Master of fragrances

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The exclusive creator of Hermès perfumes, Jean-Claude Ellena revisits four decades of a brilliant career, revealing a glimpse of his perfumer’s palette – from naturally extracted components to the myriad subterfuges of the chemical industry.

Photo of Jean-Claude Ellena, creator of Hermès perfumes, sniffing samples of perfumes

“Creating perfumes is not just chemistry, it’s a total and complete immersion. I like to say that I went into the profession much like one adopts a religion, by committing my life to it.”

If, after 40 years in the business, Jean-Claude Ellena is now the world’s most famous nose, he owes that status not only to his sophisticated aesthetic sense and obsessive character but also to his masterful ability to communicate.

Inspired by the improvisational variations of jazz musicians as well as the aesthetic of space in Japanese prints, Ellena is both an artist and artisan who describes himself as “a writer of fragrances” and who, in becoming Hermès’ exclusive perfumer in 2004, had the courage to give priority to his artistry rather than succumb to the demands of the market.

A disappointing sample

Ellena was born in Grasse, the world capital of perfume, the son of a perfumer who sniffed every morsel of food at the family table, much to the chagrin of his wife who did not consider the behaviour an appropriate model for children.

As a child, he accompanied his grandmother to a neighbours’ farm to help women pick jasmine. There, he later wrote, he learned both the odour of flowers and the odour of women.

At 16, working in a factory in Grasse, his apprenticeship continued in an almost exclusively female environment. “Distillation, extraction, chemistry – I did it all, including sweeping floors and cleaning vats,” he chuckles. “I have many fond memories of those years.”

In 1968, he entered the newly founded Givaudan perfumery school in Geneva. He rebelled against theory, saying he just wanted to work. “The director of Givaudan asked me to copy a perfume sample – one that didn’t smell particularly nice. Nine months and several formulas later, he hired me as his assistant.”

In those days the traditional perfume makers turned to the natural world for their inspiration, and their traditional excellence was based upon its supposed perfection. Givaudan’s industrial approach, on the other hand, wedded perfumers to the omnipotence of chemistry and its techniques, which increased the number of components that could be used.

“Initially, that chemistry put the perfumer at the centre; for my ingredients I went shopping amongst chemical engineers, and I enlarged my palette by choosing molecules I liked,” Ellena recalls. “But soon I realised that among the 100 musks that they offered in place of the 10 found in nature, the differences were tiny, and they didn’t make us any more creative, just more beholden to the dictates of the market. We weren’t creating anything, just reproducing what sold well.”

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Drawing of an onion

Today Ellena’s palette consists of a mere 200 components, whereas most perfumers have nearly 1,000 at their disposal. Of those 200, 25 per cent are of natural origin, and can be modified depending on the extraction method used.

“A natural fragrance can be made up of 300 to 500 different molecules,” he explains. “Using fractionated distillation, you can modify its character very precisely. You can, for example, remove the earthy smell of roasted peanuts that’s present in the fragrance of vetiver to retain only the dominant floral note.”

The perfect lavender

In the same vein, Ellena has reinvented the fragrance of lavender, creating what he calls the “perfect” lavender. “Using a molecular distillation process, we sorted the 400 molecules into eight groups, each one certified chromatographically. It ultimately cost 10 times more, but it was the lavender I was looking for. These are the pleasures I indulge in before offering them to the public.”

For Hermès, he has designed the “Roman” line of perfumes, such as Calèche, Bel Ami, and Terre d’Hermès, as well as the “Poèmes” fragrances and Hermesscences (Cuir d’Ange, Poivre Samarcande, Brin de Réglisse). The complex Roman (which means novel in French) perfumes were created to tell a story, and, as in literature, use familiar methods to attract the reader.

“A fragrance should not be unfamiliar, otherwise most people will reject it”, he explains. “On the contrary, you need to increase the points of entry using odours that are already in the memory; these are known as hooks. For example, the fresh and agreeable smell of grapefruit zest can be a good way to hook the reader of a women’s fragrance”.

The Poèmes (poems) perfumes, on the other hand, use a maximum of 20 ingredients. “The Poèmes are my test lab”, he explains. “In creating them, I wasn’t necessarily looking to seduce a large audience, but rather to indulge a selfish desire – to take an idea as far as I could in the simplest possible manner.”

By Judith Bregman

More on the science of smell: The sweet smell of sweat; Magic molecules; Humans, dogs – and now e-noses

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