Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Enigmatic Illusionist - An Interview With Jean-Claude Ellena

It's interesting to consider why Jean-Claude Ellena attracts as much reverence as he does. The simplest explanation might be that he deserves it for his work. After all, Déclaration, Terre D'Hermès, Eau Parfumée Eau Thé Vert and Bois Farine, amongst many others, are perennial best sellers with passionately loyal fans. But then, Ellena isn't the only perfumer to have forged a successful career.

Some claim that his status comes from his position as the sole in-house fragrance creator at Hermès. But Jacques Polge has been Chanel's exlusive nose for far longer than Ellena has worked at the leather maker's, so that answer isn't really satisfying either.

Those who don't view Ellena's output in a favourable light suggest that he has created an air of mystique around himself by cultivating a gnomic public image, an inaccessible 'wise man in the mountains' persona who every now and then deigns to emerge and impart some wisdom to his underlings. There may be some element of truth in this, but I'd suggest it has more to do with the man's intense desire for privacy than from a feeling of superiority. If his perfumes are anything to go by, Ellena believes that less is more, and I suspect this attitude also filters into his professional deportment and the manner in which he interacts with the many people who make demands on his time.

My personal explanation for why he's risen to the rank of Perfume God is three-fold. Firstly, he's one of very few creators who can articulate and express coherent statements not just about the technical construction of their scents but also, crucially, about their perception of their role as an artist. Secondly, his work displays unparalleled consistency as far as its aesthetic attributes are concerned. Regardless of their merits, Ellena's fragrances are now almost instantly recognisable; they bear the signature of their maker with a clarity few other fragrances display.

Finally, he's charismatic. Possibly because he punctuates his speech with infectious, full-bodied laughter, or because he furrows his brow in intense concentration before answering a question, or because he speaks with a disarming lack of false modesty, his personality fills a room with tremendous authority.

This apparently effortless magnetism was on full display on the 11th of July, when Ellena was in London to promote his new book, The Diary Of A Nose. An elliptical, elusive piece of writing, it claims to provide insights into the work of a perfumer, but its ultimate point seems to be that no genuinely meaningful insights are possible. In a nutshell, Ellena's profession entails: a lot of thinking: scribbling a formula; smelling the consequent trial; more thinking... and so on. He realises that most of his readers don't need him to tell them that this is what the prosaic reality of fragrance creation looks like. Therefore, he allows himself to use the diary format to present quiet musings on all sorts of subjects, from the profound to the banal. It's an approach that hasn't gone down well with certain critics, but I found it quite compelling, not least because it displayed his aforementioned charm.

Sadly, this particular characteristic doesn't come through very well in a transcript, although I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that English isn't Ellena's first language. He illustrates his speech with facial expressions and hand gestures which don't translate easily into prose. What's more, he doesn't seem entirely at ease with speaking to a large crowd. Indeed, he was considerably more relaxed and animated during the brief chats I had with him before and after his interview. For one thing, he chuckled and shook his head when I told him I was wearing Parfum De Thérèse. "Are you sure?" he asked. "I think it's Noir Epices, no?" I had to get the bottle out of my bag as proof.

Eager to talk about his own work, I told him that not too long ago, another prominent perfumer had said to me that Bois Farine probably contained a great deal of mimosa. "Not at all," Ellena said, with another chuckle. "No mimosa. But yes, you can see a mimosa effect."

"So what are its main ingredients?" I asked.

The chuckle grew louder. "It's a very simple formula. Very simple."

"That usually means three or four or five materials."

His face was now a massive grin. "Ah, well... it's more than two."

"Do you remember the formulae of all your perfumes?"

Suddenly, his expression grew serious. "Yes, absolutely."

He also told me that he hardly ever uses synthetic sandalwood substitutes ("They all stink") and that he now has no choice but to use Australian sandalwood in his scents because supplies of the Indian variety are unreliable.

His formal interview was conducted at Kettners by Jo Fairley, who started by asking him about the current trend for fragrances designed to persuade a customer to part with their cash in a matter of seconds. What does he think people are missing out on when they buy or wear such perfumes?

JCE: You are not missing a fragrance, you are missing life. The main problem is to take the time to smell the perfume... to dream, to eat, to love. People who take two seconds to make a decision about a perfume are missing life.

JF: And you never want to create a fragrance where you ‘get’ it just like that?

