Meet Jean-Claude Ellena, the In-House Perfumer for Hermes
A student and friend of the legendary Master Perfumer Edmond Roudnitska (Diorella, Diorissimo, Rochas Femme (the pre-1989) original formulation), Ellena is himself an influencer of the 21st century fragrance industry. As in-house perfumer to Hermes since 2004 when he introduced Un Jardin Sur La Nil, Ellena has furthered Roudnitska's “simplification and clarification of perfume formulas, creating truly innovative and fluent fragrant writing” according to Michel Roudnitska - a contemporary perfumer (Parfums DelRae Bois de Paradis; Noir Epices for Editions de Parfums by Frederic Malle) who followed in his father's footsteps, and has long been a friend of Ellena's.
Ellena's new book, The Alchemy of Scent (Arcade Publishing), is out this month; Michelyn Camen - fragrance journalist, expert, owner of FifthSense N.Y.C. - recently interviewed the author, providing a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary man and perfume industry icon.
MC: Mr Ellena, please describe yourself in ten words or less
JCE: A quiet smiling man, who prefers to listen than to speak.
MC: If you could dine with two dinner guests, alive, deceased, historical or fictional who would they be and why?
MC: Your first olfactive memory?
JCE: Around four years old, in the kitchen, the smell of the cupboard hiding the cookies box.
MC: Your muse?
MC: Does your creativity come always from within you, or has a spirit outside yourself, greater than yourself ever involve itself in your work?
JCE: From within me. I believe in humanity above all.
MC: Your favourite food?
MC: An artist whose work fascinates you?
MC: Most memorable book?
JCE: La Nouvelle Grille d’Henri Laborit (and the movie from this book: Mon Oncle d’Amérique directed by Alain Resnais)
MC: Your birth sign?
JCE: Cat! (I just invented it) [Note: Mr. Ellena is an Aries.]
MC: The last dream you can remember?
JCE: Last night. It was about a lecture I was doing and for which I had difficulties.
MC: The great perfumer Edmond Roudnitska was a mentor to you. Would you share a personal story about him that speaks to his true nature and to your friendship?
JCE: An anecdote could be a quarrel that I had with him. It was about the concept of the “Beau” (the Beautiful). For him it was a universal notion, for me a cultural notion. This universal conception is from a Platonic way of thinking. Mine is based upon the culture and even based on a generational view. We had tough discussions about that, speaking of philosophy, sociology. It was great!
(Edmond Roudnitska image: source)
MC: Your favourite ingredients or raw materials?
JCE: None. Materials are my words, the tools I have to tell a story.
MC: The fragrance you dream of creating?
JCE: The perfume of the Wind.
MC: Which of your other 5 senses (taste, sight, sound, touch, and intuition) has the greatest influence on your work?
JCE: Touch, the closest sense to smell as it’s the most intimate.
MC: Many of your compositions share the quality of transparency. What does that quality mean to you?
JCE: I do not cultivate mystery, complication. I prefer the clarity, the understanding. To give to understand it is to offer of the enjoyment.
MC: Five years ago, you were known to a very narrow group, mostly in the industry. Today, with the impact of Chandler Burr's recent book - Chandler Burr is the Perfume Critic for The New York Times and author of The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York - groups like Sniffapalooza (a global consumer driven organization dedicated to fragrance and events) and the blogosphere, you are famous. Did you ever think you would be known to such a wide circle of people and have groupies like a rock star, who follow your every creation?
JCE: No and it’s “out of me”. I’m simply happy that my works, my creations are the supports to discuss the perfumery.
MC: Although 78% of men wear fragrance, why is there a lack of great masculine being created in the past few years?
JCE: I do not agree. Perfumes like my composition Terre d’ Hermes, Fahrenheit from Dior, Grey Flannel de Geoffrey Beene or Pour Monsieur from Chanel are beautiful perfumes. On the other hand I invite men to use perfumes said feminine and vice versa, the choice will be bigger and this might open the debate.
MC: Some have said that you foreshadowed the trend towards ‘unisex’ fragrances with Bvlgari Eau Parfumée au thé vert. What are your thoughts about unisex fragrances in general? Are they an additional genre or just an excuse to cover the fact that there are so few new ideas for masculine?
JCE: I do not use the wording “unisex”, I prefer to say: to be shared. Actually, as I tend to conceive the perfume as an art, it’s an obviousness that perfumes are for everybody and for each of us, as all other artistic expressions. The distinction masculine / feminine is economic, not creative. The perfumery history and the culture of certain countries show well that perfumes do not have a sexual classification.
The idea is not to wear the perfume of his wife but to be curious, to ignore the social codes, the cultural codes which are mainly based on a commercial value. Then to be open minded which mean being able to wear women's fragrances if a man like one.
MC: Hermès is one of the greatest brands of all time. Some say you are one of the greatest perfumers of all time. Does one sacrifice a bit for the other?
JCE: No, it’s a genuine encounter, and I’m here to express Hermès
MC: Each Hermessence seems to be an etude of a single ingredient. For example Brin de Réglisse is an etude of lavender. The Hermessence line seems built around the notion of reinventing an ingredient and presenting it in a thought provoking interpretation. Which raw material has presented the most challenge and why?
