Cartier’s panther has been adorning the watch faces, bracelets, brooches, pins and bestial parures of this most luxurious of French jewellers since 1918. The sleek, feral aloofness of this most languid of beasts was perfectly in keeping with the shift from the foliate forms of Art Nouveau into the sexy wild, Jazz Age geometrics and exoticism of Art Deco. But the panther really took off with the arrival of Jeanne Toussaint at Cartier; über-chic, slinky and wild, she was appointed Director of Jewellery in 1933 and remained there until her retirement in 1968.
Notoriously ritzy, Jeanne’s apartment overflowed with animal print and exotica; she loved to dress in long strands of pearls, turbans and silk pyjamas. She was also the mistress of Louis Cartier, one of the three brothers who inherited the luxury house from their father Louis-François who founded the company in 1847. Louis would never marry Jeanne, bowing to pressure from family and the conformity of the era, instead they remained close all their lives; Jeanne learning the business of haute joallerie from her lover and applying everything she learned to a succession of spectacular and highly acclaimed collections for Cartier.
Jeanne Toussaint’s nickname (from Louis) was La Panthère and she designed imaginative and exquisitely constructed pieces showcasing her namesake in gold, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. Arguably the piece that put the panther on the map as it were was the 1948 brooch for Wallis Simpson, a very striking and relatively simple golden panther atop a square cut cabochon emerald. This was the first of many pieces bought by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, often designed in collaboration with Jeanne. The famous panther & cabochon sapphire brooch is a dazzling piece of jewellery. The sapphire is 152.44 carats and found its way home to Cartier as they bought it back at the extraordinary auction of her jewels in 1987. My favourite piece is the flexible panther bracelet that wraps around the wrist as if the little silver beast is asleep or guarding your bones.
I really have a soft spot for the dazzle and ostentation of Cartier. I took time out from n unhappy languages degree and lived and worked in Paris as a disgruntled manny. I had my own minimalist top floor space, living in a tiny, separate (and treasured) little chambre de bonne overlooking the Bastille. This was late 80s, early 90s and Cartier staged a huge retrospective called L’Art de Cartier at the Petit Palais. I went twice, queuing endlessly, it was enormously successful, attracting over 260,000 visitors. I was literally hypnotised by the glitter and jaw-dropping workmanship on display. I loved all the drawings and gouaches of tigers, elephants, flamingos, birdcages, the Chinese and Egyptian ephemera, all so beautifully rendered in exquisite detail. It was this journey from idea, via line and artistic flourish to finished jewel that made the exhibition so fascinating.
It was years ago now, I don’t remember all the pieces I saw, but I remember facsimiles of the Wallis Simpson panthers and they were spectacular. A little gaudy perhaps, but she was after all not really royal and often overly keen to remind others that her tastes was bought and very expensive. The exhibition was lit like a diamond; I remember that, the inside of the Petit Palais itself sparkled like the jewels it showcased. I have never really forgotten the jewels or the way they made me feel; impoverished, isolated, vaguely ostracised but also genuinely awestruck by their beauty, timelessness and technique.
Cartier’s timepieces and jewels are of course legendary and the move into luxury scent in 1981 while seemingly fluid and obvious was still relatively untested. I have written before about the success of jewel houses in the arena of scent; Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, JAR, Olivier Durbano and more recently the wonderful Ann Gerard have all proved that the inspirational use of gemstones, facets, cuts, lustre, hue and luminescence lend themselves exceedingly well to the esoteric and subjective world of Haute Parfumerie.
The 1981 women’s launch was Must de Cartier by Jean-Jacques Denier in its distinctive sexy sleek ‘cigarette lighter’ style bottle. Must was a dense civetty scent oozing ripe fruits, aromatic woods, smoky balsams and a dirty patchouli note that dried down into a warm powdered cocoa finish. It was heavy stuff, but finished with élan and balls. Reformulation lobotomised it, and Must was suddenly gone, and those of us that loved were left scrambling around looking for the real thing and rarely finding it.
The men’s launch was Santos, named after the famous Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont. The original was rich and deeply sensual, quite a shocking scent for men at the time, a ripe gourmand edge that kicked in after enormous amounts of galbanum, vetiver and lavender rolled around the huge opening. A very odd tropical facet that I think is coconut rises through the spices and woods of the macho base, adding ambiguity and compassion. As with Must, reformulation murdered Santos, all the subtlety was stripped out and all that remained was another faceless, vaguely haunted fougère. So sad.
