I realise I'm probably being a bit mean, but there's something about Mathilde Laurent that suggests she's up for a fun challenge. She's at London's Savoy Hotel, launching Cartier's latest masculine, Déclaration D'Un Soir, and although many of the guests look as though their wardrobe has come straight from the vaults of Future Fashions Inc, she's holding her own with no trouble. Her black trousers sparkle with a print of yellow electricity. Her jacket is the sort of layered, nocturnal creation for which Batman would probably trade a few items in his utility belt. And the white streak running through her hair is so striking, it makes me wonder why all of us don't walk around with high contrast coiffures. In short, she's cool. Very cool indeed.
So I decide to stick my wrist under her nose and ask her if she can guess what I'm wearing.
She smells, pauses, smells again. An expression of uncertainty darts across her features, and then she shakes her head and says, "No. What is it?"
I tell her that in order to mark our first meeting, I've decided to wear Vol De Nuit Evasion, the edt of the much-loved and sorely missed Attrape-Coeur (aka Guet-Apens) which she made for Guerlain in 1999.
"Ah!" she exclaims. "You know, I thought I smelt something familiar!" Her face bursts into a smile. "Thank you very much for wearing it and for remembering it. You know, this perfume was so emotional to me. I really love it and I think it's one of my best creations. I'm always very happy when people remember what I did in Guerlain."
As the in-house perfumer at Cartier, Laurent has been at the forefront of the brand's embrace of refined, niche-like scents: her Les Heures De Parfums range attracts not just praise, but also buyers' hard-earned pennies, despite its excruciating price tag. However, tonight's addition to the mainstream portfolio is that most derided of beasts: a flanker. What's more, it's a flanker to an extremely popular fragrance created by one of the most revered perfumers of all time. So what was it like following in the footsteps of Jean-Claude Ellena?
"It was a huge challenge. I didn't want to make it. The first time I worked on Déclaration, when I created the Déclaration Cologne, I asked Jean-Claude to do it. I wrote to him saying, 'Cartier is willing to make a new Déclaration, and I think you are the only one who deserves to make it. I don't want to make it unless you tell me to do it.' He was really touched by my letter and he phoned me and said, 'I'm not sure, because Hermès might not appreciate it... but I'd like to make it with you, so I'll ask.' And he wrote to me a few days after that and said, 'Hermès is not okay with it. So, you make it.'
"We don't have the formula for Déclaration at Cartier, so I had to recreate everything. And I think I've found an interesting way to work on fragrances which I didn't create. I work as if I were doing a monochrome. You know Yves Klein, the French painter who painted mono-colour paintings? A very famous one is a blue one. And Malevich has also done a white square on white, and a yellow one as well. And I tried to do that on Déclaration. For the Cologne, I painted it ginger. My way to respect the fragrance and to change it was to put just one thing in excess. I did it also on L'Eau De Cartier, and I did it once on Eau De Cartier Essence D'Orange, where I painted it orange. And this year we launched a new Eau De Cartier, which is Essence De Bois, and I painted it oud."
I applaud her honesty when she tells me that the oud she used in the composition isn't natural.
"You know, with me, you'll always have the truth, because I'm not interested in bullshitting. I'm interested in real perfumery. I always explain that when I'm asked to create a new Eau De Cartier, I just want to put something in the water and see how it works. So the first time, I dipped an orange, and the second time I dipped oud wood. And it's just infusing, you know? It's not real oud, and it is not an 'oud fragrance'."
She's already spent three years short of a decade at the jewellery makers' and says she's very happy to call Cartier home. "For me, you know, it's like a quest. An intellectual quest. I stayed 11 years in Guerlain, and it was the same. It was the quest of understanding a brand. Understanding a history. Understanding a style. What is the Guerlain style? What is the Cartier style? How can you make it appear in a fragrance? How do you use the ingredients? Do you have to reconsider your way of creating? I'm always trying to reconsider my way of creating.
"I've had a lot of years to understand and to discover the Cartier style... but I have not finished! I have just begun. For me, I have noticed that in Cartier, you have such wonderful ingredients in jewellery or in any of their products. You have the best. So, I would say the style is 'less is more'. You don't need to create a flou artistique. Beauty is there, and it is obvious, and you don't need to add and add and add to create something."
I suggest that 'less is more' wasn't necessarily the style at Guerlain.
"No, not at all. I would say Guerlain is harmony and classicism, yet being inventive. You have to be harmonious. You have to be terribly chic and find a new accord - Guerlain perfumes are made of many ingredients - and you couldn't imagine all these ingredients in a formula. For example, when you see the formula of the first, the real Vol De Nuit, you say, "I couldn't imagine there was estragon in it," and it's amazing. And that's Guerlain. You have things you couldn't imagine in a perfume, yet it is harmonious and it is not too much. It is never sticky. It is just silky. In Cartier, you have to be very chic and simple, yet... tremendous. There are no embellishments. You don't need to make the show, because the ingredients are doing the show themselves."
Does the way she makes the Heures scents differ from her method of creating the mainstream releases?
"No. I'm always trying to create a harmony between two or three tremendous ingredients. I would say the way I finish the perfume is important. In the mainstream ones, I will go further to make it for everybody, to make it more accessible... more finished, more sweet, maybe. In Les Heures, I can stop when I think that the fragrance is there and I don't want to make it acceptable for everybody."
She shakes her head when I say that the juice of the non-exclusive perfumes must be cheaper than that of the Heures.
"Maybe, but you know, I don't care about the price. I work with IFF ingredients, and we have a contract where we say, 'We take the ingredients from you and we'll pay a total bill, but we don't care about the price of each ingredient.' It was the same when I was at Guerlain: you create very expensive fragrances, and also very cheap fragrances. Sometimes the cost is very high and sometimes it is nothing. You really can't guess the price when you smell the fragrance."
Would she say her style has changed since she started at Cartier?
"Yes. In Guerlain, I used to add a lot of things, and the accords were less simple, and less direct. Now my formulas are shorter, but that was already something I wanted to do in my Guerlain formulas. But in Guerlain we had a lot of specialty bases."
Does she have a favourite from the Heures range?
"They are like my children. But you know, Number 13 is very special for me, but not for its fragrance. Twice it won the prize for Best Fragrance. It's about smoke, which is the very beginning of perfume. I'd been working on it for a very long time."
Did she expect the impassioned public reaction to the Fourth Hour?
"I'm always hoping for a reaction like that. When I create it, I stop when it makes me react exactly like that. When I want to smell it all the time, I think that everybody is going to feel the same. At the beginning I didn't realise the perfume's link with Eau Sauvage. But at the end, before the perfume went on the market, I smelt it one day and I thought it had something sauvage in it. And fougueuse means sauvage. I had never seen the connection while I was working on the fragrance, but afterwards, when I saw it, I thought I would mention it. I was the first to say it."
She won't reveal the name of the next Heure - Cartier have since announced that it is to be the Third Hour, or L'Heure Vertueuse - but she is happy to confirm that she's worked out and decided the identities of the remaining numbers. And as I leave her to her glass of a Déclaration-inspired cocktail, I ask if she thinks we'll ever see anything like Attrape-Coeur again.