Minutes into a performance of Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Story of Fire, concertgoers at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall were met by scent cannons emitting a specially created Cartier fragrance. The smoke-hued aroma was dispersed in synchronisation with the orchestra’s playing as the immortal Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity — in what was billed as a “multisensory” production that ran for three days last month.

The scent, Les Heures de Parfum XIII: La Treizième Heure (The Hours of Perfume: The Thirteenth Hour), was created by Mathilde Laurent, in-house perfumer for Cartier since 2005, alongside several newly composed fragrances. 

“Since the beginning of time, and also in antiquity, perfume and jewels were always kept for kings and gods,” says Laurent, for whom the resonance of The Thirteenth Hour with the story of Prometheus felt fated. “You are ephemeral but, if you own things which are eternal and if you are able to make the smell of a flower last for ever, maybe you will be immortal, too.”

Laurent is one of several French perfumers whose recent fragrances have been inspired by the rich history of connections between French perfumery and fine jewellery.

With The Thirteenth Hour — one of a collection of 13 fragrances — Laurent was initially inspired by the leather-scented perfumes fashionable in the 1920s and 1930s that sought to capture the scent of the fine birch leathers used to wrap the jewellery belonging to the Russian court.

“Perfumes are like jewels when worn,” says Laurent, a Corsican who began her career as an apprentice to master perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain. “I wanted to create a wonderful leather fragrance in a modern way.”

For Mathilde Laurent, perfumery is the art of mastering eternity © Magali Delporte
A pair of Cartier perfume bottles, filled with amber liquid, set on a light surface. Each bottle features a distinctive white cap with gold accents and the brand’s emblem, one adorned with an orange band and the other with a purple band, presented against a dark backdrop
La Treizième Heure (right) is part of the Les Heures de Parfum collection which interprets the scent of 13 hours of the day © Craig Gibson for the FT

Indeed, the history of French perfumery and fine jewellery are closely intertwined. In his 1884 novel, A Rebours, the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans compared the perfumer’s art of extracting the essential oils from a flower to that of a jeweller transforming a rough diamond into a precious jewel. Then, in 1907, the Parisian jeweller and glassmaker René Lalique was commissioned by perfumer François Coty to produce ornate glass bottles for fragrances, later including his pioneering Chypre. 

Other jewellery brands are also finding olfactive inspiration in their rich heritage.

In 2021, Tiffany & Co released Rose Gold, composed by fragrance group Robertet’s Jérôme Epinette, the “nose” behind more than 200 fragrances, including Byredo’s Bal d’Afrique. A year before that, UK jeweller Graff released a range of fragrances inspired by the 302-carat Lesedi La Rona diamond, including several composed by Epinette. And, since 2016, Bulgari has released 11 fragrances in its Le Gemme series, composed by the LVMH group’s master perfumer, Jacques Cavallier. He took inspiration from the colours and origins of precious gemstones, including Tygar (tiger’s eye), Falkar (falcon’s eye) and Onekh (onyx). 

Hailing from Grasse, the ancient capital of French perfumery, known for the quality of its rose and jasmine, Cavallier worked with Bulgari to craft exclusive natural raw materials in his compositions for Le Gemme, including special patchouli, ginger, and vetiver oils.

A portrait of a bespectacled middle-aged man with blond hair, dressed in a dark suit and navy shirt, smelling a tiny white flower against a blurred natural backdrop.
Jacques Cavallier hails from Grasse, capital of the French fragrance industry © Gabriel de la Chapelle
A sleek, rectangular, black bottle of BVLGARI perfume, accented with a gold cap and a matching gold label around the neck
The “flacon” of Bulgari’s Le Gemme series was inspired by the architecture of the Roman empire © Craig Gibson for the FT

“The incense we are using was used 4,000-5,000 years ago by Egyptians, Greeks,” says Cavallier, who finds a spiritual connection in the ingredients used in Le Gemme. “It was the first way to communicate with the gods, because the incense was producing a very white smoke going towards heaven. So, each time I smell incense, I have the same feeling of connection to ancient times.”

Having worked with Bulgari for almost 30 years and inspired by the brand’s colourful Italian iconography, Cavallier practises a form of olfactory synaesthesia, matching the natural materials to the colour of the gemstones.

“I see the smell: for each image, there is a material; and for each material, there is an image,” says Cavallier, whose father and grandfather were both perfumers. “For me, musk is like gold, whereas sandalwood is very precious: sandy, woody, but white. In Tygar, the colour is a very intense yellow-orange; that’s why there is ginger, vetiver also, because vetiver is also brown.”

When composing Rose Gold, and its more concentrated flanker, Rose Gold Intense, Epinette was likewise inspired by Tiffany’s colourful iconography, updating the rose ingredient by using a rare blue rose hybrid from Japan.

A man in a denim shirt is intently smelling a dark bottle, partially obscured by rows of bottles on glass shelves
Jérôme Epinette was inspired by Tiffany & Co.’s blue iconography when creating Rose Gold. © Emily Andrew for the FT
A transparent geometric perfume bottle with amber-colored liquid inside, topped with a faceted clear cap
Rose Gold features a rare Blue Rose from Japan © Craig Gibson for the FT

“When you look at Tiffany, there is a lot of blue so, for me, there was no other option; that’s the rose I want to use,” says Epinette, who sought to modernise the rose, combining blond woods with the blue rose to evoke a metallic gold ‘accord’ — a mix of ingredients used to create a unique scent.

“Rose is a very timeless ingredient. It’s the way you create it, the way you put it on stage. It’s how you showcase the perfume that makes it modern. It’s always about trying ingredients that will represent different facets of a crystal or a metal.”

Epinette was also the nose behind two of the fragrances in Graff’s Lesedi La Rona collection. Launched in London department store Harrods in 2020, each fragrance in the collection represents different facets of the 302.37-carat Graff Lesedi La Rona, cut from the fifth-largest diamond ever discovered.

When Walter Johnsen, vice-president of product development at fragrance company Interparfums, was approached by Graff to oversee the jeweller’s first fragrance launch, the Lesedi La Rona quickly emerged as an obvious starting point.

“When I’m doing a fragrance, I like to find an emotional connection,” says Johnsen. “Both diamonds and fragrances start from the same place: they’re both gifts from the earth, which, when put together correctly, are an expression of love.”

A luxurious glass perfume bottle with a rich amber-colored liquid, featuring a large, multifaceted clear crystal cap and gold accents
Graff released fragrances inspired by the 302-carat Lesedi La Rona diamond © Craig Gibson for the FT

The initial six fragrances (the range has since been expanded to 10) were the result of an open call to perfumers worldwide, which resulted in 75 submissions. From there, Johnsen narrowed the list down to four fragrances, with two last-minute submissions coming from Epinette (Lesedi La Rona III and V).

In Lesedi La Rona III, Epinette again returned to rose, crafting the fragrance around the finest rose from Grasse. “[Perfume] is like a diamond to me,” he says. “It’s the same with the rose, the composition, the citruses: all those little facets create like a jewel.”

Johnsen was determined to use the most exquisite natural ingredients to match the Lesedi La Rona’s lustre. “[Lesedi La Rona] I is my sophisticated child and pays homage to old-world perfumery. II is like a burst of sunshine because it really is a solar floral. IV is my fun child because it really plays with almonds and manuka honey.”

Meanwhile, Laurent is keen to see the multisensory performance of Prometheus find new audiences in Europe. Then, in autumn, Cartier will release a new elixir concentration — this one inspired by the life and times of Jeanne Toussaint, muse to Louis Cartier, who was the grandson of the house’s founder.

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