Over the years scents have come and gone at Cartier but reformulation has really undermined the credibility and beauty of any originality the fragrances may once have had. Then in 2005, Cartier made a very bold move and employed Mathilde Laurent as in-house perfumer. At the same time, Jean-Claude Ellena was quietly, urgently transforming Hermès’ perfume division from the inside with his aromatic haiku and obsession with olfactive transparency. Ellena’s role was very unique, only creating when he felt the muse inspire him; Hermès indulged his mastery and genuine artistic talents. He has been joined at Hermès recently by Christine Nagel, a different style of perfumer, but one who nonetheless understands the sensual power of understatement and pared back chic.
Mathilde Laurent originally wanted to be a photographer and then through a quirk of life and opportunity was taken on as an apprentice to Jean-Paul Guerlain, the last family member sadly to reign as in-house perfumer for the hallowed and iconic French company. She trained originally at the prestigious ISIPCA in Paris and while at Guerlain began to demonstrate some of the flair and artistic originality that would come to full fruition at Cartier. Mathilde’s work at Guerlain included the Pamplelune, Herba Fresca, Rose Magnifica and Ylang et Vanille for the more liberating and often more experimental Acqua Allegoria line. But it was Guet-Apens released in 1999 (later renamed Attrape-Coeur and re-released in 2005) that really caught the noses of perfume lovers. Guet-Apens was almost unbearably beautiful… a scent so fragile and ephemeral, it seemed too rare and strange to survive in the harsh and exacting climate of modern perfumery. Mathilde took rose and iris, capturing them in a vintage snapshot of ambered violet and musks. The key to Guet-Apen’s slow-burning beauty is the dreamy, gradual release of vanilla, which catches fire like sweet, animalic smoke. Everything seems so delicate and elusive and then… you swoon… ambushed by desire. Sadly its beauty proved too much or too esoteric for Maison Guerlain and it was discontinued. If you find it… buy it and revel in its other worldly elegance and gift of romantic abstraction.
In an interview with Flair magazine in April 2013, Mathilde Laurent said ‘Simplicity creates emotion’. I would argue that her work is less about simplicity than purity. A fertile pursuit of a particular olfactive vision, in this case a tapestry of emotive fragrances, both exclusive and accessibly mainstream that encapsulate intelligence, mystery and enigma. Mathilde simply creates great beauty; that is true enough. I watch her work with a close eye, ensconced chez Cartier as she is, one must wait for the jewelled doors to open to allow news of her processes and launches to appear. She has very cleverly balanced the needs of Cartier’s regular perfume clients with stylish hits such as the minty, purring Roadster and my beloved Baiser Volé, one of the most beautiful lily soliflores ever bottled. Goutte de Rose in 2013 was an odd diversion into a seemingly commercial rose, but the woody notes gave the drydown a very unsettling androgyny that made the fragrance rather fun to wear. Cartier de Lune in 2011 bombed, but I like its pale washed out skies and sense of impending crisis. On paper, it seems so safe – honeysuckle, cyclamen, rose and lily of the valley, top notes of baie rose and juniper, base of woods and whispered off-white musks. But on skin, these notes are lost in sadness, barely there but somehow all pervasive, like hearing voices in rooms you know to be empty.
Mathilde’s Les Heures de Cartier collection has quite rightly earned her enormous respect and critical acclaim from perfume lovers and critics alike. A series of luxurious and esoteric (and very pricy) perfumes in high concentrations, the collection was commissioned to celebrate one hundred years of Cartier. There are currently ten out of a projected thirteen fragrances, each one representing fantasy hours of a Cartier-inspired day. Thirteen because the number is very symbolic in the history of the venerable house as it is the designation of the iconic Rue de la Paix store in the 2ème arrondisement in Paris.
I have only sampled a few Heures…L’Heure Défendue VII and L’Heure Mystérieuse XII, both of which I adored, especially the Défendue, mixing a rich mauve and powdered iris with a quite delicate dark chocolate note. Patchouli adds some shadow, but still allows the overall dustiness of the composition to charm.
Now in 2014 we have La Panthère from Mathilde Laurent, housed in the most wonderful bestial heavyweight bottle with a facetted panther’s face staring out from the juice. This scent bears no resemblance to the 1986 Panthère by Alberto Morillas that was a full-blown Dallas&Dynasty style oriental floral with an massive fruity white blast upfront that just seemed to get louder and louder as ylang, orris a writhing heady base kicked in. This new incarnation of La Panthère is elusive and beautifully camouflaged as it moves stealthily through scented rooms. This is a neo-gardenia, a reflection of the flower, polished to perfection. Mathilde Laurent has always been very aware of luminescence and reflection in her work for Cartier. The notes she assembles are designed to create the effect of amplified space and light. With Baiser Volé, the trick was not just to capture the lily and its stems but these things IN water, IN a glass vase. As you inhale the evolution of Baiser Volé, you notice how the lily character seems at times distorted and blasted with light. Using bright musks and the indolic personality of white florals can create the most magical sleight of perfumed hand. Goutte de Rose and Cartier de Lune also glitter their charms, notes harmonising to provide olfactive sheen and illusion.