JCE: Well, in fact, I work a lot to seduce you in one second. Of course. That’s the target. That’s part of the work. [the audience laughs] My belief is that when you create a fragrance, it has to say other things, otherwise you will not think about it again. You will put it to one side. And if every day the fragrance that you wear talks to you - something new every day - it means the fragrance can stay a long time, and you will keep it for a long time, maybe for your whole life.

JF: In your book, you say that your mother wouldn’t have been your mother if she had worn anything other than Madame De Rochas. A lot of women these days have many different fragrances. Very few have a signature scent. Do you think it’s better to have one scent that everybody remembers you by?

JCE: I prefer that; I think it’s a nice way to be. But if you want to change every day... okay, why not? When you choose a perfume, it’s a part of your personality that you show others.

JF: If you talk to most women of my generation, they have a scent memory of their mothers. So maybe there’s a generation coming up that won’t remember their parents by smell, because they wear so many different ones.

JCE: This is true. I take the side of signature perfumes. This is what I’m looking for. This is the thing that I try to do. And of course you can use perfume as an everyday product. Why not? But this is not my way of thinking about perfume.

JF: You work not in Paris, but in your own studio in Cabris in the south of France. You have a sea view. So what does it mean, for you, to be able to create in your own surroundings, rather than in a big laboratory?

JCE: I’m far away from Paris because I’m far away from the decision centre. It’s a quiet place. If you are close to the decision centre, then people come to you and say, “What are you doing? Can I smell the trials?” and so on. And this is not necessary, because you are creating things. And when you’re creating things, sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing. But you do it. It takes time to find the road, to find the way to go. So it is necessary to work alone, in a very disciplined way. I start at 8:30 every day. I finish when I finish.

JF: Do you have weekends?

JCE: Yes, I have weekends. Not always. And everything is very disciplined. My laboratory in Cabris looks a little bit like a monastery. It’s a place to work.

JF: Francis Kurkdjian says he likes to work almost in the dark, with no music, and nothing to take away from his sense of smell. How do you work?

JCE: Not in the dark. The thing is, in Cabris there are only two people: myself and my assistant. That’s it. No noise... well, the noise of birds. No music. A big difference also is the time that I spend on each perfume. For Hermès, I create two or three fragrances a year, so I have plenty of time. In the industry, perfumers have 250 briefs each year, 250 demands each year. You can see how much time they can spend on one perfume. I have two or three demands. And not only two or three, but I can choose them. I make the decisions.

JF: A perfumer told me that when you’re stressed, you can’t smell properly. So how do you stop yourself from getting stressed?

JCE: The answer is time. It’s always time. Of course, when you are stressed, you have difficulty to find ideas. But when you have time, you will find the answers. The only thing you have to do is to work. And if you don’t find the answer, that’s not important. The thing is: work, work, work. And in the end, you will find the answer. I’m sure people who write understand this. When you write, you have the same thing. You write and write, and once you’re stuck or blocked, you have to stop yourself and put it to the side, and start again a few days later. But another thing is that I work on more than one perfume at the same time. So I can be blocked on one, but work on another one.

JF: When you’re creating your perfumes, as you’re your own editor, your own decision maker, how does the progression of each scent work?

JCE: The final decision of a perfume at Hermès is between Catherine Fulconis - she is the president of perfume at Hermès - and myself. So this means that I have a big part of the responsibility for what we put on the market. There are no other people who take the responsibility. We take it together. No market tests. Only a conviction product. And because I have this responsibility, the demand on myself is very high. Higher than if a marketing department asked me for something. Because if a marketing department asked me for something, I’d answer with what they’re asking for. But marketing people don’t know how far we can take a creation. So the demand I put on myself is higher.

JF: How do you know when a perfume is finished? How do you know when you’ve reached the last trial? What makes it different from the one that came before?

JCE: I’ll tell you a story about that. When you create a fragrance - or when you create anything, write a book or paint a painting - it’s a talk between yourself and the object, between the subject and the object. Always. So you’re talking to yourself. Through the product, you talk to yourself. This is important. You have an idea, and you want to get to this idea, to achieve it. To be more precise, on Voyage D’Hermès, the idea was that I wanted to have a perfume with tension. I was looking for very high tension. And I said to Catherine, “Look, the perfume has to be like this” [mimes pulling a long piece of elastic]. And I worked until I could smell the tension in the perfume. And when I found the result, when I found the tension, I said, “It’s finished.”

