Walter Johnsen, The ‘King of Fragrance’, on Graff’s new perfumes

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Walter Johnsen is a formidable figure in the perfume industry, which makes the following information an unexpected delight. “In the eighties, one of my first international trips was to Singapore. I was an international makeup artist for Coty, and I was doing makeup promotions at Watson’s by the counter.” Johnsen is the Global Development Director and Fine Fragrance Creator/Designer at Interparfums INC, and was previously Vice President and Director of Fragrance Development, Communications and Motivation Worldwide of P&G Prestige/CosmopolitanCosmetics/Wella. He is behind the success of countless iconic perfumes and has orchestrated the most innovative of public relations campaigns and motivational training programmes to inspire sales teams world over. Affectionately referred to as the ‘King of Fragrances’, he is also a trained perfumer, with a background in skincare and cosmetics.

A meeting of kings

Johnsen’s inimitable career spans collaborations with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Graff. The King of Diamonds sits at the pinnacle of the industry, with numerous prolific discoveries. Its most recent is the Graff Lesedi La Rona diamond. The 302.37-carat diamond is the principal gem cut stone from the 1,109-carat rough diamond found in Botswana in 2015, and is the world’s largest square emerald cut diamond. Its phenomenal discovery serves as the inspiration behind its six new fragrances – a collection that was put together by Johnsen. Over a call, he gives us insight into his colourful career, his fragrance philosophy and the inspiration behind the Lesedi La Rona Fragrance Collection.

How did you become who you are today? 

I used to work in the entertainment business, as an actor and a set designer. I was working on a production, designing a set at the time for a company which was working with Coty (the fragrance and cosmetic giant) to create a training video. I walked into the production house as this woman, who was the head of Coty International, was leaving. I had very long red hair then. She looked at me, and said, “Wow, how would you like to be a makeup artist?”. I said yes, and I went through the process of teaching myself how to do makeup. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane. My first trip was in 1987. I went to Seoul, Korea as the international makeup artist for Coty. I started getting involved in training and public relations. I did a lot more work with fragrance, and the Head of Development for Lancaster fragrances was a gentleman by the name of Michael Forrester. I used to find myself going up to his office, which was like a palatial estate with a 15-foot-high gold Buddha. He would go into the room, light candles and chant. I was this wacky kid who was always knocking on the door, trying to ask him questions about fragrance. Due to my persistence, he became a little frustrated and annoyed. He said, “Let’s send that kid to learn how to make perfume.”

The company sent me to Grasse to be a perfumer and I finally had the ability to answer my own questions about fragrance, and leave him to his chanting in his room. It blows my mind when I think about it, because now, all of a sudden, I’m making fragrances and skincare products and putting makeup on people. I found something very magical about fragrance. It is all about emotions, and telling stories. I have this blanket from my grandmother who passed away around 20 years ago. I keep this blanket that used to be on her rocking chair. When she passed, I took the blanket and wrapped it up. When I have bad days, I take the bag out and I can still smell her. It’s like getting a hug. Stories like this drew me more and more into the world of fragrance. People buy fragrances because it makes them happy. For me, there was nothing else on earth that does that.

How did you come to be known as the ‘King of Fragrance’?

The title of ‘King of Fragrance’ is very funny to me. I’m embarrassed and flattered by it. My big family likes to pick on me, by saying “how’s the king?” as a way to keep me in check. The title came from when I was in India, and doing a fragrance launch for Escada around the early 2000s. They hired a journalist from the India Times who trailed me while I did a tour through north down to south of India. I was on a scent track, but I was also launching a fragrance. I was playing the guitar at the time, and I had it with me. I had that long hair. I was an oddity, because I looked more like a rock star than I did a perfumer – there were times when I had just started my career, travelling through Singapore, China or Korea, and people would follow me and call me a rock star. In this particular instance, as we were going to the temple of Ganesh, the crowd started to get out of control. The driver of the car said we had to get out there as the crowd wanted to get to me. This journalist said, “Oh, my God, you’re like the king of fragrance.” That became the title of the article: The King of Fragrance comes to India. The story detailed why I was there, and it profiled my nose and my ability to easily pick on scents. It was a term of endearment then but sometimes it surfaces again. So when I heard this question, again, I’m humbled by it. I don’t look at myself that way but it’s an honour when somebody does.

