Book Review: The Diary of A Nose by Jean Claude-Ellena

27th August, 2012

“Each new olfactory story is a gamble.”

Last year Hermes’ in-house perfumer and all-round-perfume-genius, Jean-Claude Ellena, released a book Perfume:The Alchemy of Scent, that took us inside the inner workings of a perfumer and the perfumer industry. This year he has taken things one step further by taking us deep into his inner most thoughts.

The Diary of a Nose stands as an intimate record of a year in the life of one of the perfume industry’s most well respected and talented perfumers. Whether you consider yourself a fan of his creations or not - he does have a distinct style that one either loves or doesn’t, you cannot deny that Jean-Claude Ellena, the man, is an intriguing character, something this book absolutely proves.

“I want to surprise and amaze with an everyday smell”

As one might expect from a perfumer’s diary, the main themes here are creation and inspiration. Ellena muses on his creative approach, a process that he calls “enjoyable and seductive”. Armed with his tools “test blotters, a pencil, a block of paper and, for a number of years now, a notebook, ” he sketches smells in his mind before scribbling down the formulas and passing them to his lab assistant.[INDENT=2]

“When a smell is no longer linked to memory, when it no longer evokes flowers or fruits, when it is stripped of all feeling and affect, then it becomes material for a perfume. When I can no longer describe it, when it has consistency, depth, breadth and density, when it becomes tactile, when the only representation I have of it is physical, then I can bring it to life and create."

It’s a fascinating insight into the creative brain of a man who whose approach to perfume is unique and much copied.[INDENT=2]“A perfume does not necessarily need a subject, a concept,” he says. “If it is beautiful it exists in itself.”

Inspiration comes to Ellena in many forms, whether it be an encounter with a pear

in a fruit market or the question of movement at a seminar. The former inspiration

becomes a thread, in the form of perfume ‘Féminin H’, that one follows throughout

the story, as Ellena attempts to create a pear fragrance with a “mischievous smile”.

Ellena’s focus isn’t just on creation and inspiration. His thoughts concern a wide range

of aspects concerning the perfume industry, from the naming of perfumes to advertising and to coverage about perfume by the mainstream press and bloggers:

“I like to think that when the ‘beauty’ press and blogs give information and share their knowledge about perfume, the general public becomes more susceptible to this form of expression. By understanding what they smell, by placing perfumes the better to discuss them, perfume enthusiasts share their pleasure and create the conditions for an addiction to perfume.”

In addition to his diarised thoughts, Ellena concludes with a ‘Summary of Smells’, a series of text-book examples (well, Ellena text book examples anyway) of how familiar smells can be composed. These olfactory illusions serve to satisfy one’s inner perfume geek by presenting the building blocks for familiar accords, for example Chocolate:

“The aroma of cocoa beans alone is made up of hundreds of molecules, but, by

roasting the beans, man has given this distinctive flavour a very human complexity because he has tripled the number of odorous components. This juxtaposition of smells demonstrates that perfumers are above all illusionists.

[INDENT=2]isobutyl phenyl acetate


To ‘make’ plain chocolate, I recommend adding patchouli; for a ganache, a trace of civet; for ‘orangette’, orange zest; for an After Eight, spearmint; and for the smell of cocoa powder, concrete of iris.”

These brief smell summaries are a testament to Ellena’s great creative mind. He has the ability to piece together familiar smells in his mind, identifying signs and signals to create an idea that is more than the sum of its parts.

The Diary of a Nose is a worthy read for those interested in Jean-Claude Ellena the perfumer and what makes him tick. There’s clarity to his thoughts, as if they are as un-cluttered as his compositions and he ultimately offers a valuable insight into the world of perfumery, form the perspective of one of the industry’s most talented noses.

It is however, a very brief book and one can’t help but feel that it could be a little longer so that some threads, namely the progression of Féminin H, could be seen to fruition. One is left simply wanting more.

I shall leave you with my favourite Ellena sound bite from The Diary of a Nose, in which Ellena discusses the availability of perfume and consumer monogamy:

“I like the idea that a man or woman can choose a perfume at twenty and is still able to buy it when he or she is sixty, having indulged in a few infidelities.”