JF: So you just know?

JCE: Yes. But I worked for weeks and weeks to find this tension in the perfume, because for me, ‘voyage’ had to have that kind of effect.

JF: What’s the most unusual thing that you’ve found that you’ve then put into a perfume?

JCE: Unusual? There are quite a lot. But maybe I can talk about Bois Farine, which I created for L’Artisan Parfumeur. When I travel I like to go to botanical gardens, I like smelling leaves and flowers. And in one particular botanical garden on Réunion I found a bush with tiny flowers which smelt like flour. So I wrote that down in my Moleskine notebook. One year later, L’Artisan Parfumeur called me and said, “We are looking for some travel perfumes and we would like you to make the first one.” And I said, “Okay, give me one week, I’ll call you back.” So I took my notebook and I found my note about the flowers that smelt like flour. So I called and I said, “I have an idea. My perfume will smell like flour. What do you think?” And they said, “Okay.”

JF: I think that’s an example of a fragrance that could never have been created by a mood board.

JCE: Of course! No way. Impossible! But today, it’s one of the best selling ones for L’Artisan Parfumeur.

JF: Your father was a perfumer, so at what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a perfumer? Did your father encourage you?

JCE: My father didn’t talk too much about his work. In fact, I believe that I became a perfumer because I wanted to know what my dad does. I think that’s the answer.

JF: Do you think nowadays it’s even harder to become a perfumer than it was when you were younger?

JCE: Yes, I think so. There are now more and more technical demands placed on perfumers. The thing is, we forget what perfumery is. For me, perfumery is an art. Technique is important, but technique without art means nothing. And art without technique means nothing. So the main problem is to go a little bit more into the art, and not just keep to the technical aspects. If you talk only about performance, intensity, you forget what perfume is, the magic.

JF: Your daughter is a perfumer too. Finally, we now have some prominent female perfumers. But why has it taken so long for women - who buy and wear so much perfume - to reach this point in the industry?

JCE: Well, if you look at the industry today, then there’s the same amount of male and female perfumers. But in the past, the main problem with women was that they didn’t want to put themselves forward, to be at the front. Boys were always ready to be at the front. Women were too shy to talk about their field. They were very good at creating, but shy about talking about their work. Nowadays, they are willing to talk, and this is important.

JF: There’s a part in the book where you sit on a plane next to a lady who’s wearing First, but it was mixed with tobacco and sweat and not necessarily the most pleasant smells. In that situation, can you cut off the messages from your nose?

JCE: But I don’t want to cut them off! All these odours are part of life. I like to put these kinds of human smells in my perfumes. They’re a part of our bodies. And perfume is not a hygiene product.

JF: As a parent, you’re not supposed to have favourite children, but is there a perfume you’ve created that you’re most proud of?

JCE: I will not answer this question. I don’t want to judge my work. I prefer it to be judged by other people. When I create perfume, I try to show the intelligence of a human being. And for this reason, I am delighted to work with Hermès, because craftsmen work for this company, making bags and silk scarves. When you see these people working and how involved they are, in an intelligent way, it’s really something great. It’s more than just making a product.

JF: Do you think there’s any chance in the mainstream market that we’ll move away from these marketing-led, mood board fragrances?

JCE: No. The main reason is because economically it works very well. So they don’t have a reason to change. But I will not change my way of doing things. The only thing I can do is what I do at Hermès. We have our own approach. And we can show our own approach. The only thing I see with our own approach is that there are people who are looking very closely at what we do. And I’m very happy about that.

JF: Smelling a perfume on a blotter is very different from smelling it on the skin. So is there a point in the creation of a perfume at which you start testing it on somebody’s skin?

JCE: At the beginning, it’s intellectual work. You build with blotters. At a certain point, when it’s nearly finished, I start to put the perfume on the skin. On the skin, you can see if you’ve made a big mistake, if there are any defects. The problem with skin is that 1000 different skins will give you 1000 different answers. So in fact, you have no answer. So forget skin! Only really at the end you put it on the skin, to see the sillage and long-lastingness.

JF: At the end of the book is a series of accords for smells which you have created, like chocolate and fig and gardenia etc. What struck me is how simple those accords are: sometimes it’s a couple of materials, or three or four materials.

