Profile: Mathilde Laurent
Cartier's Mathilde Laurent discusses her passion for perfume
(This article first appeared in Asia Spa magazine, 2014)
Mathilde Laurent is not a nose, but an olfactive creator. As in-house perfumer with Cartier she differentiates thus: “Describing myself as a nose implies that you just work with the nose, but I work with the brain too. I call it creation.”
The early years
A true Parisian, Laurent grew up surrounded by a large, wildly artistic family on the 14th arrondissement enjoying a very sensorial childhood. School holidays were spent with relatives in Corsica and Normandy, and here she was taught to appreciate the power of smell – everything from flowers and fields to dark interesting places – all in a very non-judgmental fashion. “Nothing was bad per se,” she says. “I wasn’t aware of perfume. For me, that was how people smelled. I have a passion for creativity and architecture. Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska once said that perfumers are architects – they create harmony with form. To me perfumery is indeed a kind of architecture with olfactory forms.”
Laurent hadn’t even graduated from the prestigious ISIPCA (Institut Superieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique Alimentaire) in Versailles when hired by Guerlain at the age of 23. Apprenticed to the master himself, Jean-Paul Guerlain, she was at once thrust into the very heart of perfume-making, weighing vat after vat of precious unguents and travelling the globe from Tunisia for orange blossom water, to Italy for bergamot, Turkey for rose and Grasse for jasmine. It is thanks to Guerlain that she learned to recognise real quality.
“I am exceptionally lucky,” she enthuses. “I am the only perfumer to have known Guerlain as a real family (before the LVMH takeover in 1994).” The home of many great classics, her Guerlain favourites include Mitsouko and Vol de Nuit. Laurent’s collaboration with Guerlain includes the fragrances Aqua Allegoria Pamplelune and Guet-Apens (renamed Attrape Coeur) often cited as amongst the perfume house’s finest.
The Cartier years
Approached by Cartier in 2005 to compose bespoke perfume for the jewellery house’s clientele, Laurent soon established herself at the prestigious Salon des Parfums on 13 rue de la Paix. Here she creates between three and five bespoke fragrances each year for Cartier’s prized clients, as well as putting her personal mark on the house’s signature fragrances including the decidedly masculine Roadster Cartier in 2008, Baiser Volé (2011), Déclaration d’un Soir (2012) and the Les Heures de Parfum haute couture collection.Les Heures de Parfum is Laurent’s artistic manifesto created purely for pleasure. Formulating 12 hours seemed incredibly boring, so she shaped 13. Cartier is now launching the tenth in the series, hour number three titled Vertueuse (Virtuoso) – the numbers are deliberately out of sequence. “When the series is complete I will have given my vision of perfumery – a work of art perhaps, like the ten commandments,” she adds laughing.
With so many smells mingling in the olfactory zones of the body, one wonders if isolated smells evoke vivid memories for Laurent as they do for the rest of us. “We are taught to work with every smell in a detached way, without a personal feeling, making it almost impossible to trigger cherished memories. But the smell of figs, very old, dry and freshly fallen from the trees in Corsica, still manages to make my skin tingle.”
Bespoke perfume is part of Cartier’s long tradition of private orders that began under Laurent’s inspiration in 2005. She says that Cartier has always been the king of bespoke – from pens, to sunglasses, luggage and now fragrance – today’s client can have anything.
Laurent’s clients are people who love to experiment with life and are constantly seeking that subtle difference. Starting at Euro 30,000 for a 150ml bottle (plus spray and 500ml refill), an eclectic mix of clients from France, the US and Japan are amongst her very special customers. ”Men are less lucky when it comes to fragrance as it’s not quite so creative [for them]. Being used to bespoke (tailors, shoes and shirts etc.) bespoke fragrance makes perfect sense.”
The process takes some 12 months from the first meeting with the client. “It’s not possible to create a perfume after one 15-minute interview,” she explains. “It’s very precise work. A real walk together through olfactory life.” The first meeting usually lasts up to three hours during which Laurent plies her client with fine food, drink, aromas and whatever else might awaken their senses and help draft that elusive recipe. Initial ideas are followed by lengthy scientific research during which Laurent compiles her ingredient list presented as a couple of possible fragrance options.
After thorough safety testing and experimenting with the wearer and being comfortable with how the scent works on the skin, the bespoke fragrance is presented to the client in a specially crafted crystal and gold bottle, or in the case of true Cartier bespoke – a custom-made bottle, embossed with diamonds or other prized stones designed by Cartier jewellery designers. “Seeing the pleasure on my client’s face makes me feel like a real alchemist.” The cherished formula is then archived for repeat orders.