I'm welcomed into Cartier's in-house perfumer, Mathilde Laurent's office/laboratory on the top floor of the Jean Nouvel designed building, Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, in Paris, by the lady herself who’s wearing a pair of very "rock and roll chic," gold Converse All Star shoes on her feet, a Cartier Juste Un Clou bracelet around her wrist, complete with a wide smile on her face. She's as warm as the light streaming in through the glass walls and as friendly as somebody who I’ve known for years, even though we’ve just met. "I love my office," Mathilde enthusiastically agrees when I comment on it. "And I was hoping to have sun for you today!" And fittingly, the heat enhances the scent of the fragrant flowers that are in abundance throughout.
A Parisian by birth, Mathilde Laurent graduated from the prestigious ISIPCA perfumery school of the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de l'Aromatique Alimentaire in Versailles, France. After working at Guerlain alongside its renowned founder, Jean-Paul Guerlain, for 11 years, she joined Cartier in 2005 and has since developed twenty four fragrances for the maison, including L'Envol, both her latest creation and the instigator of my visit.
On the floor of her office is a haphazard array of shoes - from glittery Converse, to patent leather Miu Mius - and magazines while a tall stack of books is on her large desk all interestingly bear the same title, "The Power of Smell," albeit by different writers and publishers.
She offers me Jukro tea, her drink of choice - a black Korean tea with a natural taste of chocolate bean and grilled meat. "I call it my drug". Mathilde doesn't like flavoured teas and she's precise about allowing the Jukro to infuse for 5 minutes. "Its smell is really important for me. Smelling it can last for minutes and minutes…" and seems very pleased when I tell her that I can discern the flavour notes that she's mentioned.
"Nothing is perfumed in the rest of my world," she reveals. "Nothing has an artificial scent and I very rarely wear perfume myself." When I bring out the bottle of my signature fragrance which I carry everywhere with me, she immediately smells it. She says that it's similar to a fragrance in her, "Manifesto about perfumery," Cartier's Les Heures de Parfum. "In the collection there is something based on incense, an oriental note named the ‘XII - The Mysterious Hour.' But I won't be vexed if you don't change your perfume for it," she tells me. "Choosing and wearing a perfume is like love; you can't simply change it because you met somebody else.”
She brings the perfume for me to smell and I am privileged to partake in the unique Les Heures experience wherein I get to watch a series of beautifully evocative videos, each of which corresponds to one of the perfumes in Les Heures series; these are presented to me, each infused within one of Cartier's signature red leather, jewellery boxes. These videos are amazing as they literally show the scents; as of September 2016, this experience is available for customers to share in the "Scent Room," at Cartier's New York Flagship. I comment that one of the fragrances brings to mind the smell of "mother" to me, most precisely Cartier XI “L’Heure Perdue”. "You couldn’t have given me a better compliment!" Mathilde exclaims, looking surprised. "That is what I wanted to create, the feeling of the flesh of a mother with a child." What is more interesting is that Mathilde shocked everyone by using only molecular ingredients to create this most natural of evocations.
We have a wonderful conversation – as we walk from her office, to her sitting room, through to the laboratory - a visit filled with experiences, one of which is actually tasting a version of her latest creation, L'Envol. "You understand the fragrance immediately; much better than if you smell or wear it," Mathilde says after which I’m offered an Olympian god's lunch of foie gras and hydromel - the sugary, honey wine which inspired L'Envol - and Mathilde and I speak about everything from the 600-700 natural and chemical ingredients in her laboratory, to the benefits of meditation and hypnosis, to the correct way to smell a fragrance ("You have to smell it quickly and then exhale with as much air as you took," she instructs) and I can't help but think of a more perfect way to spend a day in Paris.
How did you decide to become a perfumer?
I first wanted to be an architect like my father, and then I discovered photography. But at the same time, I was unconsciously smelling everything, speaking about perfumes and collecting perfume bottles, without giving any thought to the people who were behind them as, back then, the profession of the perfumer was unknown. I was 17 years old when the parents of a good friend told me that they saw a documentary on TV about perfumers and thought that it described me. So, I decided that I would become a perfumer and studied chemistry to do so - something I never would have studied otherwise because I'm not a scientist and was probably the worst student the University ever had!
What do you think about people who wear a single, "signature" perfume all the time?
What's important is the freedom to choose; if one wants to wear the same fragrance every day then they should. I don't have rules and believe that people should do what their instincts tell them. I also don't like the trend today wherein people don't dare to go out of their house without being perfumed, because perfume shouldn't be a "social obligation" but an enjoyable choice.
Is it true that smelling something activates one's taste?
It's instinctive. The olfactory sense is a primitive function used to figure out if a food is edible or not. It is a sense that's based on memory which is why certain fragrances remind us of strong, precise memories.
What was the first perfume you wore?
