Like an olfactory sorceress, Mathilde Laurent, the perfumer at Cartier, whips up bespoke perfumes as spectacular as the house's sparkling gems.
The bespoke jewelry house reaches into a sensory realm as Cartier's Mathilde Laurent creates unique perfumes made for only one person in the world – you
In an intimate salon, lined in elaborate boiserie, a woman sits at a table surrounded by three alcoves holding tiers of liquid-filled bottles. Her name is Mathilde Laurent and the salon is the nerve center of Cartier's bespoke perfume service at its rue de la Paix Paris flagship.
Cartier started producing perfume commercially in 1981 but only upped the ante to a unique bespoke service at the end of last year, when the renovated rue de la Paix store reopened on a grander scale but with more intimate aims. It's the only location in the world where the scent service is offered.
"I imagined it would be only perfume fanatics who would come," Laurent, a 12-year Guerlain veteran, said. "But ultimately there are also people who come for something unique, something with a legacy attached." What the select few come for – and currently only an exclusive group of 15 people have perfumes underway – is the chance to develop a perfume from start to finish that is everything they've ever wanted from a scent. The normal time period for creating a perfume is a year, but time limits are useless appendages in the pursuit of perfection.
During the first three-hour meeting, which involves smelling few scents, Laurent asks clients to "walk me through their daily olfactory environments," and the smells that evoke strong memories from childhood. In the early stages, "creation is not the main motor driving the process – it's about listening, the desire to find the elusive 'key' that will give pleasure," Laurent explains. "People don't have a desire to be surprised but to be heard." But they can be surprised when Laurent pulls out an essence at random and asks one to guess what it is. Normal methods of identification don't apply and even the most recognizable scents are deemed unrecognizable when distilled to their purest form; the process of identifying them reawakens all sorts of unexpected memories and associations, a journey that is the whole point behind a bespoke scent.
Taking two to three months to prepare a shortlist of potential perfumes, Laurent meets again with clients to present the scents and continues the creative process that has "the potential to work rapidly if the initial stages go well." The rue de la Paix salon contains about 200 essences, but in her laboratory Laurent works with up to 3000, slowly adding and subtracting, keeping records of every single step taken. "Everything is recorded, every milliliter noted. Even the change of a few hundredths of a gram can have a dramatic effect on a perfume."
From start to finish, client and perfumer will have about 10 meetings before the final formulation is achieved. It must be remembered that, throughout, Laurent is not so much creating the scent as she is helping the client create an expression of their own selves. Even then the process isn't over – three months of rigorous laboratory testing, commensurate with the release of any commercial scent, is undergone to ensure that no allergic effects will arise from long-term use.
When the green light is given, 1.5 liters of perfume is distilled, with two-thirds going into sealed bottles that Cartier can store under superior conditions until required. The rest is split between two etched and gold-bound, cut crystal flacons that are presented in a velvet-cushioned box that also contains a drawer to hold three smaller flacons for traveling or for dispersal in several different residences. The total cost of the service is 60,000€. Naturally most of that goes toward the lengthy months of research and testing, thus reorders cost in the region of 5,000€.
Some people have raised questions about the wisdom of Cartier, a house known for producing splendid jewelry, entering the perfume arena at the highest level; it's something Laurent sees only in a positive light. "It's not history that gives legitimacy, it's one's approach. It's about how we do perfume today – old houses can produce perfumes as pop-star spin-offs, and new ones can do so in the manner of Serge Lutens," her hero.
As if to qualify Cartier's standing further she likes to say, "Remember, wearing a bespoke perfume is like wearing an invisible necklace!"
My definition of luxury:
"Luxury is something that reflects who you are. It's the ability to be at ease with yourself, to be able to choose who you are, to be yourself."
If luxury were...
Karl Lagerfeld. He works in luxury, but he gives birth to luxury, too. He has great freedom of expression, but always with a goal in sight.
A window with a view.
A vast, wide-open space.