“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.”