Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent by Jean-Claude Ellena Review

20th January, 2012

“Whether odors are good or bad doesn’t matter; these materials are like words, I use them to tell a story. Perfume has its own syntax, its own grammar. My nose is nothing more than a measuring instrument.”

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.



[TD]“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.[/TD]





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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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    • donna255 | 20th January 2012 17:19

      I bought this off amazon quite cheaply last year. Great little book

    • andylama | 20th January 2012 21:23

      Sad to say: I found this book to be rather dry reading. It's more or less a series of deadpan academic essays about perfumery from a perspective that seems to be about 40% artistry/craftsmanship, 40% chemical engineering, and 20% pure business (your perceived percentages may vary). Ellena is pleasantly articulate and clearly very smart and competent...but unfortunately that doesn't always translate to engaging writing or fun reading. He comes off as somewhat stoic, and not so much a writer. He writes like a university professor.

      Not a bad book by any means, but just a bit aloof, formal (clinical, even), and humorless. I'm not DIS-recommending this book, but just don't expect it to elicit much in the way of smiles, deep revelations, or wonderment about perfumes you haven't smelled yet. (yeah, really) Personally, I got a lot more enjoyment AND insight out of Chandler Burr's Emperor of Scent.

      With just the tinest whiff of snarky humor, I'd suggest that this book's target demographic is business majors and law students who happen to enjoy fragrance...or think they might.

    • furrypine | 21st January 2012 11:45

      Reading those few quotes by Ellena in the article made me puzzled, the language seemed so stilted. Thanks Andy for confirming my suspicion.

    • mr. reasonable | 21st January 2012 15:22

      I like the sound of this - look forward to grabbing a copy. Thanks for the review.

    • Nostalgie | 21st January 2012 15:40

      In the quote about rejecting convention, I think there's an auto-correct mistake: the word is "withholding" not "withstanding." Either way, though, this is an awkward, confusing translation of the original phrase in _Le Parfum_: "Ajoutant la curiosité au sens critique..." Based on this phrase, and some of the comments here, I wonder if the translation has taken something away from Ellena's usually lucid prose. In _Journal d'un parfumeur_ (which I read more recently and can remember better) Ellena comes across as passionate, intellectual, intense. His writing is smooth and inviting. I remember Denyse at Grain de musc found just the right word for Ellena's prose: limpid. She was speaking of _Journal_. Perhaps, as Andylama's comments suggest, this book is more dry, or more academic than the journal? I don't know. I haven't read it cover-to-cover (yet!)--have just consulted it here and there.

      Translation issues aside, I'm glad to see _Le Parfum_ finally out in English. Thanks for your excellent review. "Quiet rebel"--yes, so well put!

    • MonkeyBars | 23rd January 2012 22:54

      Reading through this book right now. The translation is quite obviously of relatively poor quality, tending toward the literal translation of words and phrases rather than allowing a small amount of leeway to try to translate the tone and meaning of the original.

      However, I have to agree with Mr. Dunckley's well-written review about the book's strong points. In fact, what andylama perceives as pedantic and aloof, I see as clear-sighted and aphoristic. Nothing is exaggerated; every step is deliberate. In fact, every few pages there is an astounding economy of expression that compresses some very complex and subtle point into a single, short, yet totally original sentence.

      In this way, the book very much parallels Ellena's approach to perfume composition in his mature period (which he dates at about the last 20 years): so-called minimalist, and therefore allowing genuine and pure truths to easily rise to the surface.

      I am truly enjoying this unusual book. It's not meant to draw the reader in on some imaginary journey, but rather to place before him an object which is meant to be observed. This Apollonian and distinctly non-commercial literary approach is just the right entree into Ellena's oeuvre and deserves distinct recognition. Bravo, Mr. Ellena.

    • andylama | 25th January 2012 03:25

      Well, to be fair, I never accused Mr. Ellena of being pedantic. (that's a strong word I avoid using unless the writer comes off as arrogant, which Ellena doesn't. He comes across as quite eloquent, considered, insightful...but not a lot of fun.

      Reading this book (after having recently re-read perfume-related books by Turin, Sanchez and Burr), made me think "maybe writing about perfume IS a little bit like dancing about architecture. (half-joking here)

      Say what you will about Turin, Sanchez, and Burr (or, don't; it's all been overstated already ;) )--they possess an exuberance about perfume that comes through loud and clear in their writing.

      If I'm going to read about perfume, I want it to have an infectious sensuality and sense of wonder that makes me want to run out to the Barneys counter and burn through a few dozen strips. This book failed utterly on that account.

      Good reading...but not great.

    • virlusun | 20th February 2012 02:34

      I bought this book too and it shares lots of information about perfume. What I liked is that points out more to the artistic side instead of the scientific side. I have bought books for just one chapter, but this book for the aprentice gives a glimpse of the invisible world of perfume. Great book for the price.

    • Colin Maillard | 15th March 2014 12:26

      Well, if I want to learn about perfumes, "40% artistry/craftsmanship, 40% chemical engineering, and 20% pure business" seems perfectly interesting and appealing to me. It doesn't have to be fun :|