Jean-Claude Ellena has been called the Mozart of perfumery, but if perfumers were rock stars, we'd call him the Kevin Shields of scent. Relentlessly inventive, attuned to nuance, and masterful at developing layers of complexity, he's justifiably respected and admired by his peers and aficionados alike. (Like Shields, he's also a bit of a perfectionist.)
He has created bestselling fragrances such as Van Cleef & Arpel's First and Bulgari's Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert — along with abstract scents such as L'Eau d'Hiver, which perfume writer Chandler Burr memorably described as "silence and cloud." Since 1994, Ellena has been the exclusive in-house "nose" of Hermès, where he has created more than two dozen fragrances. His newest, Jour d'Hermès, is a gorgeously light, sparkling bouquet of flowers — think freshly cut, fragrant blooms and the idea of flowers instead of literal, nose-punching interpretations. All this, and he can write, too: The Diary Of A Nose: A Year In The Life Of A Parfumeur follows Ellena's meditations on fragrance, art, and the intersection of the two. Here, R29 talks with him about his creative flow — and how he knows when a perfume is precisely right.
When you set out to create Jour d'Hermès, where did you begin? Where did the idea blossom?
“At the beginning it was just to show that I could make a feminine perfume.”
People didn’t think that you could?
Even after 45 years of being a perfumer?
“Maybe it's my own problem. I wanted to show that I could do it, to prove it to myself. But the thing is, when you're an artist, every time you try to prove something to yourself. And it’s never finished. I’m never satisfied. Never. I’m satisfied maybe one minute, or five minutes, no more."
How do you complete a fragrance, then? How do you complete a work and let go?
“The thing is, at one moment, I might be satisfied with a fragrance. I've said all I want to say at that point, and it’s finished. So, I put the fragrance aside and I smell it again two weeks later. The fragrance might say to me that it's not finished — because it really is a talk between the fragrance and me. In fact, it is a talk between me and me because the fragrance is me, of course. But, once the fragrance says, ‘No, there is nothing to add,’ it’s finished. And so, you put it on the side. You smell again. When the perfume feels perfect, then I know that it’s finished. The terrible thing is that if I smell it in two years, I might say, ‘Enh.’”
You’re very tough on yourself.
Photo: Courtesy of Jean-Claude Ellena.
- 1 of 2