An extensive interview with perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud about his greatest fear, the new Louis Vuitton fragrance Le Jour Se Lève, his wife as human blotter, and his greatest passion: perfumes.
Place Vendôme. In the heart of Paris, the launch of Le Jour se Lève is not in the impressive LV boutique, but on the other side of the illustrious square. At number 23, the lift flies up to the fourth floor to a spacious white loft of Vuitton’s Haute Joaillerie showroom. Here, where even the creaking floorboards are chic, Jacques Cavallier Belletrud awaits. The master perfumer has left his domicile in the scent paradise of Grasse in the south of France to attend the presentation in Paris.
When Cavallier Belletrud hears that I’m from the Netherlands, the first thing he says is: ‘Poffertjes. Lekker’ (Dutch mini-pancakes. Mmmm). Later in our conversation, when speaking of a bad smell, he says kattepis (cat pee). Why is he speaking Dutch? In the 1980s, Jacques Cavallier Belletrud lived in Amsterdam and worked in Naarden at Quest International, a chemical plant specialized in flavours and fragrances. He visits Amsterdam regularly – he says it’s an inspiring, open city where he still likes to enjoy a treat from back then: poffertjes. He reveals that he doesn’t care much for haute cuisine. He’s had countless perfume successes, such as L’Eau d’Issey for Issey Miyake, Acqua di Gio for Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium for men. In 2004, he was awarded the Prix François Coty for best perfumer.
Cavallier Belletrud has a friendly face, a full head of grey hair, and he wears heavy black-framed glasses that make him look stricter than he is. During the presentation, the points of his shoes jauntily stay in the ten-and-two position. Even though he’s suffering from a bad cold, he can smell that I’m wearing Apogée. This light feminine fragrance from 2016 is one of the perfumes Cavallier Belletrud created in the series Les Parfums Louis Vuitton. They were the first scents by Louis Vuitton since Eau de Voyage, in 1946. Louis Vuitton hadn’t produced a single perfume since then.
The brand new Le Jour Se Lève (sunrise) is the eighth addition to the Les Parfums series. Launching the exclusive Louis Vuitton perfumes – pricey and only for sale in about 350 Vuitton boutiques – is not just a whim: the French luxury brand is investing a great deal and hired Cavallier Belletrud as their first in-house perfumer. ‘Vuitton is gradually developing in this new metier. We intend to be around for a very, very long time and not just with a couple of perfumes stashed away in a corner next to the exit.’
LVMH, the largest luxury conglomerate and owner of Louis Vuitton and Dior, has great plans for the fragrance division, which shows in the restoration of Les Fontaines Parfumées, a beautiful villa in the historical centre of Grasse. This run-down perfumery had stood vacant for quite some time. As a child, Cavallier Belletrud often walked past it on the way to school. Now, training sessions are held in Les Fontaines Parfumées for LV shop personnel, so they can get a feel for the philosophy of the perfume creations and transfer it to the customer. Cavallier Belletrud stresses that the build-up of perfume as a luxury activity takes time, also from the customers. ‘Selling for the sake of selling is not an option. As a brand, you must form a connection with the customer – that’s why we build a unique and exclusive experience with our fragrances and that takes time.’
Cavallier Belletrud’s atelier is also in Les Fontaines Parfumées – he purposely doesn’t call it a laboratory, ‘because that sounds like medicine’. The atelier has a garden the size of a soccer field with about 300 different aromatic plants and flowers from all over the world. A great source of inspiration for ‘the nose’, just like Grasse itself, his birthplace, where his family has been working in the world of fragrances for four centuries. Grasse is the epicentre of perfumery, with an incredible amount of knowledge and craftsmanship. In medieval times, the city on the Mediterranean Sea had many workshops where gloves were made for workmen. In the sixteenth century, they started to add scent to them to hide the unpleasant smell of leather. Perfume ingredients like roses, jasmine and orange blossom still came from the East, but were later grown in Grasse.
Jacques Cavallier Belletrud is a third generation perfumer, his 18-year-old daughter Camille is of the fourth generation, and she will be the first woman in the Cavallier Belletrud dynasty.
Vuitton’s efforts to make Les Parfums successful is paying off. Cavallier Belletrud grins as he says it’s not surprising, but what he finds remarkable is that the seven scents are a hit on every continent. From Asia to America, from Europe to the Middle East. ‘It’s the hardest thing for a perfumer to make something universal, because you’re forced to take everyone into account. Perfumers who want to be popular worldwide have no choice but to compromise. They end up working with ingredients that people in China, America and Europe like. Eventually, it turns into a mix that no one likes.’
During his speech, the master perfumer sips from a cup of ginger tea to ease his cold. His neck is wrapped in a colourful LV scarf. The flu. His biggest enemy. ‘Every time I have the flu and wake up at night, I can’t smell a thing. A nightmare! For a couple of minutes I am terrified that I’ll lose my sense of smell. The only thing that helps is to stay positive.’ Superstitiously, he says ‘touch wood!’ as he walks over to a wooden beam and knocks on it.
