Limpid but allusive; brushing the picture with a few light strokes, leaving space for interpretation between the lines… Jean-Claude Ellena’s writing style is nothing if not consistent with his style as a perfumer: in fact, when he describes the latter, he could well be explaining the mechanisms of the former. Again, this is consistent: rather than resorting to the canonical comparison between music and perfumery, Ellena says he considers himself to be an écrivain d’odeurs, a “writer of odors”.
The diary form of his second book, The Diary of a Nose, is much less constraining than that of the didactic Que Sais-je? Le Parfum. In the latter, the most fascinating pages were those where the author defined his aesthetics and his own creative process, for instance the way he associates smells through their contiguities – from geranium leaves to black truffles, olive oil, castoreum, birch tar…-- then conceives accords by skipping a few links in the olfactory daisy chain. But those were also, in a way, the least appropriate to an encyclopedic collection and led a few of his colleagues to grumble that Le Parfum should have been entitled “Perfume according to Jean-Claude Ellena”.
The Diary of a Nose is indeed a diary spanning from October 29th 2009 to October 13th 2010, the period during which both Iris Ukiyo-e and Un Jardin sur le toit were elaborated, with a few tantalizing glimpses into future compositions – additions to the “Eau” collection, projects for variations on the house classics… The entries chronicle Mr. Ellena’s activities over the period, his trips, the words or smells that trigger his inspiration. The chosen form provides him with a literary structure loose enough to broach several themes related both to his own work and to the workings of the industry: under its guise as a diary, The Diary of a Nose also nods to the literary genre of the fragment. And the book is indeed a literary exercise – his publisher Sabine Wespieser has a stellar reputation in that respect --, the furthest thing from a vanity book. Ellena’s refusal of spectacular effects or metaphors hints at a reserve verging on bashfulness, which could be read either as humility towards the act of writing or the pride of a man who would consider it distasteful to overly expose himself – he does say he prefers long gazes to long phrases…
Like his perfumes, the diary is informed by his aesthetics of transparency and subtraction. Much is said in few phrases – though he doesn’t take on apprentices, Ellena is an excellent pedagogue, one of the few perfumers who is able, and in a position to, explain his art to the general public. And in The Diary of a Nose, he covers quite a lot of ground.
The way he works, for instance: when sketching ideas for a new perfume, rather than basing successive modifications on an initial formula, he starts from scratch each time and only smells the various mods side by side later in the process, so that “each has its own expression”. “In fact”, he writes, “I am simply pursuing an artist’s approach, one who seeks and, sometimes, finds.”
His views on marketing, with a dig at project managers who base themselves on market studies and exhaust the knowledge of young perfumers by demanding new mods daily without giving them time to think, and a critique of enforced teamwork which dilutes the emotional investment perfumers put into the project.
His judgment on pre-1970s perfumes: “complex rather than ordered, they were pile-ups, accumulations, add-ons, and allowed only one reading. There was a kind of conceit at play, a will to dominate that didn’t tolerate criticism”. He contrasts this with the approach he developed later on: “I no longer pile up the components, I juxtapose them; I don’t mix them, I associate them. My perfumes are accomplished but not finished. Each perfume is linked to the former and prefigures the next. (…) In this approach, there is no will on my part to impose, but a permanent need to awaken pleasure, curiosity, exchange. Thus, I deliberately leave in empty spaces, “blanks” in the perfumes so that each can add his own imaginary; these are “empty spaces for appropriation.”
About Diorissimo, Ellena establishes the difference between an odor and a perfume: the odor, of lily-of-the-valley in this instance, is the springboard, to which “we can now add part of ourselves: our desires and, what is more complex, our personality. When I create a perfume, I prolong it with a story. (…) It is a part of ourselves we reveal when we construct a perfume.” The task of the perfumer is to ensure that “the odor is not only a tangible form but that it becomes an intelligible object, in order to be used, manipulated, oriented.”
I once summed up Ellena’s style in three words, transparency, traceability and minimalism. He took issue with the latter, arguing that minimalism eschewed figuration, whereas he’d never totally broken off from it: from this standpoint, “concision” would be a more accurate term. But the transparency, and indeed the traceability he displays both in his perfumes and when communicating about them is at play in the book. Not only does he confess to his anxiety when starting on a new formula or his concern that by being consistent with his own style he might be painting himself into a corner, but he also lifts a veil on the olfactory exercises he uses to hone his craft. The book ends with an Abrégé d’odeurs (“Concise handbook of odors”) featuring 18 sketches for olfactory illusions. Pistachio, for instance: benzoic aldehyde, phenylacetic aldehyde and vanillin. Hyacinth: phenylethyl alcohol, benzyl acetate and galbanum. Chocolate: isobutyl phenylacetate and vanillin (for dark chocolate, add patchouli; for cocoa powder, add iris concrete).
No proportions are given, though there is one formula in the book (p.71) for the core of a perfume, but again, that is consistent with his approach. In one of the most intriguing, and unfuriatingly terse passages of Diary of a Nose, following the story of his relationship with Edmond Roudnitska, Jean-Claude Ellena states that he broke free from classic harmony, “which expresses itself by proportions, convinced that the relationship between odors was more significant”. This realization was comforted by scientific studies of the evolution of a flower’s smell over the day: the proportions of the smell’s components could vary significantly with the smell still retaining its identity.
This is where the transposition of the art of perfumery to the art of writing meets its limitations. To understand what he is saying about relationship between odors versus proportions, or even to re-create his olfactory haikus, you’d need to have the raw materials at hand.
Another limitation is one underscored by Ellena himself. Unlike a writer, a perfumer can actually displace the meaning of a “word” instantly, shifting beta-ionones from reading “violet”, as they always had up to then, to meaning “tea”, or phenylethyl alcohol from “rose” to “sake” or “cooked rice”; the iso E in Poivre Samarkand, he explains, can actually start saying “pepper” when it is matched with violet leaf absolute. Still, the verbal word is needed somehow for the new meaning of the “smell word” to emerge… For many people, neither rose nor sake will appear when smelling phenylethyl alcohol until you actually say “rose” or “sake”. The feat of olfactory illusionism is partly predicated on the receptor’s ability to connect smells with words.
Lastly, there comes a time for a perfumer when he needs to shed words, images and memories to truly practice his art:
“When I can no longer describe (a smell), when it has a consistency, a depth, a breadth, a thickness, when it becomes tactile, when the only representation I have of it is physical, I can give it shape and create.”
Perfume has its own language. But Jean-Claude Ellena is one of its best translators.
All translations are my own, as I only have the French edition at hand.