dimanche 15 mars 2009

The Three Forms of Perfume Writing According to Jean-Claude Ellena

One of the most enlightening parts of Jean-Claude Ellena’s March 11 talk at the Institut Français de la Mode concerned his take on the evolution of perfumery since the late 19th century, when “chemistry freed perfumers from the constraints of nature” and “man became a god by creating smells that didn’t exist in nature.”

1/ The Naturally Classic Era (from the 1900s to the late 1970s)

For 70 years, he says, perfumers had “a sense of materials for the sake of materials”: for them, jasmine smelled of jasmine, rose of rose, etc. They had seven jasmines, five sandalwoods, and so forth, at their disposal. When they used synthetic materials, it was to recreate different types of, say, jasmine: green jasmine, indolic jasmine, jasmine in the early morning, at dusk, etc. They were into the expression of nature and used complex formulas – which he calls “millefeuilles” after the French pastry. Fragrances were “rich, unctuous, fatty, generous”, like a painting by Boucher.

They also had respect for tradition, and reinterpreted what others had done.

2/The Age of the Cursor (from the 1970s onwards)

As fragrance because an economic stake, factual issues take over from artistic concerns. All smells are measured on a scale for their intensity, tenacity, etc. Quality must be demonstrated according to measurable elements.

Enter marketing with its briefs and consumer panels…

Perfumers start working differently: they want to make their perfumes harmonious and stable, so that they don’t evolve too much during their development because they are targeted at a wider audience than the original clientele of fine perfumery, the haute bourgeoisie.

Ellena quotes marketing tests in which is a distinct difference appears between the expectations of mass-market consumers and those of the more traditional consumers of fine perfumery – the signs associated to fragrances by the two milieus. The mass market wants fragrances that don’t change, “that don’t fool you”; for the “elite”, “perfume must vary along with me, adapt itself to me and my various moods during the day”. More linear fragrances thus prevailed.

Ellena draws a parallel with the evolution of music: in the same period, it abandons the variations of intensity you could find in classical music and jazz, in favor of forms adapted to passive listening.

3/ Evolutive Perfumery

Here, Ellena speaks mostly of his approach.

Time: In the development of a fragrance when worn, “I don’t privilege time; I don’t try to obtain an infinite time; it is as it is.”

Variations: “Each time you smell the fragrance, there is an olfactory experience”, an interplay of change and evolution.

Style: Style prevails over materials. “Materials are what I make of them, no longer what they are.”

Please remember that this is what I gathered from my notes and not a transcript of Jean-Claude Ellena’s exact words, unless they are between quote marks.

Image: Three Ages, Salvador Dali (1940).

16 commentaires:

  1. Hi Denyse,

    Thanks for posting on the conference! I love JCE's parallel with the evolution of music, and I'm wondering whether his "evolutive perfumery" might have some things in comparison with electronic music, which has come into its own as an art form during the time JCE has been making perfumes.

    To wit:

    Time: Lack of traditional compositional/song structure

    Variations: Theoretically endless...the remix of the remix of the remix...

    Style: Style prevails over material: electronic beats/organic (instrumental) sounds/samples of other artists' work: all raw materials for the composer of electronic music, subordinate to his/her overarching vision

    Anyway, it's always interesting to me to think about how haute parfumerie corresponds to other contemporary art forms, whether it be music, cuisine, literature, what have you. Thanks for fueling these mental digressions...

  2. Charlotte, Ellena advocates the focused use of the language of other senses to describe fragrance materials, so by extension, of other artistic fields to describe styles of fragrance composition... I'm sure some fragrances are comparable to electronic music, though I'd say, not his own particularly, as he tends towards a Zen-like reduction of smells to signs...
    It is a stimulating line of thought, isn't it?

  3. Oh, yes, it surely is!
    I particularly appreciate JCE's wish to not prolong perfumes forever. Nature is as it is, and human experiences and manufacts, too: everything is transient and the desire to lenghten experiences as long as it's possible is only another aspect of the insane quest for eternity. Things that start have also to have an end. The fact that things aren't eternal, contributes to their beauty.
    It took me several years to understand this is true also in perfumery.
    Thanks for sharing your notes with us!

  4. Marika : I only wish Vétiver Tonka and Osmanthe Yunnan lasted longer on me anyway... They'd be mine in a flash. But I agree, the first thing I ask of a fragrance is not that it last all day...

  5. And in effect some fragrances show the opposite direction and tend to last too little... unfortunately (Vetiver Tonka is a real beauty!)

  6. Hi Denyse! What a present you've done reporting Hellena's conference!
    I really appreciate his work, altough sometimes I think he recycles pieces of perfumes' formulas in such a way that you really think he's copying himself. But I read his little book in the collection "que sais-je" and I fell in love with him!
    As regards the correlation between perfume and time is really amazing how people more and more want something that lasts the whole day. On the contrary I really love the concept expressed by Marika! Thank you, Marika, for giving me another poetical way to justify the fact that a perfume lasts only few hours...

  7. Thanks so much for telling us more about JCE's talk. Most interesting.

    Agree on lasting power of Osmanthe Yunnan and Vetiver Tonka, but I own & wear them anyway, although thank goodness (or actually MUA and other friendly perfumistas) that I could start with decants to get to know them....

  8. This fascinating. I admire his ability to capture a very Zen-Buddhist concept, that our perception is separate from reality. Most of us live each day believing that our thoughts are reality: we believe what our sense organs detect, and take this perception as being a reflection of reality. A meditation practice teaches us that this is not in fact the "truth". JCE understands that he can create a new "reality" out of a combination of raw materials that taken alone would be experienced completely differently. JCE's reality is sometimes greater, sometimes less than, the sum of it's parts. Fascinating.

  9. Marika: That's it. I am getting Vétiver Tonka (but before or after Vanille Galante?).

  10. Antonio, when you think of it, Ellena's mentor Roudnitska also worked on fragments of his formulas (Eau d'Hermès is in Femme ; Eau Sauvage is in Eau d'Hermès, etc). That's probably what creates such a cohesive style.

    As for long-lasting perfumery: well, lots of people want their money's worth, and these days, you can't blame them... ;-)

  11. Gail, it was quite an interesting talk -- I hope to be able to pursue at some point with an interview.

  12. Scott, you're right, Ellena does have a Zen approach. He calls himself an illusionist, but somehow it's more than that: he goes beyond party tricks into a species of molecular magic...

  13. Thanks, carmencanada, nice to hear from a kindred spirit ;)

    With regard to Vetiver Tonka (I'm wearing it now): financial concerns notwithstanding, the most beautiful things in life are ephemeral. When we cling to the idea of things being permanent, we suffer. See the artist Andrew Goldsworthy (and JCE!).

  14. Scott: it would be a paradox for a perfume lover to look for permanence, wouldn't it? The very thing we love consumes itself as we engage with it...

  15. Many days, I prefer a fragrance that doesn't last too long - then I get the opportunity to choose another for the evening, and enjoy two scents in a day!