In the world of niche perfume—which is filled with unique characters and stories—Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer stands out. Like many, he came to perfumery with no background in the field; like few, he shot to stardom when his second scent, L’Air du Desert Marocain, earned a rare five-star review from perfume critics Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. And that masterpiece—not to mention Andy’s entire perfumery career—might never have existed had it not been for a quirk of an Amazon.com algorithm. (More on that later.)
Since starting his line, Andy has released more than 20 fragrances, exhibited tremendous stylistic range, and earned a reputation as a genuinely nice guy who enjoys regular dialog with fans. We spoke with Andy about his life and career, his unusual start, and how his fans keep him grounded.
Olfactif: Can you tell us where you are right now and what it smells like?
Andy Tauer: I’m right in front of my computer in my office, and next to me on the right side is a little scent strip of an experimental fragrance that has been sitting there for a couple of days. I’m following how it does, but it doesn’t do so well yet.
I’m based a little bit outside of Zurich. One hundred years ago, it used to be all open land here. So we are living on a hill, and between our house and the next house down the hill, there’s a long stretch of green area where you have old trees. We have an old cherry tree that is really huge, and every year, it’s exploding in white. I also have some space where I do a little bit of gardening. Five or ten minutes up the hill, I’m in the forest. Five minutes down the hill, I’m on the river. So it’s kind of cool.
O: What does it smell like outside your window?
AT: Well, a couple of weeks ago, it was still winter with a little snow, and now we have the smell of earth, wet earth, and sun shining on grass that’s getting green again. We don’t have many flowers yet because the hyacinths are not really blooming yet. But it’s a nice time of year, actually.
O: Where did you grow up?
AT: I was very privileged in the sense that my parents raised me in a small village. It was a village of around 400 people—and about 200 dogs! And it’s right on the River Rhine with the bridge going across the river, so it was an important city in medieval times. I was born in 1964, so money was less abundant than it is these days. Life was simpler. I remember going to the farm around the corner where they had pigs and cows. The boys in our group would always go to the river in the summer to swim. You know, if you live in a small village, everybody looks out for everybody else. So that was really nice. We had no TV, no computer, no telephone—we just played outside. These days, kids don’t get this freedom anymore. There’s too much traffic and parents are too scared. So I had a country life that was very well protected.
O: How did your career in perfumery come about?
AT: There was a phase in my life when I really loved to travel to Africa. I was in Africa about six or seven times, and I had a really good job. And every time when I came back from a safari, my mother always told me, “Oh, I wish I could go there, too.” Then one day I got a really nice bonus at the end of the year, and I decided to invite my mom to go on safari with me. Before going on the trip, I was looking for books to take. I was just on Amazon, and Mandy Aftel’s book, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume, popped up. I don’t know why. I was interested in fragrances in the sense that I had some, but I wasn’t really very passionate about fragrances and not really interested in creating fragrances. But somehow, the title of the book was very intriguing. So I bought it.
When I was down in Kenya, there was a frangipani tree blooming, so I was smelling this frangipani and reading what Mandy Aftel wrote about it. And I just knew that I wanted to try the things she was talking about. I wanted to play with raw materials. And then it became almost like an addiction. I started to create simple things and I wanted to get better. That’s how it started.
O: Your timing was good. Niche hadn’t exploded yet.
AT: It was perfect timing. There were not so many niche perfumers out there. There were a few blogs, but not so many. So it was easier to get attention and to be heard. Plus, if I had started making perfumes in my early 20s, I would probably have failed because I think you need to be a certain age. You need a certain patience, a certain perspective.
O: The first perfume that you released was received very well—almost making perfumery look easy. But it’s not, is it?
AT: Oh, absolutely not. And it gets more complicated as you go. The first fragrance that I created that was supposed to be sold was Le Maroc Pour Elle, and the second one was L’Air Du Desert Marocain. I wanted the first to be perfect, and to be the scent that I had in my mind—and I was totally free. I didn’t have to think, Will people compare it to what I did before? Because it was the first. But the more fragrances I have, the more I realize that progress can also be somewhat limiting because you need to be brave and do something very different from what you have done before.
O: And then when someone like Luca Turin calls L’Air du Desert a masterpiece, there’s even more pressure.
AT: Oh, absolutely. Back in 2008 or 2009, there was a really lovely niche perfumery in Brooklyn called Lui e Lei. We did a little event, and in the evening we sat together and talked. I had just launched Reverie Au Jardin after Le Maroc, L’Air Du Desert Marocain, and Lonestar Memories. Reverie was different: lavender-based, lighter, brighter, nothing dirty. And a lot of people actually complained about Reverie because they were expecting something from me that I was not giving them. And one of the two shop owners, said, “Listen, Andy, this is something you will have to live with. You will always be compared to what you have done in the case of L’Air Du Desert Marocain. Just learn to live with it.” He actually was right.