Tell us about the process of putting together the Lesedi Le Rona collection. 

Before I embark on a creation, I like to immerse myself into the company and understand the DNA so I can create something that represents who they are.

I had the opportunity to go to London, to the Graff headquarters to meet with Mr Laurence Graff, and listen to him speak about diamonds and how he founded the company.

What was really interesting to me is how he would reference diamonds as gifts from the earth; a diamond is basically carbonised coal that has come from the earth after billions of years. When you think of fragrance, fragrances are also created by ingredients that are gifts from the earth.

The second connection is that diamonds are often presented as gifts to make people happy. It has that same love and happiness associations when you’re dealing with fragrances.

People buy fragrances because it makes them happy or they give it to someone that they love. To me, that is what fragrance is. Fragrances are little bottles of happiness. Like diamonds, they’re precious things constructed from gifts from the earth.

a close up of a hand

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What was the process behind putting the collection together? 

When Graff designs a collection, they do an overall global collection. But they also do ranges that cater towards the sensibilities of different regions within the world, such as for the Middle East or European consumers.

The first thought that I had was to have these fragrances, which were initially just four, as tributes to different regions around the world through the ingredients.

Then, Graff revealed its Lesedi La Rona diamond. I have not seen the real one because it was locked up in a vault at the time but I saw a cubic zirconia mock up. This is no small diamond. It changed my perception of the diamond’s precision, and how in depth we needed to go with this process.

When I went to the atelier, I learned that Mr Laurence Graff hired a specific diamond cutter, who is also a concert violinist. His ear was so tuned in from playing the violin, that he could use his exceptional hearing to listen as the laser cut the diamond.

The minute he heard a glitch or notch that was slightly different, he knew they had to stop cutting the diamond. When I thought about how precise this whole procedure was, it added anther layer onto this concept.

The magnitude of this project was so big that I went to all of the fragrance houses around the world to brief them. I gave them direction with regards to Graff and the Lesedi La Rona stone. I gave them three to four weeks for submission and later, I got a total of 120 in return.

After smelling and tracking the evolution of the scents over a two-week period, I realised that none of the fragrances worked.

I was in a panic, because I needed to create four fragrances. I had 120 fragrance samples but nothing was fitting what I was looking for. I went to the Vice President of Marketing for Graff and told her I have a problem. We ended up going to every store we could find in New York and London and smelled every fragrance we could get our hands on. It was interesting and sad that fragrance after fragrance, regardless of whether they were mass, prestige, or niche, smelled the same.

She then came to me with this large brochure that Graff has in some of their stores. It has a picture of 25 to 30 different diamonds that Graff has cultivated over the years.

What caught my eye was a statement at the bottom of the brochure that said all diamonds are actual sizes. These diamonds were huge. I did some research on ingredients and sustainability and I started over again. I brought the brochure to the fragrance houses and talked about different things that I noticed in the market, including trends. I gave them two weeks and they came back with somewhere between 50 and 70 fragrances. I went through them, and narrowed them down to 20.

I made some of my own tweaks and brought them down to 10, and knew that I had at least the start of what would be the collection of four. From there, I worked with the specific perfumers, digging deep into the dynamics of each of the individual ingredients.

We ended up finding four fragrances that had captured different aspects of Graff. Mr Graff was blown away by what we had achieved. But as we were just closing the brief, I got a phone call from one of the perfumers try their fragrance. I was blown away. It was a fragrance that was genius and different from the other four. It added its own dimension to the collection itself so I needed to keep it. The next day, I got another phone call like that. Ultimately, the same thing happened. From a collection of four, we bumped it up to six and launched it exclusively with Harrods London.

I was in London in March of 2020 when COVID first hit. I was launching exclusively with Harrods London on the day that the US government put a mandate out requiring all Americans to come back to the country. This was a launch that happened the week before the pandemic went global. We kept the exclusivity within Harrods London for the period of time up until the beginning of this year.

Due to the pandemic, everything got shifted another six to eight months forward, which is where we are right now. Despite launching during the pandemic, the Graff perfumes became one of the top three selling brands in Harrods through the last year. We’re very proud of that.

Tell us about the different scents in the collection. 

The Lesedi Le Rona I is my elegant and regal child. The idea behind this was to combine textured florals and a woody oriental structure that maintains a level of refinement and sophistication. This fragrance was developed with a European sort of sensibility, so we played with the rare Orris flower, that played a part in the royal courts during the reign of Catherine de’ Medici (an Italian noblewoman who became Queen of France). The pink pepper adds a sparkle in this.