JCE: The work of the perfumer is the work of illusion. The perfumer is an illusionist. I like the idea of illusion because illusion is art. If I had to make the aroma of chocolate for a yoghurt or a cake, I would have to follow a very complicated formula, and for this reason, that would not be an art. But perfumery is an art, because I can use only two products to create the chocolate illusion. And because I found the way to do it.

JF: And you know which two products to use.

JCE: It’s not that I know. It’s that I found the way.

JF: I believe that, for the very first time, people are starting to understand that perfumery is an art form. Do you believe people’s attitudes are changing?

JCE: Yes, I believe so. We now have quite a lot of people who talk about perfumery. First of all, we have all the blogs, and the bloggers believe that perfumery is an art. And there are people who are like gourmets of perfume, and they also see perfume as an art. And this is really nice.

[Jo reads out some questions that had been submitted through Twitter.]

Are we at a point where new fragrances are simply variations of older ones? How easy is it to create something that’s new?

JCE: Again, the main problem is time. If you don’t have time, you take an old recipe and you just tweak it. When you have time, you can try find another way to do things. Maybe one way to answer the question would be to smell one perfume I made called Iris Ukioyé. Of course, it’s about iris. But what’s different is the way I’ve done it, the way I wrote it. It’s not about the roots of the iris, but about the flower.

Is there a creation by someone else that you wish you’d created?

JCE: No. [the audience laughs] You know, something that was really new on the market was the tea note that I made [for Bulgari's Eau Parfumée Eau Thé Vert]. But one thing you have to know was that I made the tea note without smelling tea. My story about Mariage Frères came much later. Marketing needs a story, so I went to Mariage Frères and I smelt all the teas and of course, I built the whole story on the tea note. But I was just in my lab, imagining tea. And I found the accord and I thought, “Ah, here I have something interesting.” The main problem for perfumers is that marketing people need stories, otherwise they don’t understand. So, if you want stories, I’ll give you stories. Later, the marketing people of Bulgari came to me and said, “We like very much your tea note. But which tea did you use in the perfume?” And I said, “Well, there is no tea. It’s only illusion.” But they didn’t believe me.

[Finally, members of the audience are invited to ask questions.]

How do you feel about naturals versus synthetics?

JCE: I don’t see any difference. They’re just materials. Perfumery has become an art because of chemical products. And we’ve used chemical products in perfumery since the 19th century. The oldest perfumes on the market contain chemicals. The question of chemicals and naturals is not really a question.

In the past, before working for Hermès, when you used to get briefs to make perfumes, did you ever produce one which the client didn’t quite like?

JCE: Yes. I’ll tell you a story, but I won’t tell you the name of the perfume, and anyway, it’s not on the market any more. I had a brief, so I made a perfume, and I knew that what I was working on was a disaster. But the client, who was a nice fellow, said, “I want that.” So I pleased him; I made it. And I knew, before putting it on the market, that it would be a flop. He put the perfume on the market. It was a flop. And later, I saw him, and he said, “Don’t worry. It was my fault. You did what I asked you to do.” Because of that, now, I don’t make perfumes that I don’t like. I have to please myself first.

If somebody told you that the next perfume you were going to make would have to be your last, what would its central idea or note be?

JCE: [chuckles] I wouldn’t believe him! Who is this guy who is deciding it’s my last perfume?

What are your views on reformulation and IFRA and anti-allergen issues?

JCE: For me, the oldest perfumes are not old. They are still selling. And because they are still selling, they are not old. There are people who love these perfumes today. I’ll give you an example. Calèche was done in '61, Eau D’Hermès was done in '51, they are still used by people today. I have respect for these perfumes as they are. In fact, since I’ve been with Hermès, we've never changed these perfumes. They’re still like they were in the past. But these perfumes were made at a very low concentration, so in fact, there are no IFRA problems*. So we can respect them. If in future, because of IFRA, we have to change, then we will do it. We would have to follow the legislation. But with a lot of respect. I would be ready to work for one year or two years on this. For me, the great idea in Hermès is that what you find now at the age of 20, you will still find the same thing at the age of 60. You change, but not the perfume.

Do you think the marketing-led, mood board-style of perfumery is a threat to your style of working or the future of your style of working?

JCE: No. I think they are going the wrong way. And I believe, without vanity, that people are looking at what we are doing.