Okay, high time for the story behind the new Le Jour Se Lève. Cavallier Belletrud wanted to create something fresh. ‘One of my obsessions is how to add a lasting freshness to a perfume. By the way, I was quite young when I developed my vision on freshness in perfumes. I have made a lot of fresh perfumes, like L’Eau d’Issey for Issey Miyake in 1992. Since then I’ve kept searching for freshness.’
The Frenchman talks about the emotion his new perfume should elicit: ‘The feeling you experience on a beautiful summer morning. The sky is clear blue, the first rays of sun come through. There’s a slight breeze and you smell a mixture of green tones, young tree leaves and a few flower notes. Perfect!’
Just like the weather, perfume has a great impact on someone’s mood, according to Cavallier Belletrud. ‘With Le Jour Se Lève I wanted to trigger a smile. That smile is caused by the ingredient mandarin.’ The ‘nose’ sprinkles pure Sicilian mandarin on a blotter. ‘Do you smell the freshness, the crispness?’
A lesson in citrus scents ensues: ‘Mandarin is specific, and more complex than lemon. Lemon is what it is: simple. Did you know that lemon is not at all popular in America, that they associate it with carpet cleaner? Bergamot is even more complex but less dynamic than mandarin. Mandarin is popular because of its fruity character and because of the flowery twist that orange, lemon and bergamot lack. This Sicilian mandarin pushes the fruitiness and floweriness.’
Mandarin also reminds him of his youth. His father, he tells us, had a great nose and his teacher – his grandfather – was a perfumer too. His mother also worked for a perfumer. At home they were always talking about raw materials, formulas and fragrances. He can still see his father smelling blotters. Yes, he thought it was really cool to watch as a teenager. He laughs: ‘A job where you can make money by smelling something!’ He would later find out for himself how true this was, but also that it took a lot more to learn how to create.
Time for the second important ingredient of Le Jour Se Lève. That’s blackcurrant, a fragrance from the French region of Burgundy and known for the sweet liquor Crème de cassis. ‘A long time ago, we used an absolute of the blackcurrant for perfumes: a natural abstraction of the buds, but that product is totally unstable – so much so that when used in a perfume, it will eventually start to smell like cat pee. I’ll do anything to be innovative and creative but you should never forget that a perfume has to smell nice! Although sometimes you need a bad smell to make something nice. For example, in jasmine there’s a bad note that makes the scent of jasmine nice.’
Back to the blackcurrant with an interesting green side, as well as fruitiness. No, not the sweet kind but greener, more energetic. ‘I wanted to capture how green leaves smell at dawn. The accord of mandarin and currant is so tasty because of the blackcurrant.’
Another ingredient that characterizes Le Jour Se Lève is Jasmine Sambac from China. The master perfumer calls it the sun in the perfume. ‘This jasmine is very different from the classic jasmine of Grasse, which smells bestial and comes from another botanical family. The Jasmine Sambac is more of an orange blossom than regular jasmine. This jasmine can also be found in the green jasmine tea in Chinese restaurants. I love jasmine because it smells so sunny and it’s very positive and elegant. I always use flowers for the fragrances for Louis Vuitton. I adore flowers. I even put them in men’s fragrances.’
‘The last ingredient in Le Jour Se Lève is a mix of musk and frankincense from Oman. The resin must be white, then it has a lot of perfume. If the resin is brown, it’s been exposed to the sun for too long and part of the perfume has disappeared. It’s hard to find quality. Nowadays everyone’s talking about the quality of raw material. With Louis Vuitton’s perfumes I want to demonstrate the beauty of natural raw materials like mandarin, incense and jasmine. Over the last couple of years, the focus in the perfume business has been on the synthetic, reproducing a shot of nature with a lot of fruit. That’s okay. But I sense a demand for more elegance in the world of the artistic luxury perfumes.’
Incense is a hype in the American wellbeing industry, according to Cavallier Belletrud. It supposedly makes people feel better. ‘I’m just saying: incense does something to our soul and our heart. It’s a love affair that goes back a long way. For Le Jour Se Lève I wanted a perfume with a contrast of serious sophisticated incense and the joy and sun and cheerfulness of Jasmine Sambac.’
Louis Vuitton gives Cavallier Belletrud carte blanche. There is no pressure to immediately launch another perfume. ‘The nose’ is free to do whatever he wants, which is quite unusual in the perfume business.
How hard is it to have so much freedom?
It’s a great responsibility. The DNA of LV is innovation. The passion of the house brings responsibilities but without any pressure. The pressure I feel, however, is the pressure to only make good things. I do that with a lot of creativity and very good, very, very precious ingredients. I have time. Luxury is time, I have time to experiment, that is very important.’
Does that mean you have to be strict with yourself and say: ‘And now it’s done’ when you could go on for as long as you like?
‘Yes, I can get extremely carried away in my creations. Meanwhile, I know that I must stop the moment I “destroy” the perfume. That moment comes when I start modifying it. I’ll only know after a few trials.’
When is the perfume ‘destroyed’?
