The lifts at Fondation Cartier pour L’Art Contamporain glide up without hesitation, gradually lending a slightly more scenic view over the 14th arrondissement at each level. The hubbub of the foyer is long since muffled as I step off onto the top floor and into the office/laboratory of Cartier in-house perfumer, Mathilde Laurent. Later I would realise, that this 20-second ascension would be more symbolic of this brief stint to Paris than any souvenir I dare brought home.
The office is through a set of corridors and the laboratory itself, and I can’t help but observe the distinct lack of smell, or scent, until I reach Mathilde’s light-swathed office. “Sorry, I’d hoped it would be sunny for you!” she says entering, beaming, with a box of Ladurée macarons in her hands. She is like a friend I haven’t seen in a long time.
And despite the twenty-four fragrances developed under her tenure – L’Envol de Cartier being the latest – the office doesn’t boast one in particular. None, rather. At the same time it triggers an explosion of senses.
There are philosophical quotes on the windows hand-written by Mathilde herself; plants – dry, cut, fresh, amongst vials and tester arms from the laboratory; and behind her desk, a collection of shoes and magazines – glittery Miu Mius and gold-painted Converses. The space has a Phillipe Starck-like sense of humour. In the meantime, Mathilde nurses a pot of Juk-ro (죽로차] (a South Korean black tea from bamboo leaf) that she calls her drug. The earthy, almost cake-like smell of the tea mixes with the crisp November air that seeps in from the open balcony door and all my senses stir awake.
We talk about macarons (she has my favourite: orange blossom), her daughter, and intuition. She waves me over to her desk where she brings over a stack of Cartier signature red jewellery boxes and points at one labelled XI – aptly named, L’Heure Perdue, and launches a stunning video clip that illustrates the scent as I inhale the inside of the box. “It smells like a warm hug”, I say sheepishly. and then learn that this overtly human, emotional scent was composed using only molecular ingredients.
There is something mythological, and abstract about her approach to her work in fragrance. Her eleven years at Guerlain and the eleven now at Cartier would attest to that – her latest creation L’Envol is perhaps the perfect embodiment. Inspired by ‘Hydromel’, the immortality mead of Olympian gods and theoretically designed for men, L’Envol is not a caricature of masculinity. It is an embodiment of intuition, bravery and the split-second of panic/elation when something takes flight – a wild idea perhaps, or a hot air balloon. The fragrance blends Gaiac wood with notes of honey on intense musk and patchouli, and is presented in a refillable bottle; another tribute to the Cartier belief that every one of its objects should last forever.
As I say goodbye to Mathilde and make my descent to catch my taxi back to the station, I feel as I’ve stolen away a vial of liquid luck from the clouds.
A waist-high black panther guards Laurent’s office
– Mathilde Laurent