Nowadays, some naturals are hard to obtain. Is there any particular note that you’ve found hard to create synthetically because you haven’t been able to get hold of a certain natural material?

JCE: No. Not at all. You laugh, but the thing is that it’s quite simple. I’m an illusionist. And I can do anything with just a few products. So where’s the problem?

Is there something, some note, that you’d like to create that you haven’t yet created?

JCE: I’m always very precise in what I’m looking for. I’ll give you an example. For Hermès I made an Hermessence called Brin De Reglisse, a combination of licorice and lavender. In my mind, the idea was to find a new approach to the lavender note. I was not pleased with the lavender oil on the market. I tried a very high quality, but it was not enough for me. I know the structure of lavender oil, so I know all the molecules that are in lavender. For me, lavender oil has a sweaty smell, a pee note, and I know from which molecules that smell is coming: from terpineol 4 and from the camphor and borneol. So I went to the Monique Rémy laboratory and I said, “Can you make for me a lavender without the terpineol and borneol and camphor?” So they made a distillation of the lavender and, like a sausage, they cut it into 50 parts. And I smelt all the fifty parts. And I found the pee note, the sweat note. And we took them out and we re-built the lavender. And that’s what I used in Brin De Reglisse. The thing is, a normal lavender oil costs €60. This new lavender cost me €600. But I bought it, because it was the best lavender for this perfume.

So it was better than the natural?

JCE: Of course, yes.

What’s your personal preference: for strong, overpowering perfumes, or subtle, skin scents?

JCE: I like subtle perfume. For me, I like the idea of [moves up close towards Jo Fairley’s neck] “Oh, what do you smell of?” and not the idea of [pulls a face and recoils into his seat] “Urrgh, what do you smell of?”

In your first book, you said that you appreciate what blogs are doing for perfumery. Do you think blogs should be doing anything differently?

JCE: Ah, this is a good question, I like this question. First of all, bloggers are very good for perfume, because they talk about perfume and they talk about their passions and so on. It means they open the talk and the passion to people. And this, I appreciate a lot. It’s really very good. The main problem is that, quite often, bloggers like old perfumes too much. Mainly they find that the best ones were in the past. And I tell you, that’s not true. It’s more difficult to say what is good today. With the past, it’s easier. Again, with old perfumes, time has done the work for the bloggers. Of course, they can talk about Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue and so on. But with new perfumes, bloggers should take the time to understand what the perfumer does. This is more difficult. But it’s also quite normal. You know, Baudelaire was an art critic, and he wrote about painters. But if you look at what he wrote about some painters, quite often, he was wrong. And that was Baudelaire!


* IFRA Standards specify that certain materials may or may not be used in relation to the overall dilution of the 'pure' perfume in alcohol (or any other solvent). For instance, a perfume formula could potentially contain a large proportion of oakmoss, as long as the final fragrance were appropriately diluted.

[In September, I'll hold a draw for a signed copy of Ellena's new book.]


  1. I think JCE's prominence owes quite a bit to fanboy-in-chief Chandler Burr, who first chronicled the making of Un Jardin sur le Nil on the pages of The New Yorker, and subsequently expanded that article into a book, in which JCE's character/temperament/aesthetic all came through very vividly. No other perfumer, to my knowledge, had the benefit of such an in-depth profiling before JCE. This deepens the appreciation many have of his work, as they think they understand it better, hence forming a closer relationship with it.

    1. Anon, you make an excellent point, thank you. And perhaps Burr decided to write about Ellena precisely because the latter is articulate and willing to engage in a discourse about his work.

  2. I liked this Persolaise. Thanks for putting it on here. I like JCE because he strikes me as a pragmatist and also as someone willing and happy to look forward, not backward, which must be good for perfume.

    1. Michael, thanks very much. Yes, I think he definitely wants to look forward, as do many perfumers. He's not alone in articulating a certain frustration with critics' insistence on looking to the past.

  3. Thanks for this blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I love the work of Jean-Claude Ellena, so it is always a joy to find someone writing about his work- even better when they have had a personal interaction with him. I have been saving his book to read on a long plane ride I need to take in 2 weeks as I head for Grasse from Australia. I am looking forward to making my way through the pages! Best, Clayton

    1. Clayton, thanks very much for stopping by. I hope you enjoy reading the book. I certainly found considerable food for thought in it. And I also hope you enjoy Grasse.


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