In the office of Cartier’s in-house perfumer, Mathilde Laurent, there sits a proud statue of a velvet panther. Serving more than ornamental purposes, this handsome wild cat stands guard over something really quite precious – not expensive perfumes, extravagant jewels or fastidiously crafted timepieces, no, this panther protects something altogether more priceless – the heritage of the house of Cartier. It seems to be working too, because in the modernist glass cube of the Jean Nouvel-designed Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain building that houses Laurent’s laboratory (i.e. where the magic happens) as well as a conceptual art space, this spirit of the brand is alive and kicking.
Cartier is not a house hung up on the past, however. They acknowledge their heritage and look firmly forward to the future, seeking to create perfumes that bring something new to the industry as well as to express emotion. Currently, the house has an extensive back catalogue of scent which is widely available (Eau de Cartier, Déclaration and Le Baiser du Dragon etc,) as well as an exclusive collection entitled Les Heures de Parfum. Since joining the house, Laurent has taken Cartier in a new direction, most notably creating the thoroughly modern Baiser Volé and La Panthère, as well as the aforementioned Les Heures de Parfum. In these new fragrances, Cartier and Laurent fuse tradition and heritage with a thirst for pushing the boundaries and adding something new, and worthwhile to the industry. This marriage between history and modernism, and Cartier and Laurent, serves to preserve the spirit of this legendary house – to protect the soul of the panther, as it were, and drive it forward for the years to come.
Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to Paris to meet Mathilde Laurent and sit down with her, and a group of fellow journalists at the Fondation Cartier, to discuss her work for the house. During the enlightening discussion Laurent spoke about IFRA and the impact reformulations are having on the industry, as well as covering her creative process in detail, in addition to discussing the inspirations behind fragrances such as La Panthère and L’Heure Perdue, the latter of which is the latest addition to Les Heures de Parfum and a gorgeous condensed milk cuddle of a scent. I left Cartier with a new-found respect for the house and a desire to discover Laurent’s work in more detail. In the ensuing discussions, you will see that Laurent is refreshingly candid and a marvellously talented and creative individual – a true representative of the ideals of Cartier.
Mathilde Laurent studied at the ISIPCA school of perfumery before working at Guerlain for a period of 11 years alongside Jean-Paul Guerlain. During her time with the house she was responsible for the creation of modern classics such as Aqua Allegoria Pamplelune, Guet-Apens, No.68 and Shalimar Eau Légère – a remarkable body of work, if there ever was one. Laurent moved to Cartier as in-house perfumer in 2005 and has since created 23 fragrances for the brand. She remains a strong talent and a unique voice within the world of perfumery.
On IFRA and the restriction of materials within the industry
I think it’s a good thing. It’s disturbing for the public to think that the industry is not being watched. It’s also important to have an idea of perfume from a toxicological point of view.
Often, it’s not the perfumers doing the reformulation. When I was at Guerlain, I took care of the reformulations. When you don’t have an in-house perfumer, you don’t know the formula. Manufacturers reformulate a product without telling the client, and the client isn’t able to evaluate or smell the difference.
It’s a real point to choose to have an in-house perfumer or not. It shows who wants to make proper perfume and who wants fast perfume. When a change is well done and well worked by a perfumer, nobody can tell. Nobody would see.
I take care of the changes at Cartier. I have the freedom to say that we don’t replace an ingredient if there isn’t something to do so. I also have the freedom to say that we wait until IFRA forbids the ingredient. We can wait up to one or two years. If IFRA then forbids it, we have had two years to work on it to make it safe.
People are quick to remove ingredients. The problem of IFRA is to be taken in hand by perfumers. It’s false to think that IFRA equals less ingredients, this is down to perfumers focusing on less. The problem is not what it is said to be.
On why some fragrances smell so similar
Brands are creating perfumes to exist on the market. It’s an industry for them. People want performers like J’Adore (Dior) etc. They ask for something similar. As a creator, it’s your duty to propose and change. It’s not always about being new. With La Panthère and Les Heures de Parfum, I wanted to try to do something in another way.
For La Panthère, I wanted to propose a new femininity that’s not on the market. I proposed a chypre, the most chic, feminine and sensual fragrance. I wanted to make it animal using civet and musks. To express femininity one often uses flowers, but I wanted to do this in a different way with La Panthère, without jasmine or tuberose etc. I chose gardenia because it is historical and because it isn’t on the market. It doesn’t exist in the modern era.
On whether she has an idea of how a fragrance will smell at the start of her creative process
There is no random in perfumery. You must know where you are going before you even start the formula. Before I start, I have to have an idea which is modern, feminine, ‘Cartier’, new on the market and interesting considering the history of fragrance. Perfume is not minestrone (i.e. everything is there but you can’t feel the taste), perfume is not random with too many ingredients.
On the character of Cartier
I read a lot of house history and visited exhibitions. I’ve realised that the Cartier style was often majestic and accumulates many things to make something beautiful. It is to appear incredible. The form can sometimes be masculine. There’s also a pureness and sincerity to it. I tried to add this into my perfumery. I used ingredients in a simple way without using too many things. I call it the ‘visible ingredient’ – when I say there is gardenia, you smell it. You see the ingredients. It’s important to be true. This way of creating is the Cartier style.
On whether creating fragrance is a science or an art
To me, it’s art. It’s a work of art and a work of mind. It’s intellectual. It exists as a written formula before it’s in the bottle. It’s a language – a way of expressing beauty and a way of saying something.
Perfumery is blocked in the industry. This is changing though with niche brands such as Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. With Malle as a curator of scent it positions perfume as an art. I consider it as an art. I try to do it as an art. I look for beauty. I express olfactory beauty.
On what she would be if she weren’t a perfumer
A photographer or an architect like my father. Photography was my passion when I was 16. If not, I would have been a coach for creative people or perfumers. Often perfumers are asked to be good technicians and to be fast, and efficient. It’s difficult to be creative in that context.
On XI L’Heure Perdue (The Lost Hour) – the latest addition to Cartier’s Les Heures de Parfum
“An hour is not merely an hour; it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.”
– Marcel Proust
The collection (Les Heures de Parfum) is based on the works of Marcel Proust. My first intention was to work on vanilla – a great theme of perfumery. In each hour there is a great theme of the art of perfumery. With L’Heure Perdue, I wanted to create a perfume that did not rely on natural ingredients. It’s totally molecular or ‘synthetic’.
Vanillin was interesting because, since its discovery at the beginning of the 19th century, nobody now uses natural vanilla. People have to know that what links them to childhood and their first memories of cakes etc., was synthetic vanilla. A wonderful perfume is made by man and not from nature.
I’m fed up with the marketing discourse regarding natural ingredients. If you don’t have a perfumer you don’t know the formula. It is courage to say that vanilla has been synthetic for 100 years. Let’s just say it. Sincerity and transparency are a value of Cartier. We say what we put in our perfumes. It’s silly to consider nature as wonderful and molecular as dangerous, so It is important to make the discourse change. It is something I do to try and make perfumery ‘grow up’. What is important is the emotion you feel when you smell the fragrance.
Images are my own.