A French Perfumer Just Told Me How to Smell Luxurious—and 9 Mistakes to Avoid

I recently visited Paris with Cartier to meet Mathilde Laurent, the in-house perfumer for the storied brand, to visit the exhibition OSNI2 The Scented Myth. The event sees Cartier's iconic Panthère fragrance brought to life through light, sound and scent. It's an immersive 360 experience of how perfume can make us feel, tapping into all of the senses. The scented installation (which features perfume falling from the ceiling, illuminated with Cartier's panther motif) really is the meeting of art and fragrance.

"In this installation, I wanted to awaken people to the pleasure leading with your five senses," says Laurent. "Scent is what people forget or are not conscious of—but it's the most important sense. It is the only one which is directly going to centres in the brain related to instinct, emotion and memories." In other words, wearing and experiencing fragrance can help us tap into a mindset, which is why many of us might choose a perfume to suit our mood or circumstances on any given day.

Naturally, when I knew I would be sitting down with Laurent to discuss all things fragrance, you can best believe that I had several questions on the world of fragrance. After all, who better to ask than someone who knows everything there is to know about perfume?

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(Image credit: @eleanorvousden)

Lately, our readers have been interested in how to smell expensive. We all seem to want to indulge in the little luxuries in life, but what does that smell like, exactly? Are there perfumes that smell more luxurious than others, and how does the way we wear our perfume affect how we are perceived? Of all the categories in beauty, it seems that fragrance ties closely into this notion.

So I put my questions to Laurent, and I've shared her insights below, including the common mistakes we're making when we choose to wear our fragrance. Spoiler: Everything you know about perfume will be turned on its head.

1. Smelling expensive is just a notion.

"Luxury is really a notion," says Laurent. There is no real way to smell expensive, because that will be open to interpretation to everyone. Sure, a viral perfume that everyone is coining expensive-smelling (and the dupes that inevitably follow them) may lure us in, but it can loose its lustre when it's suddenly worn by everyone.

"I could answer that a luxurious scent is one that has never been smelt before," she says. "But for me, what is a real luxury in perfumery is to be able to get the joy of discovering something new. Too many perfumes are too similar to others, and I’m not sure we get a lot of pleasure from them. My feeling is that these perfumes just make us smell good socially." While it is nice to get compliments on your perfume from others, it shouldn't be the sole reason for choosing it—which brings us on to mistake number two. Whether you like a men's perfume or your grandmother's perfume, what matters is that you like it.

2. Don't choose a perfume just for compliments.

Who doesn't love being complimented on their fragrance? It's a nice feeling, but when you're choosing a scent, it should be because you like it—even if no one else does. "This installation was originally meant to be called tainted aura," explains Laurent. "When you receive compliments when you wear a perfume, it’s not really about the scent; it’s your aura," she says. In other words, it's about how you wear the scent, not the scent wearing you.

"An aura is what you are radiating, the perfume and yourself," she says. "If you wear a perfume that you really love and brings you joy, then you feel really exceptional and confident it changes how you radiate, it changes your aura. This is what perfume can bring. It’s totally different from other accessories because you really carry it, it carries you, you wear it on your skin—it’s you," she says. It’s exactly how you wear the fragrance and how you choose it for yourself, without consideration for what others could think.

3. You're wearing too much perfume.

I'll put my hands up—I'm guilty of this one, especially when it comes to topping up perfume throughout the day. "What’s important is to not apply too much perfume," says Laurent. "I always advise that the first day of wearing a new perfume, you apply the perfect dose. You do four sprays, never add more. Even if you don’t smell it, other people smell it. Because it’s the best way to invade others!" Instead, she recommends experimenting with how you wear your perfume. "I will often advise to apply perfume before you shower. The alchemy of water and perfume in the shower is wonderful," she says. "You can add perfume after your shower, and you will have a perfectly refined way to wear your perfume."

4. Placement is key.

We've all heard that you should apply perfume to your pulse points, like your wrists and neck, right? Turns out that in Laurent's perfumery training at Versailles, that isn't a rule as such. "They are rather recent rules," says Laurent. "I often say that freedom is more important than rules. If you like to perfume your neck or your hair, because when they move it is also very pleasant, you can. You can perfume your knees. It’s instinctive and has to be instinctive. You can follow the rules if you like to feel secure, but you can also invent your own way to wear perfume."

And if you really want your scent to last all day, she recommends spraying on your clothes, rather than on your skin. "If you want to get the best of your perfume I would perfume your clothes because as the skin is warmer, the perfume will always evaporate quicker," she says. "To perfume your clothes is a good way to smell it and to keep it on for longer."