La Panthère on first application seems almost empty, a still room, waiting to fill with the markers of life. But then somewhere a light is switched on and the notes start to coalesce around this fugitive gardenia, opening its petals and casting light over waiting walls. Gardenia is an interesting choice of bloom for a mainstream feminine launch; it is not an easy note to handle, it can often smell overly sweet and blowsy or have odd damp blue cheese and mushroom facets that are hard to ignore.
I have Jovoy’s joyous Gardez-Moi in my collection, a reworking of a 1920s vintage concept by Bertrand Duchaufour. He has marries a massively lush swaggering Bette Davis of a bloom with stunningly placed accents of tomato leaf, raspberry, jasmine, pepper and aldehydes. It is actually packed with notes but these key things really mould Bertrand’s witty updating of the Jovoy original into a luscious, moisture-drenched classic. I particularly like the blush of perfumed raspberry, crushed and bright as the giddy mass of white flowers unfold.
Bertrand also helped Penhaligon’s resurrect their archive Gardenia from 1976 which was originally a screechy, abusive floral with very little resemblance to actual gardenia. By brightening the formula, and adding the loveliest touches of watermelon and rhubarb, he managed to bring the composition up to date, while somehow still retaining a essence of 70s wistfulness and English reserve. It has wonderful transparency and dewiness on the skin, with the gardenia note opening fully a little later than one would imagine and settling with a steady and stylish graciousness.
La Panthère resembles neither of these two gardenia portraits however, choosing instead to set its floral motif against a backdrop of tainted musks and twisted chypré echoes. The petals of the flower seem waxen and oddly inert, edges deepening in tone. There are the lightest washes of leather and oakmoss, like shadows across a floor, shifting as the day turns. Very few fragrances these days have the balls to be true growling chyprés, partly due to ingredient restriction and also because people are frightened of them. They have presence and command attention and status. Miss Dior, Diorling, Mitsouko, Arpège, Vent Vert, Calandre, Paloma Picasso, Y, Cabochard, Alliage, Aromatics Elixir and Bandit. All of these share attitude and confrontational olfaction in their perfume DNA.
Nowhere near as contentious, La Panthère travels a nouveau-chypré route, paying homage to the tailored, bitching mother lode in the light sensual echo of animalic, fur and moss under the glossy plasticised fruits and gardenia rush. Everything feels hyper-real, overtly stylised and blurred. Notes move fast, boundaries and edges difficult to map and follow. It was a little frustrating at first as I was expecting effect, that Laurent dazzle and hook that pulls you in, despite any misgivings you might have. I also recognised echoes of Gucci by Gucci from 2007, created by Ilias Ermenidis. This was also a neo-chypré using a really elegant guava and tiare blend over honey and patchouli in sexy, melting base. Oh and one of the best ads EVER with Raquel Zimmerman swaying provocatively to ‘Heart of Glass’ for cinematic perv-auteur David Lynch. Gucci by Gucci and La Panthère use memory and olfactive blur to suggest an archive sense of darkness whilst demanding we adorn ourselves in glossy sex and beauty.
The summer fruits whoosh of the La Panthère’s opening is glorious and echoes in a small way Mathilde’s beloved Mitsouko, a scent she has referenced symbolically in many of her compositions. The bouncy, glossy gardenia molecule oozes peach and nectarine, creating a hazy velutinous sillage that caresses the skin like passing fur. A ghostly use of musks and rather discreet powder render the final stages very austere, but I love the golden fade. As if closing the lid on precious glowing stones. The word feral has been bandied about a bit in reviews, mostly due to people trying to link the panther theme to the juice. This is no growling beast; I don’t think this was ever the intention. As the Cartier jewellery totem, the sleek, sensual cat has haunted the glittering imagination for decades. Mathilde Laurent has paid homage to this elegant leitmotif with chic and radiant juice. The more I wear it, the more I like it, it feels right on the skin, made for wearing in huge clouds on warm summer days as you leave the house in clean crisp clothes. And then again at night as the sun sets and you sit at a window in silence, wondering where the glint and flash of summer is coming from. Raising your wrist, you realise you smell of peach sky and petal.
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