Every pink pepper in this, sourced from the Amazon Valley in Brazil, sit under a microscope. The same precision in choosing diamonds that go into jewellery applies to the peppercorns. All of them have the uniformity of size, colour, texture, and smell. This scent’s construction pays respect to the old world ideas of fragrance creation and development, unlike the mass market fragrances that we’re seeing now.

With number two, we’re looking at a scent that represents a successful development in the niche world: A clean, solar fragrance. What I mean by that is a fragrance that gives you an escape like you’re in the Mediterranean or on the beaches under the sun. The citrus for the fragrance is neroli from Tunisia. The farmers we worked with diffuse neroli oil at home to wishing their guests fortune and good luck. We also have the Sichuan pepper from China, and peony, which is also another nod to mainland China.

The third is my romantic child. This has Rose de Mai from Grasse, grown in a farm owned and operated by women, and saffron that comes from the crocus flower. It’s another one of those fragrance ingredients that’s extremely expensive, because it takes 70,000 krokus to pull 200,000 saffron stems to get about 0.4 to 0.5 kilograms of saffron oil. The expense in this is astronomical.

Number four is what I call my ‘fun child’. It has contrasting edible notes, like tonka bean and almond, and honey blossom, mixed with white rose and some lavender. This Bulgarian lavender comes from the only lavender field in the world that is 100 per cent certified organic by the organic agricultural ministries of Europe and the United States. We also have Marcona almond that was popular with the royal families of Europe for hundreds of years. It adds an edible element and dessert quality to the scent. Then we have the Manuka honey, which is an antibacterial honey that offers another rich note.

The fifth is my happy child. When I smelled this fragrance, I was immediately drawn to it because it reminded me of my summers in Mykonos. Everyday, I would leave the beaches, return to my room, and put on a face mask. I would look at the beach, read a book, smoke my cigarette and drink a coffee. All of the smells together offered a happy place for me. Heliotrope here is a Greek word: ‘helios’ is Greek for ‘sun’ and ‘tropein’ means ‘to turn’. What’s interesting about them is that the flowers turn to the light of the sun. If you look at them in the morning, they are facing one way, and as the sun sets, they turn.

The last fragrance is an oriental woody one. This is like a mystery fragrance with an amber, modern woody signature. The ingredient that I focused on here is oud. I have access to a piece of agarwood from Vietnam that is over 100 years old and is locked up in a vault because it’s an antiquity. This wood that’s locked up has infused the walls and the room with the oud scent. We were given permission to go into the room, add steam, collect it, and take it to distill it in order to capture the true essence of this 100-year-old piece of agarwood. This is combined with Madagascan clove and Egyptian Jasmine.

What are some perfume trends that you’ve seen come to fruition this year? Everything that is old is new again. Think of bellbottoms from the seventies or waist coats on men. Fashion recycles itself but with fragrance, we don’t do that as much.

I’m finding that when I’m revisiting fragrance ingredients that are no longer used such as like verbena, you know or authentic floral musks. I’m also looking at classics like Emeraude by Coty or Guerlain’s Shalimar. I’m reimagining them as if they were just created for the first time.

People say that rose fragrances are a trend this season but rose is always a trend. Like genderless fragrances – there have always been genderless fragrances but they don’t sell them as that that because people buy men’s or women’s fragrances. When you’re in the niche world, the ingredients are so pure that they can go either way. I don’t come from a school where you have fragrance for the summer or winter, or fragrance for man or woman. My personal philosophy if you smell something and it makes you happy, wear it.

The trend that I’m looking at right now that I think is really take off and stay is revisiting our history and modernising classic scents and interpreting it as if you were creating it for a new audience in the year 2021. It’s not about replicating or change a scent. But what would it be like to interpret that fragrance now? It’s using the past to move forward into the future.

What do you think is the future of fragrance?

I think the future of fragrances is exactly the past of fragrances. It’s about making people happy. It’s an emotional and visceral connection.

We saw that during this pandemic, people are still buying the fragrances that make them happy. It offers a sense of comfort and peace. To me, that is what fragrance has done through its entire history. Fragrance always has and always will bring a smile.

(All images: Graff)

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