5. Don't top up with an eau de parfum.

It can be annoying when your fragrance seems to disappear throughout the day, but avoid dousing yourself in a heavy eau de parfum. "If you don’t smell your perfume very well—everyone gets used to their perfume—then I would advise to buy it also in the eau de toilette version and spray sometimes, just one spray, to refresh during the day," says Laurent, which avoids the risk of overwhelming your nose and the ones around you. "This can be for your own personal pleasure and to feel confident, you can spray it on a handkerchief or a little on the wrist to smell it for yourself so you’re sure you’re not bothering other people around you." 

She also recommends choosing a single-note perfume to give your fragrance a boost during the day. "These are very pure, simple and fresh scents, and you can add them on any perfume you wear," she says, recommending both Cartier's L'Heure Brillante (£250) and Eau de Toilette Pur Kinkan Les Epures de Parfum (£250). "It creates something very pleasant, and you feel fresh and confident for the afternoon or evening," she says.

6. Don't wear perfume to dinner.

"There are occasions when people think they must put perfume on. It’s really funny, in fact. Then, very often, they put a lot of perfume on because they say, 'I'm going out!'" says Laurent. And you'll know how someone else's overwhelming fragrance can be distracting. "When you go to the restaurant or you go to the theatre, don’t put perfume on. Because when you got to the restaurant, it is really to appreciate what you are going to eat," says Laurent. "If you are too perfumed, you will not appreciate what you will eat. The restaurant is a spectacle for the mouth, so you need to have your mouth free of perfume," she says. "If you put perfume on before going to the restaurant or theatre, it should be very light, or apply it before your shower so that you are very delicately perfumed with a perfume you love but very very lightly."

7. Be wary of layering your perfumes.

While Laurent is not against layering, she recommends following a few precautions. "I would say that it is a risky business. It’s like an extreme sport—very dangerous!" she says. "If you have a very heavy fragrance, then just add a sporadic note, something very simple. For example, if you have an oriental fragrance, you could add another vanilla note if it’s very simple or a sporadic note, as it will correspond," she says. "What would be really awful would be to mix perfumes that are really composed and complex composition with another complex composition of two different families. Then that becomes what we call in France 'one-thousand flowers.'" If in doubt, skip layering altogether or choose your notes wisely.

8. Being too narrow-minded when choosing your signature scent.

Finding your signature scent can be a tall order, but Laurent has some tips to find something that is uniquely yours. "I would advise to be very open to newness and maybe new shops or little shops, smaller brands or people that can help you to choose," she says. "The idea is to discover perfume brands that you don’t know. If you have not found your signature fragrance, and you are searching for something rare, you have to go towards rare brands and rare perfumes that you have never smelt," she advises. "So go smell what you have never smelt yet."

9. Buying perfume online.

There is nothing worse than buyer's remorse, so Laurent has some tips if you're planning to blind-purchase a perfume online. "I would say do not trust the notes that you can read," she says. "It’s a habit to mention natural ingredients, but everybody knows that there are not only natural ingredients. So if you see that there is rose and vetiver, it can smell like rose, but it is not necessarily what you will find systematically," she says. "You should pay attention more to images that are proposed, the text, or other information, which are important. At Cartier, we really try to give true information and all information that we are creating for the graphics for the perfume visually and trying to stay very true so people can have an idea of the ambiance, the textures and the colours that could be associated with our perfume to help their choice."

Cartier's OSNI2 is running from December 1 to 11, 2022 at Esplanade des Invalides 2 Rue Robert Esnault-Pelterie, 75007, Paris. Book your tickets here.

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Beauty Editor, Who What Wear UK

Eleanor Vousden is the beauty editor of Who What Wear UK. She was previously deputy editor at Hairdressers Journal, health writer at Woman & Home and junior beauty editor at beauty website Powder. She has also contributed to Wallpaper and Elle Collections with written and styling work.

Working as a beauty journalist since 2015 after graduating in fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion, she has been highly commended at the BSME Talent Awards and also contributed to Powder, winning Website of the Year at the PPA Awards for her work in beauty journalism.

Eleanor’s journalistic focus is to provide readers with honest and helpful beauty content. Through words, video and live broadcast, she has interviewed several celebrity makeup artists, hairstylists and top dermatologists throughout her career. She has a particular interest in finding solutions for acne and eczema, which she has experienced firsthand. She has also amassed a large collection of fragrances and can never say no to a new candle.

When she’s not writing or testing the latest beauty product or treatments, she’s on the seafront in her hometown of Brighton and Hove, where she lives with her partner.