O: Now that you’ve made a name for yourself, I imagine you’re approached by aspiring perfumers all the time.
AT: Yes. And there’s one thing I always try to say when I do interviews: Every few days, I get emails from people who want to do the same thing and are asking me how do we do it—what books to read, where to buy raw materials, where to buy bottles, how to fill them. And I had to stop giving advice because there isn’t time anymore. It would be a full-time job.
O: You have a unique relationship with your fans because you have a regular dialog with them through your blog. What role does that relationship play in your work?
AT: When I started the blog, it was for me to attempt to reach out and tell the world, “Here I am.” So when you read the first one or two years of the blog, it’s quite different than these days. Nowadays, the blog almost grounds me. See, sometimes you have these ideas and you think, “Oh, wow, I should try this...” Maybe you come back from Russia where the business people tell you to make your scent twice as expensive, add a little bling. So you come back and write a post in your blog about maybe launching a luxury line—and then you get the comments from your readers. Very nice, very gentle comments, but in between the lines you can read that it’s not such a good idea. And then you come down to the ground again, and you have learned a lesson.
O: You seem to have a lot of fun with the other parts of your work, like packaging and presentation.
AT: Yes. I have a lot of fun thinking about packaging. I have a designer who supports me there, and I think it’s super thrilling and exciting. And in an ideal world, I would bring a new line within the brand every six months with new packaging and new ideas because there are so many creative things you could do. I also have fun doing the real work, like putting things into bottles and bottles into boxes. I can leave home, leave my computer, and take the bike 15 minutes to my factory rooms. There I have this repetitive thing of boxing and packing, making samples, and it can be very relaxing.
O: How has your style evolved?
AT: I’ll give you an example. When I smell Le Maroc Pour Elle today, I see that it’s really a very packed perfume. It’s very dense, very opulent. And if I were to do it today, I would probably leave a little bit more room for some of the key notes. Initially the idea was to make a fragrance around the triangle of rose, jasmine, and cedarwood from Morocco, but if you smelled the fragrance now, it’s so dense that some of the elements don’t have room enough to present themselves properly.
But it also has to do with taste and with the phase you're going through. We all have our phases. Right now I’m in the phase where I’m wearing jeans and white T-shirts. This will change in a couple of years, and I’ll switch to something black.
O: Can you talk us through L’Air du Desert Marocain and tell us the story we are smelling?
AT: When I was working on L’Air Du Desert, I imagined my travels to Morocco. I imagined the evening in this hotel, with the doors opened. And in the evening you have the wind coming from the desert going toward the sea, so it’s still very warm and with a certain dry aroma that runs through the fragrance. The wind brings with it the spices from a suk, and there is some smoke in there because in Morocco, many people cook their food on an open fire. In the evening, you have all these small fires from the kitchen places and the air gets a little bit smoky. And there’s my idea of a jasmine bush that’s blooming on the terrace, so there’s jasmine on the ground in L’Air Du Desert, too. There is something sweet—almost like cookies, very vanilla and a bit of tonka—to represent the bakery where they are baking fresh cookies for the evening. I think one of the reasons why L’Air Du Desert Marocain is so successful is that it’s a very evocative scent. I have a lot of people come up to me and say, “It really transported me to such-and-such place.” It might not be Morocco, but it transports people, which is nice.
O: Do you ever find it difficult to tell a story around a scent?
AT: Yes! I always have a hard time talking about or writing about my fragrances. It’s quite a complicated matter, actually. You can set expectations the wrong way. For example, if you talk about a note like cumin, then you lose 50 percent of perfume lovers out there because they don’t like cumin—even if they’ve never smelled this fragrance or the note isn’t strong.
O: It’s even harder when you consider that a scent may smell different on different people.
AT: Yes. L’Air Du Desert is like a chameleon. It fits very well with younger people, older people. male or female. I have a neighbor friend in her 80s, and I once gave her a sample of L’Air Du Desert. On her skin, it’s simply amazing. It’s totally different from how it develops on my skin or my partner’s skin. It’s blooming and much sweeter because somehow the wood notes kind of disappear on her. I can’t really explain why this is, but I find it fascinating.
O: Andy, thank you so much. This has been really delightful.
AT: Thank you!
Learn more about L'Air du Desert Marocain.