I wrote this article for the upcoming September 2008 issue of the French art magazine Particules, well before Chandler Burr unleashed his tempest in an atomizer by panning Un Jardin après la mousson (Hermès), Jean-Claude Ellena’s latest fragrance.
Rather than adding to the relevant comments made by my blogger friends at The Perfume Shrine, Vetivresse and 1000fragrances, as well as by members of the Perfume of Life Forum, I thought I’d translate this text, in the hope that it will shed some light on the debate that’s raging in perfumistaland…
When Que Sais-je? (a French collection of booklets written by specialists to initiate the public to their field) publishes a book on perfumes, he’s the one who writes it. When the French art magazine Beaux-Arts interviews a « nose », he’s the one they interview. His discourse is as limpid as his compositions: both have made him the first media star of his field. Profile of an intellectual who dreams of capturing the smell of water.
If Jean-Claude Ellena likes to demystify his profession – a valuable quality in an industry that functions under the law of omerta – it is probably to demonstrate what a virtuoso he is in the art of assembling molecules. This self-styled “creator of illusion” is so sure of his effects that he can afford to unveil their cogs and wheels.
Thus, when Chandler Burr asks his to follow, over a year, the creative process of Un Jardin sur le Nil, he consents. Similarly, he makes no fuss about unveiling his method and the ingredients of his palette in his Que Sais-je on perfumes (or, some say, on Jean-Claude Ellena).
On the thorny subject of synthetics, usually classified top-secret by the PR department so as not to “kill the dream”, he is also uncharacteristically forthcoming. In the presence of journalists, he likes to put together two scents strips impregnated with synthetic substances to produce a third smell. Fructone + ethyl maltol = strawberry. Patchouli + octene 1-OL-3 = humus. Linalool + methyl anthranilate = orange blossom.
A conjuring trick that epitomizes the Ellena style, which can be summed up in three words: transparency, minimalism, traceability.
Transparency : the memory of water
If no perfumer before him has been so transparent, it isn’t only to put himself forward, as some of his colleagues hint. Transparency is the very essence of his style.
Jean-Claude Ellena has stated more than once that his dream is to capture the smell of water – the very opposite of classic perfumery, or even of perfume.
Smart move. Many consumers want a perfume that doesn’t actually smell of perfume. Hence the massive use of the synthetic musks used in washing powders, which our olfactory memory associates with cleanliness.
Ellena isn’t the first to want to reproduce the smell of water: that was the brief given by Issey Miyaké for L’Eau d’Issey (1992). Now, water doesn’t have a smell. Ozone and sea spray are conjured by Calone, a molecule that smells mostly of melon, which has by now been overdone to death.
This material is not part of Ellena’s palette [as
Even when he wants to create a leather note for Kelly Calèche, he veers off from the compounds normally used to produce it. The illusion (so subtle that not every nose detects it) is achieved with flowers: iris, cassie and rock rose. The animalic, carnal, indecent effluvia of the French grand style have been struck off the menu: Ellena puts us on a vegetalian diet. He plunges us in squeezed fruit and rain-gorged petals. In a word, he repulps us.
Continued tomorrow with Minimalism: molecular haikus
Image: Larry Bell, Untitled .
Image: Larry Bell,