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About the author: Thomas Dunckley

Thomas Dunckley is a self-proclaimed perfume nerd and is the writer of perfume blog


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    • David Ruskin | 27th August 2012 11:12

      “I like the idea that a man or woman can choose a perfume at twenty and is still able to buy it when he or she is sixty, having indulged in a few infidelities.”

      Nowadays this is no longer possible. Due to reformulations and deletions; the name may remain, but that is all.

    • fragranceman88 | 27th August 2012 14:41

      I MUST buy this book, it would be fascinating to be ale to read one of the greatest perfumers thoughts!

    • mzfiguer | 28th August 2012 00:43

      What David Ruskin said is very much true. Sticking to a fragrance for decades is a Romantic fantasy nowadays.

    • forfreddie | 28th August 2012 21:15

      Unfortunately I had a very different view on this book! I wish I shared the passion of Thomas here.

    • Alvus | 28th August 2012 22:36

      I can easily see people who don't like the concept of his work transferring their aversion to Ellena's wise words. He's not just a great perfumer. Also a great mind.

    • Barb W | 29th August 2012 03:12

      I have a passion for the essence of perfume and the purchase of this book will add to this passion. The artistry of a perfumer is much like that of a visual artist, only the final product is in a stylish bottle versus a canvas.

    • Alvus | 30th August 2012 01:25

      LOL. It's funny expect a Shakespeare or Kafka book on a diary. It's even more fun expect a perfume formula or the secrets of your work being shown.

    • Kaern | 30th August 2012 13:12

      I'm looking forward to reading it -- he seems a likeable person. Apparently the book closes with a list of about 20 basic recipes for perfumes, all of which include a couple of unpronouncable aromachemicals -- as though we all have a couple of bottles of the stuff tucked away somewhere (bless him).

    • Gblue | 30th August 2012 18:22

      They aren't recipes for 'fumes, they are some of his "olfactory illusions". I think it's interesting that they are even there, let alone being able to make them. It would give mainstream perfume consumers a surprise that they aren't magical essences extracted from a flower by some divine process, but in fact chemical constituents. Therefore, I think it's very brave of him to put them out there.

    • Kaern | 31st August 2012 12:16

      Sounds a bit patronising. Will the 'mainstream perfume consumers' be interested in the book in that case? I wasn't knocking him for including them, but I think a better description would be fascinating rather than 'brave'.

    • Sybarite | 3rd September 2012 14:13

      ~ "... a few infidelities" - Just a few ?? - By these standards, we must be complete and utter irrevocable 'hoes' then. :D

    • Persolaise | 4th September 2012 06:38

      Thanks very much for this review. I can see why the book has divided opinion, but I definitely fall into the camp which finds the prose intriguing and thought-provoking.

      By the way, in case anyone's interested, on my blog, I'm currently holding a draw for a signed copy of the book. Click here for more info.

    • redrose | 4th September 2012 10:55

      Completely agree with David Ruskin and others who've signalled the impossibility of buying today a perfume one loved many years ago. Where has Ellena been living?

      Does he have access to some secret store cupboard where we could still find the original L'Heure Bleue or Mitsouko?

      Though I found some parts of the book interesting, on the whole I thought it was slight and didn't justify the price tage. I bought it, but I wishes I'd ordered it from the library instead. Will pass it on to my younger daughter, who's just beginning her perfumista career!

    • Ralph | 9th September 2012 05:48

      I got it in Hampstead Oxfam for three quid. In parts it did my head in: 'Fed up with work, I stopped for the day at 11.00am, phoned my wife and we motored to the tiny village of blah in Italy - only an hour away across the Alps - and there I buried my face in a market stall of fresh pears and - oh! - the vintage parmesan they sell there!'. Just jealousy on my part, really, but there's only so much of this I can read without wanting to throw the book across the room.

    • Francolino | 11th September 2012 09:50

      interesting, I'll try and get it!

    • CoL | 12th September 2012 23:41

      Just bought it on Amazon! :o

    • Marais | 14th September 2012 17:32

      I kept thinking of Peter Sellers in 'Being There':

      Chauncey Gardiner: 'Yes! There will be growth in the spring!'

      President: 'Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time.'