Probably "Cabochard de Gres" which has a Chypre note which is one of the seven perfume families and is named after the island, Cyprus. Interestingly, my mother didn't wear a lot of fragrances but the ones she wore had chypre notes. The perfume, La Panthère, that I created for Cartier is a real chypre.
What is the most unforgettable aroma you've ever smelled in your life?
I've smelled so many things in my 24-year career so it's really complicated to pick one aroma. However, there is one smell that disturbs me: pollen. It smells like dirty sea water that has been kept in a closed bottle for too many days. My husband actually eats bee pollen because it's healthy, but no matter how many times I've tried I can't stand it. I must note that many ingredients in perfumery stink, but to work with them one has to understand them. For instance, I love using civet which smells like cat shit. I have no problem working with it for a perfume… even though nobody comes into my office when I am!
You've said that to be a nose you need to "imagine fragrances." Do all fragrance notes stand for something in particular in your mind?
It is the root of the job of the perfumer. Everything I smell brings an infinity of other things to mind - images, songs, colours. Usually, people can't pinpoint fragrance memories but for a perfumer it's simple because we have a different brain. There was actually a medical study performed on a perfumer's brain which showed that our cortex is deeper and bigger, with more action.
How do you present things to customers that they've never smelled before?
When I create something new I always try to make it familiar in some way in order to let people know that I made it for them and not just for the sake of creating something new. A famous perfumer, Edmond Roudnitska, said: "A good perfume is a perfume that shocks you." I like creating shocks, but I don't want to create violent shocks, I like to create sweet shocks.
How different is it to create a perfume for the mass market than for, say, one client?
The process isn't actually all that different. Time wise for an individual client, it takes over a year of regular meetings because I have to understand the client and their tastes in life, not just in fragrances. It costs 60,000 Euros to produce such a fragrance at Cartier as we do it sincerely; clients have all of our maison's regular teams working on every detail and deliver a final product that, although it could be put on the market, was created just for them. An interesting case was a young woman who asked me to create a perfume for her that made her feel royal - she’d married a lord and needed something to make her feel as if she fit in. That was an amazing concept!
When you start creating a perfume do you receive a brief from Cartier?
We are a team and always start from step one, from nothing, all together. It's a really interesting and inspiring process; it makes everybody give their best. I work alone as a perfumer but I also have really wonderful people around me with great vision, who love Cartier as much as I do and who understand my perfumery and vision. When I started here, Cartier's fragrances were made outside the maison and they didn't express it. I fought for perfumery that "speaks" of Cartier when you smell it.
What can you tell me about L'Envol and your thoughts about of it?
It's all about an intellectual elevation; the idea of renewing oneself in a spiritual way. To come up with it I revisited the feelings that arise from meditation and hypnosis. Also, I've been doing this job for over 20 years so for L'Envol I examined myself and how I could renew my way of working. Although I don't have a favourite from amongst my fragrances, L'Envol is one of the important ones.
How would you describe it?
It’s fresh and light. It’s a men's fragrance but it’s also one that a woman can wear or buy for the man in her life. I've noticed that although women really like it for a man's fragrance, it’s also something they'd wear themselves. L'Envol is a perfume which gives women the message that the man wearing it has really good taste and has made this specific choice; he didn't chose a caricature male fragrance, but a refined and sensitive one. This imparts women with a very positive message about this man.
L'Envol's bottle looks very fragile.
It does, but it really isn't because it went through a series of rigorous strength tests. We really believed in this bottle and so our supply team worked on it and made it as solid as any other bottle.
Have you ever tasted a perfume you created?
The idea of L'Envol's base was hydromel, the drink of the Olympian gods. I thought it would be interesting to make it into a perfume. If you think about it, we always taste perfumes; for instance when you're in a shop and salespeople spray a fragrance in the air and you suddenly taste the perfume. It's a good experience and I realized that it's something that makes us understand the perfume. Personally, if I don't taste a fragrance I'm not connected to it.
What is the scent of LOVE?
That's a really difficult question to answer because there are so many different forms of love - love of one's husband/wife, children, friends… I would say that maybe it's the only smell that we can’t, in fact, smell. Because the smell of love one picks up on at the start of a relationship slowly fades as time goes on. We don't notice this fragrance the more we get used to it, just like we don't notice our own body's fragrance. My first thought is to answer something very simple. That the smell of love is a body smell; therefore it has to be something with nearly no perfume to it. Not flowery or woody, only human… the scent of skin. So, the smell of love for another person has to be something that takes the body into account. And I don't mean body smells that aren't good - which is what most people might automatically think of - but the smell of a body that is transformed into something sublime by love. This undoubtedly becomes the most addictive scent.
L'Envol de Cartier | New masculine fragrance.
“Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,
My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave,
You wing your way blithely through boundless space With virile joy unspeakable.
Purify yourself in the celestial air,
Drink the ethereal fire of those limpid regions,
As you would the purest of heavenly nectars.”