Smell Mathilde Laurent’s five new compositions for Cartier and you’ll get the story. Iris. Lime. Fruit. Incense. Smoke.
Sniff a little closer and you’ll find yourself squarely on the other side of the looking glass, muttering “Curiouser and curiouser”. The scents seem to fly apart; each shard mirrors and distorts a fragment of the initial story. Step back out of the mirror and you get the full picture again. But everything looks slightly different. You’ve been wandering in a parallel universe and it’s seeped into your nose.
Mathilde Laurent is literally inventing a new grammar of perfumery. And experiencing Les Heures de Cartier, you realize you don’t know her at all, not really, despite Aqua Allegoria Herba Fresca and Pamplelune, despite Guet-Apens which is quite probably the best Guerlain in the past ten years; despite the odd, bracingly tough Roadster, her first mainstream release the 2003 Shalimar Eau Légère (though she did sign Ensoleille-moi for the costume jewelry house André Gas in 2006).
Who is Mathilde Laurent? How does her mind work? What process gave birth to those disconcerting juices? What happened in those years where she all but dropped out of sight after being hired by Cartier to compose bespoke perfumes?
I met Mathilde at her lab in the Cartier offices – a sharp, smart beauty, punk-glamorous in her two-tone Debbie Harry do which she keeps twisting into a knot, dressed in standard-issue Boho Parisian black. A few words are scrawled in white directly on her desk; a quote by Serge Lutens is written on a window: “Style is a consequence.”
“I’m always hard-pressed to explain my style”, says Mathilde, “and this quote shed a light for me. All artists have a style, but they are unaware of it. My style, we’ll talk about it in thirty years’ time.”
“I have a kind of magnificent unawareness of what’s at stake and that’s what saves me”, she explains when asked how she came about with the highly un-commercial compositions of Les Heures du Parfum. “This unawareness saves me; it’s what makes me free. I use none of the usual tricks of the trade of today’s perfumery. I am so not molded by the market that I never learned any gimmicks, I never had a chance.”
Before taking a sip, she smells the smoked tea I picked out of her collection, to match the scent I’m wearing, her new XIII, the “invented” hour. Smelling everything since her earliest childhood is what got her into the business.
“The idea of working in perfume came very late. I didn’t give a damn about perfume as a child, but I was always sniffing everything. I wasn’t aware of perfume per se: for me, that was how people smelled. Then, when I was fifteen, I started a collection of perfume miniatures – they were becoming fashionable at the time. I liked to smell what was inside, and I realized that I could recognize which perfume people were wearing. That’s when I was told about the perfumery school [ISIPCA].”
Mathilde hadn’t even graduated when she was hired by Guerlain after a stint as a trainee at the age of 23. Jean-Paul Guerlain took her under his wing, and Mathilde was thrust into the very heart of perfume-making, travelling with him to Tunisia to see the distillation of orange blossom water, to Italy for bergamot, Turkey for rose, Grasse for jasmine, Mayotte for ylang-ylang. She weighted formulas in the Guerlain factory: vats and vats of Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Vol de Nuit, Chamade…
“I had my nose stuck in containers of coumarin; I went into room where beaver pouches were hung to dry. One day, Jean-Paul Guerlain asked me to pick out which lumps of ambergris to buy. He only told me: ‘Amber must smell of rye bread and horse dung.’”
Immersed in noble materials, apprenticed to a master in the old-fashioned way, Mathilde never went through the grind of working for a big lab on mainstream briefs, since after leaving Guerlain in December 2004, she was hired directly by Cartier in February 2005 to compose bespoke perfume for the jewelry house’s clientele – something Luca Turin lamented as “thesaddest waste of human talent since Rimbaud decided to study engineering” in Perfumes: The Guide.
Bespoke perfumes are an iffy proposition at best: clients can have barely tweaked, ready-made bases served up to them in the guise of totally original compositions; and besides, isn’t discovering a perfume that takes you where you never thought you’d go a more intriguing proposition than having something tailor-made for you?
“I don’t work with the desire that’s expressed. I work with my own desires, according to their life, their subconscious desires. Commissioning a bespoke perfume – if money’s no object – should be like collecting art. You should choose your artist. Do you want a Francis Kurkdjian, a Jean-Michel Duriez, a Mathilde Laurent? It isn’t about money, it’s about style.”
In the next post: Les Heures du Parfum reviewed (by me) and commented by Mathilde Laurent.
Mathilde Laurent's gorgeous portrait was found on Jetavenue.com