I’ve always considered Jean-Claude Ellena to be a ‘quiet rebel’ within the perfume industry. His style of fragrant watercolours, particularly the ones for luxury brand Hermès, serve as a marked contrast to the many, bolder styles within mainstream perfumery and he has always come across as someone who very much does their own thing. Jean Claude-Ellena is the master of understated elegance - in a world where so many feel the need to shout, he confidently whispers.
For this reason it was with great anticipation and excitement that I looked forward to the publication of Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent. In the book Ellena offers not only a fascinating insight into the way he works and creates, but also an encompassing view of how a perfumer fits within the gigantic machine of the perfume industry.
Ellena is our olfactory tour guide on this journey through the world of perfume, starting with the birth of modern perfumery and finishing on the protection of perfumes. Along the way he covers every aspect of the industry, right from the raw materials to the finished product, including the creation, production, marketing and trade-marking of a fragrance. His style is incredibly relaxed and conversational, everything is divided into easy to digest, bite size chunks, that makes for such an easy read. The reader could easily find themselves devouring it in one sitting.
“To create is to interpret odors by changing them into signs and for these signs to convey meaning.”
Following the creative process of any perfumer is always a thrilling and eye-opening experience, and Ellena is no exception. He lets us in to his curious and creative mind and speaks very frankly about his inspirations for fragrances such as Thé Vert (Bvlgari), Bois Farine (L’Artisan Parfumeur) and how a stroll on the garden islands on the Nile at Aswan inspired Un Jardin Sur le Nil (Hermès).
The section on the creation of perfumes is likely to be the most interesting for Ellena fans and anyone with a keen interest in fragrance, and it is certainly full of revelations - the fact that Ellena uses a small palate of less than 200 materials is particularly revelatory. He invites us into his workplace, a villa “nestled amongst white and grey rocks” , as calming and sparse as his olfactory creations, and he leaves no stone unturned as he talks us through his creative process. But the real fascination for me was his commentary on the inner workings of the industry, particularly the section on marketing - a component of the industry that is as inevitable as it is disheartening.
|“For the composer of perfumes, the potential supplier to the brand, the aim is to produce a perfume that perfectly matches the profile sought by the brand’s marketing. “
It isn’t often that a perfumer voices their opinion of fragrance marketing, a subject that Ellena does not shy away from. He firmly believes that the system of the perfumer acting as a supplier to the brand’s heavily researched brief “has distanced perfumers from their own senses and curtailed their creativity”. It is unusual and one might say brave to express such an incredibly honest opinion. Fortunately Ellena's work is highly valued by niche brands such as Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and L’Artisan Parfumeur.
Although Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent feels like a relatively short book, it is chock full of information and wonderful ‘Ellena sound bites’, the truest of which is presented under the heading of ‘Rejecting Convention’. “Out of a combination of curiosity and critical withstanding, I respond to all this olfactory noise by personally seeking out unexpected odors” (tar, fabric and a gardenia in the rain to name a few). In my view, he could have not summed up his approach to perfume more perfectly.
Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent is a key to the hidden world of the perfumer. It is comprehensive without being heavy - even when Ellena really delves into science related matter it never feels over-complicated or unnecessarily detailed. This insider’s account of the industry, coming from one of its most important perfumers, is a vital read. When I’d finished, I found a new appreciation, not just for Ellena and his compositions, but also for all of the perfumers working in such a huge and complex industry. I hope you will too.