Mathilde Laurent talks to Bora Kwon

Photography by Emma Hope Allwood

Perfumery is highly competitive and traditionally involves a regimented, linear career path: chemistry degree, graduate school – preferably at ISIPCA – then on to one of the big corporations, such as IFF or Givaudan. Decades later, with a lot of luck and talent, you might become an in-house perfumer, but these positions are very rare: they exist only at the top luxury houses. Establishing herself as a brilliant upstart, Mathilde Laurent went from ISIPCA to an apprenticeship at Guerlain, invited by Jean-Paul Guerlain himself. After 10 years, she left to become the in-house perfumer at Cartier, where she has created the exclusive line Les Heures de Parfum and won two FiFi awards for the fragrance La Treizième Heure. As well as the main line, she composes bespoke perfumes for private Cartier clients.

BORA KWON After your studies at ISIPCA, you went straight to Guerlain. That was a very fast move for a newbie.
MATHILDE LAURENT It was a requirement of our diploma that we complete a three-month industry internship. Mr Guerlain came to the school for a naming ceremony for a classroom the house had sponsored. I approached him directly and asked whether I could do my internship with him and he said yes. I did my training and at the end of the three months he offered me a position. I still had a year left at school and had to take the exams for my diploma, but I said yes and signed a contract to start after I finished my studies. When I went back to school there was a lot of jealousy from the other students, and the professors were also very hostile because no one new had entered Guerlain for a very long time. They did not know that such a position was available or even possible. I had upset the natural order of how these things work. So I had pretty bad reports for my remaining time at school. It was my first experience of the politics of the working world.

BK Have they forgiven you?
ML Not really. Many of those I studied with have given up perfumery. Only two of the 16 people who were in my year are perfumers like me. I’m the only one to be an in-house perfumer. The school is wonderful but everyone knows there is no room for 16 perfumers a year. At that time it was very difficult to find a job directly after graduation and this is why there was such resentment – I had taken a prized opportunity.

BK One of your biggest fans, the perfume critic Luca Turin, is opposed to bespoke perfumery and was very upset at the idea of your being lost to doing only that, calling it “the saddest waste of human talent since Rimbaud decided to study engineering”. How do you respond to such a violent reaction against something you obviously love doing?
ML I recognised it as a great compliment. He thought I was lost to perfumery but I knew it wasn’t the case. I know that many people, like Luca Turin and Jean-Claude Ellena, do not like bespoke perfumery. Jean-Claude said it is just flattering the ego of the clients. You can go to certain perfume brands where they will tell you they can create a bespoke perfume for you in 30 minutes that will be you in a bottle. Thirty minutes and you can bottle someone’s personality? It is so pretentious. It is flattering the ego, I totally agree with Jean-Claude. Smells and perfume have no gender, no colour, no sound and nothing to do with personality. They have to do with smell. And that’s all. So pretending it fits your personality because you are blonde, so you should wear a white floral or you are brunette, so you are the oriental – they are clichés. We work only with pleasure. What you like, what you don’t like and what you want. It is offering the possibility of discovering perfume, how it can be made. It is a really a journey. They can have this experience with us and at the end they have entered the world of perfumery and their own private world of smells and memories. At the first meeting, we take three hours with the client and after this I go immediately to my lab, where I start to sketch the fragrance with words and ingredients. The day after it is not the same. I have lost 50 per cent of the idea, of the brightness, of the freshness. Then from here you let nature take its course. You really need months to make things happen, to shape the fragrance as you visualise it.

BK Is the success of a fragrance important to you?
ML It’s important but only at the end. I never think about the market when I start a creation. I think about Cartier, what are we going to establish, what are we going to say, why are we doing this fragrance. I always think about people. What are they waiting for in a perfume? What is it that they don’t have at the moment that they might need or want? That’s my first motive, the first intention. After that you have all the time of the process and development to think about the market or the sales. I would say it has to be like that. At Cartier we all agree that a good perfume always begins with a great idea. If you need to, you can refine the idea to make it more commercial, but a great idea will never become only commercial. It will become familiar, it will touch people very easily, but it will not be purely commercial. When you start only with the idea of being commercial to please everybody, you will have nothing. No idea, no pleasure, just sales. Maybe it will work a little bit: you will sell out one time. But that’s all. You will be a one-hit wonder.

BK So the marketing team never come to you with a brief that says: “We want a fragrance to sell in Asia, to the 25-35 market…”
ML I do not follow trends in fragrance. Never. They will tell me they need a new launch, whether it is masculine or feminine and an idea or concept and then I take over. For Baiser Volé, I was told we needed a new feminine launch. I decided on the lily. I decided to make it a soliflore, to make it a unique flower, and I decided to make it very fresh. I decided everything. And I say: “Please don’t speak to me about olfactory things, because you don’t need to. That is my job, you don’t need to explain to me what you want. You won’t get it and I will do what I want anyway, so feel free to talk about the weather or anything else.” I tell them: “I don’t want your feeling about what I’ve created, I want your expertise about the market. Your job is to explain to me how we are going to sell this, what is the right name, what is the right campaign for advertising, what is the right positioning, so if you do your job, I will do mine and we will create something incredible.” In the beginning they did not appreciate being told this, it’s true, but in the end we arrived at the same place. I don’t do it in an aggressive or rude way because I respect them a lot, but I am very demanding. I ask them to be good marketers. There have been mistakes, but they were good mistakes, mistakes of love, because when you really believe in your new creation, you are patient and you have the feeling it’s going to be very easy to sell.

BK The fragrance Roadster uses mint as a top note, something so commercial that it’s in every toothpaste, but is not used often in fragrance. Why did you choose such a familiar ingredient?
ML A perfumer should never pay attention to what is cultural about an ingredient. You have to be aware of it, but I didn’t want to be restricted from using mint. The job of a perfumer is to use ingredients so they seem new. If you just use mint to make the smell of toothpaste, you are not a perfumer. To take mint and see it as you have never seen it – that is perfumery. I often say that to make rose with rose, mint with mint, vanilla with vanilla, is not perfumery. I wanted to make mint so it was sweet and so different that it could be like a new smell, a new ingredient that nobody had experimented with. The accord between vanilla and mint is like snow, I think. It is sweet and cold and you want to touch it, but it is too icy. That duality inspires me. Perfumery is not just mixing things up, it is making things appear different and astonishing and new. §