Since her appointment as in-house perfumer in 2005, Cartier’s Mathilde Laurent has created some of the iconic French brand’s most-coveted fragrances, including L’Envol, Baiser Volé and La Panthère, to name a few. We talk to Mathilde about her foray into the world of perfume and the science behind her scents...
When I was small I wanted to become an architect like my father; then, fascinated by photography, I wanted to become a photographer. For me, it was less a profession than a genuine means of artistic expression. I had the opportunity of devoting myself to photography; I had my laboratory, I made my own prints and I always had a camera in my hand. Then after my diploma in chemistry, I had to choose between photography school and perfumery school. I had never experimented with perfumery so I threw myself into it and prepared for the entrance exams for ISIPCA at Versailles. I went on to specialise in perfumery during a two-year course of study. Immediately after, I was lucky enough to apprentice under Jean-Paul Guerlain. So I didn’t seek to become a perfumer, at least not at first. It enticed me much in the same way as a perfume should – it starts off subtle and the more you experience it, the more you realise how much you enjoy it.
Jean-Paul Guerlain taught me to be a creator, and that when you have an idea you have to follow through and never give up. You must not change your mind or renounce on your idea.
I have always adored smelling everything around me; I have many smells that stick in my mind and which are part of my life, such as my childhood garden in Normandy and the scents of the Corsican underbrush, which gave me my first olfactory shock. There are memories of Mirabelle plum preserve, of lemon tea, the smoke from a Gitane, the smell of an oak parquet, the scents of the forest, of crushed figs, of rivers, of sand on my chocolate croissant. The list is endless, and happily so, because it allows me to find my bearings as well as learn and memorise the raw materials in perfumery.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but my inspiration comes from the person, the client we are aiming to reach and who they are, their essence, their character, and personality – that will tell me all I need to know in order to create a fragrance. Finding inspiration is much like writing a book; it takes months to gather inspiration, find the concept, research the ingredients and then get the idea into a bottle. It all happens in the head, this is where everything resonates and corresponds: art, the history of the art of perfume, society and the era.
First of all, a fragrance is an idea. Then, you have to put it into a bottle so that everyone can smell it – as long as the idea remains in the mind, no one can smell it or understand it. Generally speaking, I count between six months to a year to create a new fragrance; some notes are polite enough to slip into place easily, others refuse to bend. There are a lot of twists and turns in the creation of a fragrance, the process is very painful. I need between 100 to 500 trial runs before achieving a harmony – the creation of a fragrance like L’Envol may take up to two years.
When I was approached by Cartier, I was given complete creative freedom to use all available ingredients and to create fragrance like a composer creates music, with new, daring, beautifully linked notes. This was the best proposition I could have imagined. However, it is also a job where you do everything around the perfume and when you have finished a creation, you have really finished nothing. In fact, you’ve only just begun the work. Part of my job is also to explain, to present, to show and to give an olfactory voice to Cartier.
Thinking that a perfumer has favourite notes is similar to thinking that a musician always uses the same musical notes for his compositions or that a painter always takes the same colours for his paintings, whatever the subject might be. What is important is not preferring some notes to others but finding the right notes for the fragrances you intend to create. Sometimes, I’m a little bit lost and I ask myself: “Which direction am I going to take to develop this accord?” Of course, I have my obsessions: patchouli and oak moss, but I manage to do without them in a formula. I really can become mad about a new ingredient! I remember how crazy I was about the "horsehair" accord when creating L’Heure Fougueuse – I couldn’t stop myself from breathing in that hay effect, it was so fresh and leathery.
If I wore perfume, I would arrive at the office already completely saturated by a few ingredients or notes, so it would be impossible for me to work objectively and be true to reality. I do have a few favourite fragrances though: Chypre de Coty, Helmut Lang Eau de Parfum, Rochas Femme, Cabochard de Grès, Guerlain’s Mitsouko and Vol de Nuit, Mugler Cologne, Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, Parfum de Peau by Montana…to name a few.
Creating perfume for Cartier is creating contemporary, olfactory art; Cartier wants to pioneer and challenge boundaries in order to move forward, the maison is all about creativity. I’m not an artist, but it’s good to remember that Cartier has always considered and been close to contemporary art – especially with the creation of the Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain in the '70s. I feel that to create a piece like this is our duty as a house because it’s important that we sustain olfactory art like all others. Sense of smell is very important.
Fragrance is a key part of the Cartier universe; the future of Cartier fragrance, for me, is to be a continuing development and reflection of the Cartier client and all that is around them. Fragrance should resonate with a client’s personal journey and so far, I think we have been able to create great scents that do just that.
Mathilde On OSNI...
In 2017, Cartier launched a truly unique installation, OSNI.1, a cloud of perfume – or Le Nuage Parfumé – suspended atop a spiral staircase inside a glass cube in Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. Based on the fragrance, L'Envol – a men’s scent conceived by Mathilde and inspired by ambrosia, the drink of the gods according to Greek mythology – this creation is the first in Cartier's Unidentified Scented Objects series.
"The idea of doing this came very naturally: after the launch of L'Envol, we had the idea to do an installation to show the power of perfumery, the power of smell and the evocation it can give, and how surprising the power of smell can be. Perfumery mustn’t be confined to being just a product – this creation proves perfumery and smells can be so much more than that," says Mathilde.
"Perfumery mustn't be confined to being just a product."