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Inside the world of Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer

Posted on 12 Jun 2024

To celebrate the release of 'Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas,' Thames & Hudson's Curtis Garner sits down with legendary master perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud to explore the refined art of perfumery.

Louis Vuitton, taken from Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas

CG: Do you have a particularly special anecdote or memory of a place you’ve travelled to source an ingredient?

JCB: Well, there are many, many, many anecdotes.

Flying to Guatemala, where there are fields of cardamom and coffee. You need to go in a helicopter because the roads are so wild over there. You land at the military base and they question you for hours before setting you free with the locals. This is what you have to do to find the best quality ingredients.

I also remember being in China among the jasmine fields, near the Vietnamese border where nobody spoke English. It was early in the morning and I was sharing tea with the people there. I will always remember the smile of a woman who sowed the crop – it brought me the idea of creating a perfume called Le Jour Se Lève, which is a tribute to sambac jasmine and mandarin, and the contrast between the light and the scent in the air. It was marvellous.

All my most special anecdotes are about the people I meet. I mean, working with a lot of love, a small patchouli field in Indonesia, for example, or tuberose in Guatemala or jasmine in Grasse. All those people are sharing the same experience with us – the passion for something that comes from the earth.

When I was much younger, it was six o’clock in summer, and I was looking out over the jasmine fields in Grasse. All of them were in bloom – everything was completely white. Ever since I’ve been obsessed with the scent of jasmine, just because of this one moment.

CG: That leads quite nicely into my next question, which is, do you have one favourite scent?

JCB: It’s difficult to say. My personal taste is one thing, and what I have to create is another. I mean, I have many, many scents I love, but I enjoy strong scents and scents with character. I love rose because it’s a very different floral scent than any other you can find on earth. It’s much more complex. It delivers fresh, fruity, spicy and floral tones, all of which are quite strong.

The jasmine from Grasse is fantastic, but it’s focusing on two or three notes and the rose has maybe twenty-five.

I’m fascinated by what comes from nature – roots, spices, etc. I see all the ingredients of the palette as the painter looks at colours.

CG: It’s interesting that you mention your personal taste versus what you have to create. Is it ever tough to make the distinction between the two?

JCB: I know I’m not working for me, I’m working for Louis Vuitton. I’m here to please our clients and to make them happy by discovering our perfumes, and also to give them a surprise when they discover them. That’s why I have such a precise way of working. Just because I love rose doesn’t mean that I will use rose. It depends entirely on the story. It depends on which olfactive concept I want to work on. It depends on the name of the fragrance. It depends on so many things.

CG: You’ve said before that putting together a scent is like making a portrait of someone. When you’ve worked with celebrities or private clients, what is the process of personifying someone in a scent?

JCB: That is the single most difficult thing to do in our job. It’s more difficult to create a perfume for one person than it is to create one for 10 million people, simply because the personality of an individual is, of course, very complex. And my job is to design a fragrance that they may not know they want. Perfume is part of revealing a very secret part of your personality, of what you are in depth and what you want to express.

My first question to clients is, why do you want to make your personal perfume? I receive many answers, and they’re always very personal. So the client and I have to have an emotional connection, of course. I’m a man of secrets.

My first job is to evaluate what they don’t like rather than what they do like. I don’t care what they like. It’s like when you’re in a restaurant and they ask you if you have any allergies – it’s the same for perfumes. Eliminating things that don’t work for you. Then the client and I evaluate raw materials together, address their deepest memories and connect with their childhoods, with what they love and what they hate. This initial discussion takes about three hours.

And then the work starts.

The brief is the person herself, and making her feel happy and unique. For example, I had a woman who came to Grasse all the way from Australia. I asked her why she wanted her own personal perfume, and she said, ‘well, because I love perfume. I want my olfactory unique signature for fragrances. But more than that, I have two granddaughters. And I want them to remember me through this perfume.’ So you see, perfume is not just an accessory. It’s not a dress. It’s not haute couture. It’s more than that. It’s really something that you keep forever, and it reveals a secret part of your personality. It’s a form of psychotherapy, and this connection is very important.

Memory and legacy are synonymous with smell. Some brands and some groups of people claim that perfumes are just commodities. But a perfume is not a deodorant. Perfume is all about emotions, and when you’re feeling those emotions, it’s because you’re connecting with your childhood, your good moods and bad moods. And I believe that luxury is all about addressing this part of the brain, being very personal and using exceptional materials. What clients want today from luxury is an experience. They want their own piece of the brand, and this is what we offer them.

