Jacques Cavallier Belletrud boldly reinvents the extrait, the most concentrated form of perfumes, in a new collection that celebrates movement and freedom. Nafeesa Saini speaks to the Louis Vuitton master perfumer on the latest interpretations.
Perfumery is a marriage of art and science, and, throughout our interview, it is clear that Jacques Cavallier Belletrud approaches his craft through the lens of a romantic. Despite decades in the business, he remains wide-eyed and earnest about his fragrance philosophy.
“I have a lot of curiosity about the world. It helps translate emotions or experiences I have.” He gives an example of dedicating a perfume to a woman he sees crossing the street: “Maybe I like the way she was dressed. If she’s wearing a yellow dress, I will use ginger or an orange flower in the scent.”
The native of Grasse, France, comes from a long line of perfumers; his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were masters of the craft. Now, his daughter Camille has also taken up the mantle.
Belletrud, who joined Louis Vuitton in 2012, is behind some of the world’s most renowned scents and was awarded the Prix International du Parfum in 2004. He is making a splash with the maison’s latest launch of the Les Extraits Collection, which is now available at all its boutiques and online at louisvuitton.com.
The five-scent range reinvents the extrait, a once-vintage olfactive form with the highest concentration of perfume. Equally sculptural in form and formulation, the flacon design is a collaboration with eminent American architect and designer Frank Gehry, who lends his expertise to this field for the first time.
We caught up with Belletrud to discuss his approach to perfumery and the creation of the collection.
What are some of the biggest lessons your father taught you?
When I officially became a perfumer at 20 years old, my father said to me: “We are here to dare. If you don’t dare, you will copy the others and you will not a be a leader.” This is what I tell my daughter too.
What is your earliest scent memory?
When I smell a rose, I think of my mother. When I was young, she would put rosewater on my face every morning. It’s the oldest scent and perfume that I know, because she applied it to my face from when I was a baby until I was eight years old. That’s the smell of my childhood and I cannot create a perfume without a rose. It is in my DNA and memory.
What inspired the Les Extraits Collection?
I wanted to break the rules. It’s what I love doing most every day. For me, it was not necessary to create extrait versions of current perfumes because those are perfect dilutions that are diffusive and radiant. To have done so would have only been from a marketing point of view.
I wanted to reinvent the extrait, by formulating the perfume at a high concentration of 30 per cent when our perfumes are usually at 15 to 20 per cent in concentration. I wanted to take the olfactive classical families, reinterpret them and also make new ones.
I wanted to stretch the materials and reveal the beauty of some natural ingredients or synthetics in order to create new emotions.
How did you come to collaborate with Frank Gehry?
It was something I would not have dreamt of. Frank is a genius, a legend and my idol. He is so talented yet humble.
When I introduced the olfactive concept to my management, the first thing they said was that there is a guy who can design a special bottle for that. It was Frank Gehry. They said that although he is a legend in architecture, he would understand my concept because he does what I aimed to do with stretching materials. He produced this magnificent cap, which is a work of art.
What was it like working with him?
What is fantastic is that we share the same inspiration of nature. When I asked him who is the best perfumer in the world, he said it was me. I said, “No. It’s the wind. It carries the scent of the flowers, woods, earth and leaves.”
He laughed because he told me the inspiration for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris that he designed was also the wind and how it interacts with the trees, water and buildings.
Frank pushed me to go beyond in fine-tuning my fragrances. He has no limit when it comes to building things that are unique. I have the same philosophy for Louis Vuitton perfumes.
Tell us about the collection.
I started with Dancing Blossom as I have been dreaming of creating a 100 per cent floral bouquet. It was important to create it without being overpowering. I composed it with the may rose, sambac jasmine, Indian tuberose and osmanthus from China.
For Cosmic Cloud, I tried to create a new olfactive family. It’s a tribute to beautiful musky ingredients, and is mainly made up of synthetics except for one natural musk called ambrette. I mixed it with blackcurrant and tonka bean. It is full of light and radiant without being aggressive.
The third one is Rhapsody, where I revisit the chypre family. It’s the most powerful of the five fragrances. I wanted to break the rules of the chypre by keeping the beauty of the patchouli. I extracted from the leaves of the tree, to bring a tea-like note and earthy mossiness. This created a new kind of chypre without the heaviness of the old ones.
The fourth one, Symphony, was quite a challenge as I had to think about how to make the freshness last all day at the same level from beginning to end. We have this freshness thanks to ginger from Nigeria. I combined it with grapefruit as I love the bitterness, and then I added fruity notes.
Stellar Times is a tribute to amber and sensuality. Amber notes have been important in scents since the beginning of modern perfumery a few centuries ago. Here, I’ve used only the dry woody amber note and I’ve combined it with an orange flower to recreate the feeling of a sunny day.
What is interesting in this collection is the expression of the perfumes. You have it at the beginning, as there is no top, middle and dry down. It’s due to the high concentration of the perfume, where it expresses strongly at the beginning, and develops the same way all day.
What, in perfume-making, have you done differently here?
I found a new way of blending raw materials by applying different proportions. It’s exactly what Frank Gehry is doing in architecture – creating movement. For instance, when I use bergamot, I wanted to express all of its fruitiness and not just the freshness to reveal another aspect of the material. It’s also interesting to note that these perfumes are created with very simple formulas. Not too many ingredients were used so I could focus on the multiple facets of each material.
What else in classic perfumery would you love to modernise?
The extrait was the ultimate luxury experience at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, we can explore the way people were wearing perfumes in the 18th century. For example, men would wear roses and tuberose, and these perfumes were for both men and women.
We always look at the past in order to create for the future, but we have to translate the feelings of the times in a modern way. My job is to appreciate those lessons, create new rules and inspire new emotions for our clients.
This story first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.