You only smell that, it just pushes the rest of the fragrance construction behind, overrides it.
I have felt the same before, mostly in “power” masculine-leaning perfumes, but now it seems that this trend has spilled all over the place, also to feminine-leaning perfumes.
Amber is so versatile and a bit difficult in the sense that it can mean so many things, like for example, what we used to call “Oriental”. There are also so many new materials out there now, materials so powerful that they can overwhelm anything in a perfume – if not used in a fine balance.
I sometimes feel like I don’t hear any volume or music when I smell something like this. I hear only loud shouting, screaming. I call them “Screaming Patchoulies”. It doesn’t need to be like that, not at all. If that’s “modern” now, then I’m old-fashioned.
Although being the star of the show, Ralf did take his time to visit stands, talk about perfume with exhibitors, smell, and get immersed in the event. I met him the next day as well, and he was still exploring the fair, chatting about perfumes he smelled and inquired what else should he smell. Being himself.
“With Eau des Merveilles, Schwieger created a lie that is little short of a miracle…Eau des Merveilles is one of the greatest works of scent art ever created. Its power as art is instantly placing us in a dark ocean, heads just below the surface, the green silt and smell of our primordial womb mainlining into our brains.”- Chandler Burr
The Ralf Schwieger Retrospective featured the following perfumes chosen and presented by Chandler Burr:
Yves Saint Laurent Baby Doll (1999, created with Cecile Malton)
Frederic Malle Lipstick Rose (2000) Editions de Parfum Collection
Hermes Eau des Merveilles (2004) created with Nathalie Feisthauer, commissioned by Veronique Gaultier
Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine (2010)
Atelier Cologne Vanille Insensee (2011),
Etat Libre d’Orange Fils de Dieu (2012)
Aedes de Venustas Iris Nazarena (2013)
Moab (2016) commissioned by Erik Kormann and Anne Serrano – McClain for the Phlur Collection
Aedes de Venustas Musc Encense (2016)
Helio Collection Quino (2018)
La Seconde Affaire du Pommier collection – Le Dieu Cerf (2021) commissioned by Etienne de Swardt.
I am deeply grateful to Ralf Schwieger for his time and patience, kindness, refinement, and openness. Danke.
The Plum Girl
Photos: Elena Cvjetkovic, Pitti Fragranze 2021 Media Gallery
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