CG: What’s it like working in Grasse? Why is Louis Vuitton headquartered there?

JCB: Louis Vuitton is the only luxury brand creating perfumes in Grasse. It’s in the DNA of Louis Vuitton to go where there is the best know-how and craftsmanship, and for perfumes, that place is Grasse. For around five centuries people here have been producing natural raw materials, and people have developed a specific language to talk about them, as well as the art of creating perfume.

I was also born in Grasse, which made it easier for me! Today, we have a unique place in the world – Les Fontaines Parfumées, which you can see in the book. The site is a hundred percent dedicated to the creation of perfumes for Louis Vuitton, as well as all the communication and training around it. We are surrounded by a fantastic network of companies who specialise in distillation and the extraction of natural raw materials. And that is, for me, essential, as I can customize single raw materials in order to make it exclusive to Louis Vuitton in terms of quality. That cannot be found in any other brand.

There’s also sunshine in Grasse 290 days a year! It’s why a lot of the great painters came here, just for the light.

CG: You’ve said that learning perfumery is like learning a language, and that it takes years to acquire the necessary skill set. How does that learning journey begin? How do you set out to become a nose?

JCB: There is no gift. There is only work and passion. The first thing to do is to learn all the raw materials by heart. There are about 5,000 of them. It’s like any language: you can learn it, anybody can do it with daily practice, for five to seven years. But you have to do it every day. An entire life is not enough to know everything, of course, but the target is to know the olfactive profile of each material. A material’s volatility also has to be learned by heart. The volatility of lemon, for example, as a fragrance’s top note, will last for one minute on skin, whereas patchouli lasts for two days. So the perfumer must establish a classification of top notes, middle notes and base notes.

You have to dip your blotters at night and smell them in the morning. This way you find that, say, bergamot and lemon have disappeared, so these are your top notes. The lily of the valley – the middle note – is still there, and the patchouli base note is still very strong. Keep those blotters for a week and you will see that the patchouli is still there. This sort of experimentation helps you understand your different notes.

It’s incredibly important when you have an idea of making, say, a very feminine but provocative perfume; you will choose your ingredients based on this concept, and translate it with the library of notes you’ve established. Making perfume is about using your memory – it’s like football or music. If you don’t practise, you lose. Sometimes you think you’re very good and sometimes you think you’re very bad. When it’s the latter, it’s better to go back to basics – the material, what each material smells like – if they are top notes, middle notes, etc.

The next part of the process is learning how to mix different raw materials together – around another two and a half years. Finally, you will then know enough to study the classics: Chanel No 5, a number of great perfumes from the beginning of the century, others like J’adore from Dior. Altogether, you will train for six or seven years.

CG: What’s an average working day like for Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer?

JCB: I wake up at quarter to five in the morning, and I smell what I’ve decided to evaluate the day before, blotters that I’ve put beside my bed. I take my coffee out to my garden and my imagination immediately starts working.

It’s a form of exercise – feeling connected to nature, allowing it to open my mind. It’s the same when I’m in a city, the view of a skyline from my hotel starts my mind racing.

If I’m in Grasse, I come to the office around 8.30 or 9.00am. And then the whole morning is dedicated to smelling sessions, where my team and I smell the work we have done the day before. It’s mandatory.

Of course, we have more general meetings and discussions about everything else that’s going on, people’s experiences with a material or perfume, etc. I also discuss scents with my daughter who is a perfumer now. She’s had seven years of training.

The rest of the day is generally dedicated to interpreting and evaluating everything we have smelled in the morning. Then we start with modifications and discussing new ideas and marketing concepts, etc. I also spend time meeting people in factories, fields and various cities.

I travel often, but I am constantly looking for inspiration for new perfumes. For example, I remember when I created Pacific Chill for Louis Vuitton, it was because I was in Beverly Hills and was asked by Alex Israel what most inspired me. I pointed out that we were surrounded by trees that made the air smell like blackcurrant, and we were drinking this fantastic carrot and ginger tea. A year later, the Pacific Chill fragrance was born.

Constant curiosity is important – it’s key for any kind of creation.

Discover more from Louis Viutton

Louis Vuitton: A Perfume Atlas

Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, Lionel Paillès, Aurore de la Morinerie

Louis Vuitton Catwalk (Catwalk)

The Complete Fashion Collections Jo Ellison, Louise Rytter

Louis Vuitton Tambour

Fabienne Reybaud