The Scented Myth: Inside Cartier’s new Paris perfume exhibition

08 Dec 2022 | |By Anna Solomon

The public display invites the viewer to experience fragrance in a multi-sensory way

The French Revolution may have been and gone, but in 1920s Paris, Jeanne Toussaint was the queen. Draped in scarves and pearls, the doyenne of high society brushed shoulders with Coco Chanel and, of course, Louis Cartier.

Although they never married, Cartier was infatuated with Toussaint – he conferred on her various responsibilities within his namesake brand, and called her “ma petite panthère”, referring to her love of panther skins. By the time Cartier made Toussaint Director of Fine Jewellery in 1933, she was known for the panther motif, which inspired many of her designs.

In 2022, the panther is still Cartier’s emblem – and the theme picked out for OSNI 2, the maison’s second fragrance exhibition. Open to the public until 11 December 2022, The Scented Myth plunges the viewer into total darkness. A huge incarnation of Dame à la Panthère, an artwork created by George Barbier for Cartier in 1914, looms into view. You venture further into the darkness, where you’re greeted by a waterfall of scented particles. They’re illuminated, and the silhouette of a panther is projected onto them, which proceeds to stalk around the room to a gentle soundscape at the golden ratio frequency.

cartier perfume jeanne toussaint

The Scented Myth follows a 2017 exhibition in which Cartier created a literal cloud of perfume suspended in a transparent cube at the Palais de Tokyo. For both OSNI 1 and 2, Head Perfumer Mathilde Laurent found a way to bring perfume out of the bottle – to make it into an immersive, multi-sensory experience.

“The idea is to show the public that perfume is more than just a hygienic product or a fashion accessory,” says Laurent. “When you smell a perfume, you must also seek to see it, hear it, and feel it with your whole body. I want to encourage the public to just feel the emotions, rather than perceiving [perfume] as something superficial.”

I meet Laurent at the exhibition on the Esplanade des Invalides. She’s eminently Parisienne in all black, with snow-white hair and an enviable bone structure. But she’s not exactly glitz and glam, either – as one might expect from a Cartier executive – with a hardy, practical edge. Her wardrobe mainly consists of cigarette trousers, and she doesn’t wear perfume herself because she needs to “keep [her] nose neutral and fresh”. “I prefer to smell it rather than to wear it,” she explains simply.

Her ascendancy to her current post was equally as pragmatic: Laurent enjoyed perfume when she was young, she tells me in a matter-of-fact tone, and therefore decided to study chemistry. When she was admitted to perfume-making school, she met Jean-Paul Guerlain of the eponymous fragrance house, and asked him for an internship. “Il a dit oui,” says Laurent. That was that, then.

cartier perfume head mathilde laurent

As well as the feelings evoked by a scent, Laurent is also interested in communicating the history of fragrance. Aromas have been part of culture since the dawn of time, she explains – citing the use of incense in religion. Smells also feature heavily in Greek mythology, including one fitting fable that claims panthers emit a naturally sweet smell that draws in prey.

Laurent wants us to imbibe all of this when we smell a Cartier perfume: “I find inspiration in the history of perfume, and art,” she says. “In the end, it is not sense that provides the meaning of life, but the [five] senses.” The wordplay of sense (‘reason’ in French) and senses just about gets across. “Perhaps that’s why perfume-making was born in France!” Laurent laughs.

So, what makes a Cartier perfume, exactly? “It is both distinguished and distinctive,” says Laurent. “It’s elegant yet daring.” This is how I would describe La Panthère – the scent used in OSNI 2 – as well as the panther itself. Toussaint, too – the “petite panthère” – embodied the characteristics of the mysterious, beautiful beast (almost literally in her furs). The smells, the myths, the history – they all evoke each other. Laurent has achieved her purpose.

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