JCE: Each is a challenge, a splendid challenge. But to answer your question, I would say Paprika Brasil because I tried to make perceptible (emotionally speaking) the sensation of burn of the hot piment on the tongue, which is not an olfactive sensation actually.
MC: I am fascinated by the potential of orange blossom as an etude, there are so few that are well done. Do you have any plans for a Hermessence with this raw material?
JCE: Not at the moment. The raw materials by themselves don’t represent anything for me. However I do need them to create but the way I will work with the ingredient is more important.
MC: For your latest Hermessence Vanille Galante, I have a number of questions: What story are you telling with Vanille Galante? And how does the word "Galante" using the feminine instead of the masculine relate to this story?
JCE: Another point of view, another glance on vanilla. The word “galante” uses the feminine because in French grammar vanilla is feminine, then galante as to be feminine as well, meaning subtle, delicate.
MC: What image or experience was your point of departure?
JCE: A new absolute of vanilla initially made for the aromas I’ve made transform for perfumery use. But this absolute was finally only a pretext for an exercise in style.
MC: I would love to know more about the salicylates in the base of Vanille Galante; as far as I've been able to puzzle it out, they don't seem to be aroma chemicals as much as structural elements. Is this correct? If so, how do they transform the other notes?
JCE: Salicylates are a family of material that is indeed not only creating the fragrance but also contributes to its structure. I consider that a structuring product is a raw material which moves the purpose of the perfume. Raw materials such as patchouli, clove, coumarine, and phenyl ethylique alcohol are raw materials that structure a perfume.
MC: Please share the background on your updating of Kelly Caleche from the original Caleche formulation. And as a follow up, is it unusual for Hermes to create what some in the industry call ‘flankers’, or updates on a fragrance? Please share with our readers the reason you reinterpreted Kelly Caleche into Kelly Caleche Pure Perfume and Eau de Parfum. It seems to me that the Pure Perfume is dramatically different from the EDT and even the EDP.
JCE: I respect Hermès customers and our perfumes, so for me it’s impossible to only increase the concentration to create a Pure Perfume. These are not “flankers” but a Hermès creative approach, a creative way to see the exercise from Eau de Toilette to Pure Perfume as a genuine creation that goes beyond a technical or performance work. Actually, all my works are olfactive variations as they are creations in their own right, not a technical adaptation. It was actually the same in the past at Hermès, for 24, Faubourg for example whose Eau de Toilette is subtly different from the Eau de Parfum
So for the Kelly Calèche Pure Perfume, I wanted to stress the carnal, sensual expression of the original theme, and this is not only a matter of concentration but a matter of formula as well.
MC: You have composed a trio of new fragrances that has just been released. Please share with us their raison d’etre?
JCE: More than new fragrances, the Hermès Colognes collection actually invest a new territory of olfactive expression: the Cologne (not the American way to describe men’s perfume). The Colognes territory at Hermès has already been inaugurated with Eau d’orange verte, created by Françoise Caron in 1979, I’ve added this year 2 new creations Eau de pamplemousse rose and Eau de gentiane blanche that create the collection and expand the territory.
Eau de pamplemousse rose is not about “pink grapefruit” but about grapefruit and rose. I like this idea to play with the smells and with the words. This Cologne is a contemporary ‘classic’ because with a main citrus basis.
The second one, Eau de gentiane blanche, is conceived as a counterpart of the Cologne style at it expresses the idea of the freshness and “clean” not through citrus but through the white musk, that converted in a new symbol of freshness (so the gentian is called “white” (“blanche” in French) because of the white musk, like a play on words.
The idea was born with a gentian absolute and the iris (to note that the gentian is used for the first time in a perfume). With those two roots, the first one with its smell of root, both bitter (I like the bitter) and darkly fresh, the second for its matt powder effect, it soapy smell which is the link with the white musk that I’ve added as the third main note. With those two different Colognes, I wanted to play with the codes of the “freshness” from the 20th and 21st centuries.
MC: Your quote from the New York Times: “When I write a perfume, the scents are the words,” he [JCE] said. “And with these words I construct a story. There is breathing, and there are transitions, just as in sentences. Perfume, first of all, is a mental construction.” Tell us more about fragrance as a lingua franca.
JCE: The idea that the smells are words, my words to write (this verb is important for me) explains my way of thinking the perfume. I believe that the perfume is a cultural language, not universal as can be the music today. It is necessary to learn the smell to understand the perfume. We can like without understanding but it is to do without certain enjoyments.
I want my olfactive language to be harmonious, pleasant to ‘listen to’ because it’s moderate, and doesn’t support the concept of noise and shouting. In a way, it’s the very French way of literature for statement of love; it’s not just a chance that French is the language for love.
- Michelyn Camen
Camen is the New York City based global fragrance expert and the owner of FifthSense N.Y.C. where she consults for luxury perfumers and fragrance companies, and provides personalized fragrance consultations based on body chemistry, psychology, fashion, and lifestyle. She is a Senior Contributor for http://Fragrantica.com In addition, she is the Fragrance Columnist for http://www.uptownsocial.net, the former Senior Contributing Writer for Sniffapalooza Magazine, New in Niche Columnist for Basenotes and Editorial Director/Fragrance Editor for Beauty News NYC & LA. Email her at Michelyn AT Fashiontribes DOT com.
||...& don't miss: