Ask Mathilde Laurent, Cartier's in-house perfumer since 2005, her favourite thing about her job and she'll say something surprising: her office.
The bright, white penthouse suite is perched high inside the Foundation Cartier, a contemporary art museum with giant windows that frame her view of the Montparnasse neighbourhood in Paris, France, where she grew up. This is where she smells, thinks, mixes, and develops new scents, like Cartier's most recent perfume, Carat, a bright floral fragrance that launches today. She describes her office as a house in a tree way high up, alone in the clouds.
It’s a place that she not only loves, but one that's also served as a metaphor for her position in the fragrance industry for years.
Until relatively recently, Laurent was one of the very few women at the top of a major, legacy fragrance house and brand. In 2016, she was joined by Christine Nagel, who was named the first female in-house perfumer of Hermès. As many members of the fragrance community told us, more women are surging to the top of major brands, and inching towards deserved recognition. But it's been a curiously long time coming.
Laurent's career path is similar to many other perfumers out there who discovered their gift early in life. She knew fragrance was her destiny after someone noticed that she was always smelling things as a child — people, places, food — and commenting on their scents. Adults told her that this habit could actually become her profession. "It stayed in my head as a pleasant idea," Laurent says. "It was such a surprise for me, because I didn't even know it was a job. I didn't realise the perfume I would smell in the streets was created by someone."
To become a perfumer, she first got a degree in chemistry, and then prepared for her entrance exams for ISIPCA, a school in Versailles, France for post-graduate studies in perfume and cosmetics, which is the usual route for many perfumers working today. At the time, in the '90s, she didn't notice that the students or teachers there were overwhelmingly one gender or another.
But according to Dora Baghriche, the perfumer behind Glossier You, and a number of YSL and Versace perfumes, ISIPCA from 2002 to 2005 did feel lopsided.
"I thought it was dominated by men," Baghriche, who currently works for Firmenich, the world's largest privately-owned fragrance company, says. "Most of my teachers there were men. Most of the 'master perfumers' were men, and I thought there was a space for women to take over. I thought it was really exciting for me to have this challenge in mind."
Why were men predominantly the most powerful in this industry? For one, many fragrance houses are often passed down through male members of the family. In 2013, for example, Jacques Polge, the head perfumer at Chanel, announced his retirement and that his son, Olivier Polge, would be taking his place. Creed, a fragrance house that serves the royal family, shares a similar monarchical tradition with its most famous customers: The house has been transferred from father to son for seven generations.
Continued male dominance in the industry could have benefitted as well, according to Baghriche, from the incessant false notion that men were somehow more capable of being "creative geniuses," which gave them more opportunities and more recognition in history books. "I thought we were not well-represented and maybe we had something to prove in people’s minds that creativity is also a female thing," Baghriche says. "If you think of creative geniuses, you think of Picasso. Not so many women."
Caroline Sabas, a perfumer of 20 years who attended ISIPCA in the '90s and has created fragrances for celebrities like Rihanna and Britney Spears, as well as Commodity's new unisex fragrance Vetiver, thinks similarly. "I think it stemmed from the idea decades ago that women were not meant to be extremely creative, and that’s how men viewed women," Sabas says. "You’re good to have kids and stay home, so why would you be creative, you know?"
In truth, women have been involved in perfume since the very beginning, and you can thank a woman for perfume existing at all. The first recorded chemist was a woman named Tapputi-Belatekallim, who developed methods for scent extraction and laid the groundwork for perfume making in Mesopotamia in 1200 BCE. But in the modern era, women still aren't at the very top of major, legacy brands and houses; fragrance is like fashion in that sense, with men still in control of an industry that caters strongly to women. But that feels like it's changing.
"Fragrance can fit right into this gender revolution we're having now."
"There was this idea of, Well this is how it's always been," Baghriche says. "These male teachers, and these very powerful perfume masters were men, and there was this image of who a perfumer was. But I have felt a shift these past few years, and I feel like the numbers are evening out and there are more women coming into the light. Now this next generation can be trained by more women."
According to Linda Levy, who in 2017 became the president of The Fragrance Foundation, the non-profit arm of the international fragrance industry that was founded in 1949, what has helped this increased recognition of female perfumers is the fact that the industry's marketing techniques have recently changed, and inadvertently given women more opportunities to be highlighted.
"For years, the perfumer was like the wizard of Oz," Linda Levy says. "Now people want to know the whole story behind a fragrance. People want to know who created it. In the past, they would have taken a scent like Woman by Ralph Lauren, and it would have been about Ralph Lauren creating it. Now, they'd focus on Anne Flipo, the nose [or perfumer]. There’s still a lot to bring women to parity in the industry, but this change of focus is helping things along."
With Cartier Carat, for example, the brand isn't launching it with a celebrity campaign, but is eager to shine a light on Laurent herself, and how she was inspired by light shining through a diamond, and translated that into mixing together seven different floral scents — with each flower representative of all seven colors in a rainbow.
But while there is progress in more women getting more credit in this industry, one thing bears noting: Most of these women are white. “Like many other creative fields, the fragrance industry is in the midst of an evolution that’s bringing greater representation and diversity," Levy says. "We are moving in the right direction. There are many people of colour working across every function in the fragrance industry, including perfumers like Linda Song and Rodrigo Flores-Roux at Givaudan. As with any art form, creativity in perfumery flourishes when there’s representation across cultures, colours, countries, and gender."
And it's not just the inner workings of the industry that are going to shift; the revolution could change the way we smell entirely. "I think we dare things that maybe others don't," Baghriche says. "There's a ton of outdated ideas in perfume we can get rid of, like if you’re 18 to 25 then you want to be fresh and clean, and if you're a mature woman you need to wear floral. We saw this with Glossier You. We used a vegetable musk not used for ages, and it’s the star of the fragrance and millennials love it."
This increased attention on female perfumers also coincides with a time when perfume marketing is increasingly feminist. While fragrance ads aimed at women have often been outrageously heteronormative, selling solely sex and romance, we now have ads like Calvin Klein Women, which features Lupita Nyong'o and Saoirse Ronan talking about the women they find inspiring, including Eartha Kitt and Katharine Hepburn.
"We are absolutely at a turning point," Levy says. "People don't want to see a boy and girl wake up together and that's the ad. There's still a lot out there about sex and rock and roll, but we're entering a time when people want to talk about inspiring other women, and the modern woman. Fragrance can fit right into this gender revolution we're having now."