Our fascination with big cats may go back to the time when they’d come and snatch one of our remote ancestors from the mouth of the cave both species shared, Bruce Chatwin once wrote in The Songlines… Now it turns out we’ve got a panther lurking in our gardenia bush. Mathilde Laurent being a rather fearless creature, she went in and tamed it.
The panther theme – already used for a 1986 fragrance – was an obvious one to go for given that it’s Cartier’s totemic creature. Not only has it been featured in many pieces, but “La Panthère” was the nickname of Jeanne Toussaint, Louis Cartier’s mistress/muse – a former “cocotte” who went on to reinvent precious jewelry in the Jazz Age, much like her close friend Coco Chanel did for fashion.
“According to the philosopher Theophrastus, the panther is the only animal that doesn’t stink: she uses the perfume she exhales to entice her prey. Her exquisite breath is a mortally seductive trap similar to the one that women lay out for men. This leads Aristophanes to call courtesans ‘panthers’”, I wrote back in 2008 in my third post, about Muscs Koublaï Khan…
Same legend, same deduction: Mathilde handled enough real Tonkin musk when she was at Guerlain to know that it was indeed the only animal material that didn’t smell feral. She set out to recreate it around musk ketone, apparently the closest molecule to the phantom of perfumery…
Finally, like all perfumers bar none, Mathilde worships Mitsouko and Femme, so she wanted to do a modern fruity chypre: the rhubarb/apple/apricot/strawberry facets of styrallyl acetate, the “gardenia” molecule, would provide that fruity note. (Oddly enough, another old-time chypre, Ma Griffe by Carven, also associates gardenia with a catty attitude, if only through its name, a play on the two meanings of the word in French, « claw » and « signature »).
And it works. Mitsouko brushes by with its tail swishing, though the treatment is more in the style of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People than of Paul Schrader’s 80s remake: you don’t actually see the creature full-on, you just keep getting hints of its presence. Proper oakmoss and the aforementioned musk ketone – which has been used next to forever – add to the classic vibe.
La Panthère crosses the vertical structure of a chypre with a more contemporary “fuzzy” (or, in this case, “furry”) texture. Gardenia provides the axis. The panther musk is curled around it. The floral note is realistic – it was elaborated through a headspace capture of the flower, and features every aspect of it from its slender rhubarb greenness to its hint of mushroom. But it can only be perceived through the musky haze: this isn’t actually a soliflore, but a flower-feline hybrid, a chimera crouched in a mossy patch.
The silkiness of petals and fur is vividly conjured by La Panthère’s purring sillage. This is that rare gem of a mainstream scent that manages a perfect Goldilocks balance (notice the deft use of jewelry metaphors here). Distinctive enough to please connoisseurs, yet not so much that it’ll scare off civilians. Just take care you don’t start clawing the couch.
La Panthère will come out on March 15th. No word yet on a La Panthère Rose flanker (though the Pink Panther was a diamond in Blake Edward’s movie).
Illustrations: Simone Simon in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, portrait of Jeanne Toussaint by Baron Adolf de Meyer, Simone Simon again, and below, a still from the La Panthère ad directed by Sean Ellis, featuring Erin Wasson.