Jacques Cavallier Belletrud’s quest for raw ingredients has taken him to some of the farthest-flung corners of the globe. To craft his fragrances, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer has sourced Peruvian balsam from the forests of Salvador; fresh ginger from Nigeria; cocoa from the Ivory Coast; and oud assam from a family-run farm in Bangladesh. But it was a trip to Guatemala in search of cardamom that he counts as one of his most memorable.
“We were in a town called Coban, which is one of the most dangerous places in the world, but also one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen,” he says. “It is in a valley in the mountains, surrounded by coffee fields, full of snakes and people who are trafficking drugs from Mexico. But the people that I met there were unforgettable. They hail from the Mayan civilisation and still have this way of life that is very genuine. I spent some time with them, and to have all that danger around you, with all this kindness in the middle, was something I really couldn’t forget.”
I meet Belletrud in more luxurious surrounds – the VIP room of Louis Vuitton's Dubai Mall boutique. To one side, there's a stand stacked with the ingredients that Belletrud has so tirelessly sought over the years. I breathe in the heady scent of oud, saffron, sandalwood, cacao, cardamom and bergamot as Belletrud talks me through their manifold properties.
He himself counts rose, oud, jasmine and "flowers in general" among his favourite notes, but tries to be egalitarian about his ingredients, he says. "I'm an ingredient lover. I use ingredients like a painter uses colours. All perfumers have their preferences, but even bad smells can be good for us. Even with a hint of a very 'dirty' smell, you can create the most beautiful bouquet.
"Perfumery is an art," he says. "At least I am practising it as an art. It is an art because you are creating things, you are turning ideas into reality. I translate feelings, which are not something that you can quantify, into a smell. So I am an artist, like a poet, no?"Belletrud was 8 years old when he told his father his plan to become a perfumer. It's in the blood, he says. "I was born in Grasse – my father was a perfumer, my grandfather was a perfumer and his father was a perfumer. My daughter, who is learning from me, will be the fifth generation to become a perfumer, and the first woman."
While his peers were learning piano scales, Belletrud learnt about notes of a different kind. When he achieved good grades at school, his father rewarded him by allowing him to weigh out formulas for fragrances. And the day after he graduated from high school, Belletrud started work in a perfume factory in Grasse, the French epicentre of the perfume industry.
He went on to create fragrances for some of the biggest names in the luxury industry – from Boucheron to Bulgari, Calvin Klein to Christian Dior, and Giorgio Armani to Givenchy. In 2012, he became the master perfumer for Louis Vuitton, and spent four years developing the brand's first collection of fragrances for women. When we meet, he is unveiling the brand's first fragrances for men, which are being showcased in a pop-up at The Dubai Mall until June 24.
Belletrud's love affair with the Louis Vuitton brand started nearly 50 years ago. As a teenager, with money he had saved from his first job, he went shopping for a gift for his mother. "I saw the Louis Vuitton store, and the windows were fantastic. I was only 17 years old, but they welcomed me like a king. I explained that I wanted to buy a bag for Mother's Day. I chose a nice red one, and the girl came back with this beautiful box with a ribbon. And I understood what luxury was. That was my first contact with luxury. I didn't know that one day I would work for this brand, but from then I was a big fan."
The new collection consists of five distinct fragrances. In L'Immensite, the bitterness of grapefruit and ginger is blended with labdanum and ambroxan, and undercut with a sensual note of amber for a fragrance that is sharp-edged and fresh. The inspiration for Nouveau Monde, meanwhile, came as Belletrud sipped on hot chocolate in Guatemala – in this case, a milk-free concoction of cocoa, spices, water and honey. He translated this into a scent by building on a base of natural cocoa resinoid from the Ivory Coast, mixed with oud assam from Bangladesh and topped with saffron. Orage is a more simple formula centred around the "dark side" of patchouli, bergamot and Javanese vetiver; and Sur La Route calls on the astringency of Calabrian citrus fruit, softened with notes of cedar and Peruvian balsam. And, finally, for Au Hasard, Belletrud elevated the scent of sandalwood with the seed of the ambrette flower, and topped it with the quiet notes of that cardamom sourced from Guatemala.
What binds these five fragrances, says Belletrud, is a sense of daring. “The DNA of Louis Vuitton is really to dare. It’s innovation from a technical point of view, but also the recognition that you cannot be successful if you don’t dare. You cannot be successful if you are not new. But with perfumes, just like a dress or shoes, you also cannot be bizarre – there are codes you need to respect. With a pair of shoes, they have to be comfortable, especially if they are expensive. For perfume, you need volume, allure, signature and sophistication. If you have those four, you can do whatever you want.”
It is an interesting time for male fragrances, Belletrud says, and he ties this to a wider shift in perceptions of masculinity and femininity. "Men are evolving, not only in terms of fashion. There has been a reboot of masculinity worldwide, but I feel that men have been a bit lost because of this. We were educated to be the best and the most concurrent – it was forbidden to cry and show your feelings. So to express emotions is something quite new for men, and for men's perfumes."
Boundaries are being broken, and this is reflected in Belletrud’s latest line of scents, which are alluring, but also unexpected and extremely diverse. “Masculinity is not only strength and femininity is not only softness. For me, it’s a mix of many things for both femininity and masculinity.”
This may be one of the lessons that he’s learnt in the Middle East, where scents are not subjected to the same gender bias as other parts of the world – men will happily wear rose, for example, and oud is entirely unisex. Belletrud has been visiting the region for the last 25 years and says that everything he knows about Oriental perfumery, he learnt in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. “I learnt so many things here. It opened my mind many years ago.”