Exploring the Exotic Scents of Louis Vuitton’s Perfumes with Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud

When I met Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last year, he said: “Indonesia is a garden of perfume ingredients.” He then noted how he has been to the country several times to source for ingredients: clove buds, patchouli, lemon grass and black pepper to name a few. The following are excerpts from my exclusive interview with Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer.

Jacques-Cavallier Belletrud

DA MAN: Where do you source inspiration when creating perfumes?
Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud: Ingredients. They are very important. But more than that, it’s the countries I visit, the cultures, foods, and emotions. I keep those emotions in my mind then I translate them into perfumes.

DA MAN: What is your perfumery process like? Do you begin with a smell or idea?
To create a perfume, first, you must have an idea. The idea comes from inspiration, from the maturation of emotions and then I see the perfume, the idea in front of me just because I’ve learned to memorize the ingredients by associating images with ingredients. I don’t merely smell it; I see it and visualize it, and then immediately I write a formula. I automatically go to the other part of my brain—my library of ingredients and experience—then choose one ingredient and apply the proportions after. Just like a music composer, I have to be very precise before it goes to the atelier and becomes real.

DA MAN: What are your plans for Louis Vuitton Men’s perfumes in the future?
It was quite conservative 10 years ago. It was only woody notes, very strong. Now men demand more sophistication. They—especially young ones—want to understand parfums, so that’s very good news. They are also wearing feminine perfumes; they are open to it. The men’s category is always interesting because women like men’s fragrances too. Did you know? The perfume segmentation came from a marketing strategy some 50 years ago. In the 18th to 19th century, men wore rose perfumes, which is considered as very feminine today. But it’s coming back today. This is good. Segmentation is not a bad thing. I like the idea of having a choice.

DA MAN: Are we expecting more Louis Vuitton fragrances for men next year?
That’s a good question. [Laughs] Maybe. At Louis Vuitton, we take our time. We only launch when we are ready. I’m not pressured to make a turnover; I’m not pressured to manufacture just because other brands have launched a new fragrance, no. I’m not in competition, so it’s making me more comfortable and also more responsible. Having more time means you have to ensure your product is successful.

DA MAN: Is your formulation universal? Or does it change from one skin type to another?
The skin temperature may or may not make the perfume volatile. You cannot necessarily say the perfume is not good on your skin just because maybe the skin is too warm. At Louis Vuitton, we are experienced in calculated formulations.

DA MAN: You say perfumers are like fashion designers. Do you follow fashion trends or cycles?
In fashion the pressure is that you have to produce four collections per year, on top of the capsule collections. So, they have to deliver fast; it’s very intense. In perfumery, the trends are much longer. The pressure is less intense—but longer. That means that on the market, you have multiple trends all at the same time,not only one. The trends span between 10-15 years.

DA MAN: What was it that made you become a perfumer? What was your “eureka” moment?
This specific language of smells and scents, I’ve had it since I was a kid. My father was a perfumer, my grandfather was a perfumer and the father of my grandfather was a perfumer. Since I was a child, my father and mother would talk about rose or jasmine over lunch or dinner every day. It was evident my path had been chosen. My parents’ friends in Grasse were lawyers, doctors and police officers. But my dad was doing things by himself, coming from his very own idea. It was fascinating for me, and I found it fantastic to see my father make money out of it.

DA MAN: What are the qualities that one must have to become a good perfumer?
To become a good artist is to be curious; curiosity is essential. You also have to have a love of life. Life is a miracle. We have to celebrate this miracle every day. And I try celebrate it through my perfumes.

DA MAN: How do you think has technology affected perfume making?
The miracle of technology is that now you have access to everything. But it’s also making us lack emotions. Without emotions, you’re missing part of the experience. You’re missing the effort to discover—the empirical process. For me, I need to go to see, touch, taste the real thing. We need to be connected to nature especially in perfumes. That’s why we’re successful at Louis Vuitton.

DA MAN: Is there a classic perfume ingredient that you wish to modernize?
There are many classic ingredients that we are modernizing in the maison, like patchouli. Patchouli oil is a well-known ingredient that’s been used since the beginning of perfumery. At Louis Vuitton we are applying new processes. The patchouli we are using in the maison today is different from the patchouli perfumers were using 25 years ago. Today I can design patchouli oil without the top note. I can leave only the middle part of the oil; I can cut the patchouli oil however I want. Of course, we’re doing it at Louis Vuitton. Not so many brands are doing it because it’s very expensive. I use a specific quality of patchouli in Cœur Battant, which is different with the patchouli I am using for Mille Feux. I can design an essential oil, making this oil more modern in a way, by selecting just an aspect of the oil that I want in the fragrance.

DA MAN: What’s that one thing that an LV customer must-have, that one bottle, that quintessential LV perfume that you made?
For men, the Afternoon Swim and L’immensité. For women, without doubt, the Rose Des Vents.