‘Everything we love is not immediately clear. I mean: time is a factor in the creation of a perfume. What I do is ignore the perfume for a couple of weeks. After a while I smell it again, and only then can I see the truth. The reason.
‘I learned that if I overthink it, there is no more spontaneity. Then it becomes a compromise. When there is fear, you become afraid. Everyone’s afraid of new things, everyone. That’s normal. I need to stop when I realize I’m compromising.
When I come up with a perfume idea, like a fashion designer I see different images that I translate into a formula that is produced in my atelier. When I put it on my skin, it needs to settle, return. Otherwise it doesn’t work. The signature, the allure of the perfume is very important.
‘Just like a fashion designer works with a fit model, I have my wife or my daughters wear a prototype. Subsequently, my wife relays the feedback she gets, for example from the cashier at the supermarket. When she wore a test version of Matière Noire when horseback riding, another rider asked: “What are you wearing? That’s a great perfume.” Such feedback is very important to me.’
When are you unhappy?
‘Something smells good for 30 seconds or a minute, but then the scent disappears. That’s because of habituation, and you don’t smell it anymore. That’s something extremely frustrating about scents – for everybody. But very good fragrances reappear from time to time. In Le Jour Se Lève this is because of osmanthus, it sends a message after an hour or two. It does something in the brain.’
You call this a positive perfume – why, do you have a message?
‘Every good perfume should be positive. Le Jour Se Lève promises joy, like a sunrise in the morning. Imagine the end of spring, the weather is great and you can feel it’s going to be a beautiful day. We hope. Haha.’ Serious again: ‘What I want to say is: in this “dark world” I feel a stronger need to have a connection with nature again. Why? For many, life is mostly lived in the virtual world – we’re always online. I sense a yearning for something we remember: nature. There is a longing and that makes the use of natural raw materials so important. Not just because of the quality, but also for our wellbeing.
‘The emotions Le Jour Se Lève stirs up are a bit more positive because of the joy in the top note. It works when the scent surprises and it’s fresh with a lot of flavour and finishes with something soft and velvet. It’s about the right balance. A perfume can’t only smell like sugar or caramel. Somehow, the fragrance has to be mysterious too. And that works, thanks to the use of many raw materials. It makes my life as a perfumer easier.’
What’s stands out about Les Parfums is that they all have a different colour. What can you tell us about the light orange of Le Jour Se Lève?
‘That colour is not a natural one – it is safe though! – and it refers to mandarin. Now I don’t get involved with the colour. Although I knew that Matière Noir had to be black. Usually they come up with a French name first and that’s sometimes hard because registering a name worldwide is complicated. When the fragrance is ready, the colour is applied. Among other things, the colour has to be stable. It’s a lot of work to make such a colour. I don’t get involved with that.’
Can I compare the ability of your nose to that of someone who has absolute hearing?
‘Pfff, the answer might surprise you, but you don’t need that to create perfumes. The most important thing is that you learn to memorize about 5,000 smells and that takes 20 years. One of my daughters is 18 years old, and she is now my student, learning to smell raw materials. She needs to build her own library of scents. I told her: you’re starting today and we’ll see how far you’ve come in 20 years’ time . . . She didn’t believe me. I get that. When my father told me, I didn’t believe him either. But it’s true.
‘The nose’s capacity for perception is important. But even more important is the left side of the brain – the creative part. A perfume is at first an idea. That idea needs to be brought to life and turned into a formula by the left side of the brain – I take all of the fragrance notes I need from my library of scents to execute an idea. I “see” the fragrance in my head, as it were. That’s automatic. Incidentally, every good perfumer will always tell you they first “see” a perfume and then translate it into a fragrance. Of what I smell in the end, 98 per cent was already in my head. Okay, the result is sometimes disastrous, but usually at least a good surprise. That’s how it works for all artists.’
So the idea is more important than the nose . . .
‘Yes of course. As perfumers, we train our noses, but my nose isn’t better than yours. Anyone can learn to smell ingredients, it just takes 20 years. That’s it. If I were to give you five raw materials now, and you smell them really well every day, in a month you will be able to recognize them unseen, all five of them. Again, you can learn, but to be a good perfumer you need to have ideas too. That’s much harder. I have friends who are technically very good but who cannot make a good perfume.
Maybe you’ve been asked this before, what are your own favourites?
‘I honestly cannot choose, they’re all so different. My favourite isn’t the first scent, and not the last. I have no preference. My wife wears all of my experiments, she’s my living blotter. What she doesn’t like? She doesn’t wear! That’s a clue for me. She likes Rose des Vents, Matière Noire and also Le Jour Se Lève. Yes, she’s a fan. Haha.’
What is most fulfilling to you as a perfumer?
‘My pleasure is in creating perfume, and I do that every day. Since doing this work, every day feels like a vacation. Because it’s a passion. It has to be, from the start. This morning I sent a couple of ideas for formulas to the atelier in Grasse, and tomorrow I’ll see what’s become of them. I can’t wait! Of course it doesn’t always work out, but in any case I have to do this. I’m addicted to perfume – a perfume addict – and that’s better than a sex addict, n’est-ce pas?’