On a warm autumn morning, Jean-Claude Ellena emerges from his glass-walled villa perched on a wooded hilltop in the Riviera backcountry near the village of Cabris. Dressed in gray slacks and a crisp white shirt, he is quietly handsome with a ready laugh and a mischievous glint in his eyes. At 60, he carries about him an aura of Cary Grant.
Although Ellena rarely gives interviews, today he is happy to talk. After four decades in Paris and New York creating more than 100 fragrances including bestsellers such as Van Cleef & Arpels’ First, Bulgari’s Eau Parfumee au The Vert and, more recently, Terre d’Hermes, he is finally where he wants to be: hidden away in a Provencal pine forest where he can explore his inspiration.
One of the most accomplished perfumers in France, if not the world, Ellena considers himself less a nose (as perfumers are referred to) than a “fragrance composer,” a fitting sobriquet considering the chain of melodies that he’s recently scored for his newest employer, Hermes. Minimal yet evocative, simple yet complex, Ellena’s fragrances continue to be unconventional.
“I have no interest in trying to reproduce nature,” he says, explaining his philosophy. From a big wooden desk in the living room, Ellena mulls over his formulas while taking in a view of the forest and the Mediterranean in the distance. “I want to transform it, create olfactory illusions. Perfume isn’t only about the scent of flowers. I can add molecules to make a fragrance harsh, soft, dry, fresh, bubbly, light, cool and warm.”
His latest illusion in the Hermessences collection launched this month and is called Brin de Reglisse, which translates to “a bit of licorice.” To create it, he felt he needed a little help and turned to his colleagues at an independent perfume lab in Grasse. He asked them to slice natural lavender into 50 distinct groups of molecules, sniffed them all, discarded five and reassembled it. “My lavender had a much purer, cleaner smell,” he says, comparing it with the natural scent. “Then I had to find something to dress it up that would be a little unusual. I chose a touch of licorice.”
His laboratory is a small, sunlit back room in the villa that Hermes acquired especially for him (he lives a short walk away), with a table and a stainless steel carousel filled with 200 tiny glass vials of synthetic and natural odors. There are two scales to weigh samples to the exact milligram and a mini-fridge to store pricey undiluted essential oils. Rose oil, for instance, sells for almost $8,500 for a little more than 2 pounds.
Ellena’s methodology -- and originality -- provides a sharp contrast to the world of perfume today. Indeed, he represents a throwback to another time and place when perfume was a carefully crafted luxury commodity designed for elite and wealthy clientele. That his fragrances are both luxurious and accessible is a mark of his adaptability to modern tastes.
When Ellena was approached by Hermes in 2004 about becoming its official in-house perfumer (Chanel, Patou and Caron are the only other luxury brands with their own nose), he accepted but only on his own terms: He’d be allowed to dream up formulas at his own pace and on his own turf.
“He’s a veritable aesthete,” says perfume expert Jean Kerleo, Patou’s chief nose for 35 years and now the founding president of France’s national perfume conservatory. “He started his training very young, at home with his father, who was a very good perfumer. After working many years with huge multinational companies, he’s been able to pursue a very personal direction.”
Ellena began his training as an apprentice in a local perfume factory in 1964 when he was 17. Over the years he has cultivated a deep memory of odors, an olfactory vocabulary that he draws upon when he begins developing a new fragrance. Perhaps the greatest professional influence in his life was the renowned perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, who created Eau Sauvage for Christian Dior in the 1960s and was a pioneer at developing minimalist formulas.
In the early 1990s, Ellena worked in New York for two years and found the American corporate approach too cut and dried. “I’ve been told that I’m very French,” he says, “and the way I presented my ideas didn’t go over well. I’d be talking poetry; they’d be talking product, and whether or not it would make money.”
His decision to leave Manhattan -- and an industry in which he’d receive marketing directives such as “make it smell like a woman in stilettos” -- is not surprising. Due to market pressures over the last few decades, most perfume is diluted into eau de toilette or eau de parfum. What was once an elitist privilege -- purchasing a highly crafted extrait de parfum -- is no longer in vogue. Many luxury brands, in their struggle to create new perfumes and advertise them, cut costs mostly by producing less expensive, less complicated fragrances.
“Today, perfume does $15 billion a year in sales and has been taken over by businessmen who target the mass production, middle-market niche,” says Dana Thomas, author of “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.” “If people want to indulge, a bottle of perfume is one way that brands can reach the middle class: It’s easy to sell and is cross-cultural.”
“We’ve gone from the concept of haute-couture perfume to ready-to-wear perfume,” Kerleo says. “Perhaps we’re heading toward the day where the ultimate prestige will be no perfume.”
