Cartier in-house perfumer Mathilde Laurent: 'People don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what they like'

The in-house perfumer opens up about the state of the fragrance industry, how brands need to be braver, and why you will never catch her wearing perfume

Mathilde Laurent (Gerard Uferas / Cartier)
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She may be the in-house perfumer for a brand that is the epitome of Frenchness, but Mathilde Laurent, the creative force behind Cartier Parfums, has long been a champion of ingredients that are not part of mainstream European perfumery. Last year, Cartier launched Les Heures Voyageuses, a range of six fragrances that celebrate oud, combining it with other traditionally Oriental ingredients such as rose, sandalwood, jasmine and ginger. We spoke to the outspoken ‘nose’ about the state of the fragrance industry, how brands need to be braver, and why you will never catch her wearing perfume.

Would you say that perfumery in Europe has become too safe? Is there an unwillingness to experiment?

Yes. It is a problem when an art is turned into caricature. Nowadays, perfumery is a kind of caricature of itself. Vanilla is not the only ingredient that exists. Neither is caramel. I think it causes real damage and is a real pity when it feels like everything smells of either fruit or vanilla or caramel.

Who should be responsible for changing the status quo? Brands or consumers?

People don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what they like. I’m not saying that people are fools; I’m just saying that people like what they like, and wear what they wear, but if you offer a surprise, something that is new and something they have never smelt before, they will turn around and say how happy they are. They will say they wanted something different but couldn’t find it.

Will you continue to use oud?

I think oud has really brought something healthier to this industry because it has changed the idea of perfumery. It creates variation in terms of smells and that is very important. I think there are many, many things to invent with oud, so I would be happy to play with it again.


When did you first fall in love with perfumery?

It is so difficult to say. Maybe it was when I was six and I smelled Mitsouko (the 1919 fragrance by Guerlain) for the first time. But I didn’t consciously fall in love with fragrances. At the age of six, you just smell something and put it in your mind and you don’t realise that it stays there for tens and tens of years. Nearly 40 years later, and I can still smell that smell now.

Do you have favourite notes?

I am very open. I think that if you have favourite notes, you always end up creating the same perfume. So each time I create a fragrance, I try to find the right ingredients for that specific fragrance, with no thought to the ones I prefer.

What sets Cartier fragrances apart?

I would like to think that when people come to a Cartier fragrance, they can be sure that they will get a never-smelt-before creation and, at the same time, they will be sure that they have the most elegance possible.

What does elegance mean, in the context of perfumery?

It means that you are not vulgar, you are not too powerful, you are not too vanilla, you are not smelling like everybody else and you are so chic. You have that chicness of French perfumery but at the same time, you have something that nobody has smelled before.

What fragrances do you wear?

I wear no fragrance. It is impossible to wear a fragrance when you are working on a fragrance. It is as if you are cooking a meal and want to taste what you are cooking, and at the same time you are eating a strawberry cake. Or, as I often say, you wouldn’t choose the colour of your new bedroom while wearing multi-coloured sunglasses.

How would you like to see the fragrance industry evolving?

I would like this industry to be more honest and more pedagogic. I would like us to teach people about what perfumery is, what is quality, and what is the difference between synthetic and natural ingredients, because there have been too many lies in this industry. There are so many ingredients to talk about; so many molecules that we can talk about. This industry must understand that it must be more than just an industry. We are talking about art.

So you would define perfumery as an art rather than a science?

For sure. I learnt chemistry and physics and biology at university, so I can tell you that perfumery is not a science.