Master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena is the genie in every bottle of Terre d'Hermès.
What can you smell, right now, reading this? Glossy paper, printers ink, steaming coffee, the starch of your shirt? Perhaps you can distinguish specific molecules, such as muscone (often used in laundry detergent) or vanillin (in that double latte). For perfumers, fragrance molecules are basic components they can manipulate to make new smells. Some toil in the trenches of industry, seeking ways to make hand soap or air fresheners more appealing. Others--an exclusive club, known as noses--occupy the rarefied world of haute perfumery.
Jean-Claude Ellena, the nose of Hermès, is more than just sensitive to smell--he carries a library of odors in his head. He longs for the day when, like his literary hero, Jean Giono, he can compile a catalog of the world; which, in Ellenas case, means all the smells hes encountered, growing up in Grasse as the son of a perfumer, then as a distiller and finally as a créateur (of Van Cleef & Arpelss First, in 1976, and Bulgaris Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, in 1993, among others). When he made First, he had on hand some 1,200 bottles of matières premières--pure distillations, the raw materials of a perfumers trade--and his mental catalog includes many more. But hes an editor, too, with a lifelong urge to simplify. These days, his lab for Hermès is a glass-and-stone house just outside Grasse: In the back room, on a plain kitchen table, sit two small carousels holding fewer than 200 bottled distillations. And while First was a complex formula, with more than 160 ingredients, his latest creation--a mens fragrance, Terre dHermès--has less than 30.
Ideas for fragrances strike Ellena like proverbial lightning bolts--or they ferment, their recipes jotted down and left to steep in palm-sized leather notebooks. His desk is strewn with tiny bottles of past, present and future formulas in various stages of development. Some of his favorite work has been the creation of Hermessence, a group of olfactory poems such as Poivre Samarcande (inspired by an old oak on Ellenas property that had to be felled) and Ambre Narguilé (the evocation of an oriental smoking den, bubbling with water pipes). These are a perfumers perfumes--scents so elusive, half the challenge was bottling them. Ellena feels fortunate to work for a company committed to indulging these flights of fancy. People come to Hermès ready to be surprised, so I can do what I want, he says with a big smile. He also knew that the mens fragrance (which the company wanted to be a big seller) required a different approach. If I seduce one person with Hermessence, Im thrilled, he explains. With Terre dHermès, I had to seduce millions of people.
Terre dHermès also came with another imperative: The name had already been chosen. For Ellena, this was comparable to an author being given the title of a novel, then being told to write it. But he found inspiration through elimination. Little by little, I had the idea to create a fragrance using only mineral and vegetable scents--no animal notes, no musk. The easy way would have been to build it on a base of vetiver, but thats already been done. So I looked to bois (wood), and cèdre (cedar). I also wanted it to be happy, so I played with zesty grapefruit and orange. Ellena didnt like any of the orange distillations on the market, and experience had taught him to fend for himself. He sought out a manufacturer in Grasse, and said, Tu me le fais comme ça (make it for me like this). And it was.
One thing he assiduously avoided was any involvement with the bottles design or packaging. Im afraid of marketing, he says. You dont make a painting to match a frame--and the bottle is the frame. That said, he admits to liking the bottle, which was created by Hermès designer Philippe Mouquet after a flask from a 1920s nécessaire de voyage (one of those fitted leather cases that held a gentlemans traveling necessities: mustache brush, eau de cologne and whiskey, to name a few). By happy coincidence, Ellena and Mouquet had the same image of the Hermès man as being tout droit, or upright. Ellena evoked this in his deceptively simple layering of woody cedar and patchouli, with citrus accents and a hint of flint and gunpowder (for a mineral element). Mouquets bottle has squared-off, masculine shoulders and a classic Hermès H hidden in its footprint. The powers that be were pleased.
So was Ellena. Thats saying a lot, considering the anxiety he admits to feeling during the creation of Terre dHermès. Like many an artist working on commission, he suffered the push-and-pull of satisfying several masters--himself included. But now hes happy. The hard work is over: The fragrance launches in March, and already its getting good reviews. Hes created something new (among other pet peeves, he has a horror of repeating himself), and hes managed to convert at least one old friend, who called him with the grand announcement that, after 20 years, he was abandoning his signature scent for Terre dHermès. Most importantly, Ellena feels hes satisfied his mantra--Je suis dans le flacon--in the bottle you will find me. As he explains, with a Gallic shrug that suggests he could live no other way, I have to be proud of being in the bottle, because at least then I have some hope that it will fly.