Ellena, though, will have nothing to do with these approaches. Although he takes pride in using as few materials as possible in his compositions, his scents are sophisticated olfactory voyages. Take his fragrance Terre d’Hermes. It begins like a sunburst of grapefruit sprinkled with sugar and mysteriously morphs into a tramp through the woods with notes of peppery red earth, sun-warmed rocks and a smoky wind above blowing through pines. An hour later, as the vetiver kicks in, tropical ferns magically spring from the soil.
Searching for inspiration is a combination of chance and experience. For the recently launched women’s fragrance Kelly Caleche, Ellena wanted to play around with the classic Hermes scent Caleche, adding a touch all his own: a scent that would evoke the mythic Kelly bag.
“I visited Hermes’ basement in Paris, a secret place where they store every kind of leather imaginable,” he recalls. “As I walked around, I realized that there were certain leathers -- the finest ones -- that smelled like flowers with notes of mimosa, iris and narcissus. That’s all I needed for the idea, but it took me eight months to produce it.”
Not surprisingly, to research an idea, Ellena prefers to travel, inhaling exotic spices in the local markets, wandering through the streets to take in the rich wafting smells or snapping off fruit from indigenous trees, like the green mangoes that inspired his exotic scent Un Jardin sur le Nil.
Often his inspiration arrives by chance. After searching in vain for an idea in Tunisia, Ellena attended a party on the eve of his departure and was served champagne on a platter lined with fig leaves.
“A young girl tore off a leaf, held it to her nose, and her face lit up with pleasure,” he remembers, and in that moment the idea for his fragrance Un Jardin en Mediterranee came to him, based on the memory of the aroma of that fig leaf. The smell evokes a hot summer’s day in a hammock under the shade of a fig tree swinging from flowery lightness to woody spiciness.
To demonstrate how he creates minimalist fragrances, Ellena pulls open a drawer in his lab. He takes out a thin paper blotter, dips it into a vial filled with a synthetic, fans it in the air and hands it over. It smells like coconut oil. He repeats the process with another synthetic. This time, it’s unmistakably mint. Then he superimposes one blotter on the other, and the effect is magical: a fresh, ripe fig.
“I can conjure it in just two molecules, even if a real fig has 400,” he says. It’s that simple and that difficult, this art that combines experience and playfulness at a remove from the world.
“It’s never clear what I’m going to do next,” he says, gazing out the window at the birds in the pines. “For me, creation means walking down a road where you suddenly realize, it’s not this way; it’s that way. The challenge remains the same. I hope that when people smell my perfume, they’ll always say, ‘Wow, I’ve never smelled anything like that before.’ ”
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SCENT
The perfume industry was in its infancy when manufacturing icon Francois Coty declared in 1904, “Give a woman the best product you can, market it in the perfect bottle . . . ask a reasonable price for it, and you will witness the birth of a business the size of which the world has never seen.”
His judgment helps explain a number of notable developments in the history of perfume.
JICKY, created for Guerlain in 1889, was the first perfume that didn’t try to copy the scent of flowers. Credit the discovery of two synthetic molecules, vanillin and coumarin.
CHANEL NO. 5, created in 1921 when Gabrielle Chanel asked Ernst Beaux to develop a women’s perfume “that smells like a woman.” It surged in popularity when Marilyn Monroe declared it the only thing she wore to bed.
SHALIMAR, created for Guerlain in 1925, was the first perfume to contain ethyl vanillin, a synthetic compound more potent than real vanilla. It soon became the essence of seduction, down to the fan-shaped glass stopper.
ARPEGE, created for Lanvin in 1927, was immortalized by its marketing campaign. First came the black and gold Art Deco bottle, then the slogan, “Promise her anything, but give her Arpege.”
JOY, created for Patou in 1929, was launched after the stock market crash as “the most expensive perfume in the world.” At the end of World War II, it became the gift that American soldiers brought home from Paris to their wives.
L’AIR DU TEMPS, created for Nina Ricci in 1948, was the symbol of the postwar perfume industry, evoking both joie de vivre and peace. The Lalique-designed doves on the bottle stopper said it all.
L’EAU SAUVAGE, created for Dior in 1966, was promoted as the first men’s perfume and used a formula known as Hedione, also known as methyl dihydrojasmonate, which has been described alternately as smelling like sunlight or like water.
OPIUM, created for Yves Saint Laurent in 1977, was emblematic of the disco era and famous for its tenacity and unmistakable sweet, heavy trail.
OBSESSION, created for Calvin Klein in 1985, was introduced to a mass audience by a groundbreaking ad campaign on television. The bottle, designed by Pierre Dinand, was inspired by an Indian prayer stone from Klein’s private collection.
ANGEL, created for Thierry Mugler in 1992, was an audacious saccharine scent for the 1990s. Packaged in a blue-tinted star-shaped bottle, it evoked a sugar rush of gourmet proportions.
-- Lanie Goodman