Jean-Claude Ellena is fond of calling his compositions haikus. He’s also confessed he’d love to capture the smell of water in a fragrance. And it turns out he’s a great admirer of Japanese woodprints, and especially of the 19th century masters of the Ukiyo-e movement, Hiroshige and Hokusai (you’ve seen at least one picture by Hokusai: the one with the wave…). That Ukiyo-e means “images of the floating world” (sometimes translated as “ephemeral”) neatly dovetails into Mr. Ellena’s attraction to watery notes; that these images are often those of landscapes and flowers ties in perfectly with perfume themes, especially since their delicate, poetic stylisation echoes Mr. Ellena’s own style, particularly in the Hermessence. Thus it was only a matter of time before a Japanese scent showed up in the collection, and now it has, with Iris Ukiyoé, the 9th Hermessence.* (see below.)
Jean-Claude Ellena has already featured iris in Bois d’Iris, Paprika Brasil and in what I see as an essay in aqueous floral accords though it was conceived as a leather, Kelly Calèche. But Iris Ukiyoé doesn’t focus on the orris root: it is, rather, a work on the flower, whose different varieties give off a surprising palette of fragrances. Floral: rose, orange blossom, lily-of-the-valley, lilac and even tiaré. Fruity: peach, plum, mandarin, lemon. Foody: vanilla, chocolate, anise… Jean-Claude Ellena says he’s tried to conjure their common denominator: “The almost cold effects of the rose, the delicate voluptuousness of the orange blossom, the vegetal humidity of the petals punctuated by a zest of mandarin…”
The citrus top notes – there’s bergamot in there too – open Iris Ukiyoé on shimmering, peppery effects that feel as though Jean-Claude Ellena had lifted a thin veil off the great Roudnitska chypres like Le Parfum de Thérèse, or from his own Angéliques sous la Pluie. Similar effects were used in Kelly Calèche, especially the eau de parfum version where the grapefruit note is the most perceptible: their crisp needle-like fizz conjures the impression of raindrops hitting the surface of a pond.
Iris Ukiyoé truly does give off the cold, water-gorged texture of iris petals – not the prissy type of iris you buy at florist shops, but the big heraldic ones both turgid and limp that grow near ponds; the ones whose copper, apricot or violet flesh fairly bursts with moistness under their crystal-dusted skin. This aqueous effect is rendered through a muguet-type material – lily of the valley was, much before “aquatic” notes, a way of conveying cool vegetal moistness – which veers into the fresh, green facets of some types of lilies, a sensation reinforced by a similarly fresh, green vanilla reminiscent of Vanille Galante. But here, Jean-Claude Ellena has tilted that vanilla axis from the tropical to the rose-muguet area of the scent map. I sometimes perceive a green note not un-similar to the smell you get from peeling a cucumber; at times, a ghostly trace of something that feels like the milky effect of Eau Claire des Merveilles seems to be at play. I even get the trace of chocolate that some irises give off.
The cool delicate floral notes are sweet and deceptively diffusive: you think you’ve sprayed on a lightweight little thing but the scent, bolstered by a light woody base, keeps on expanding and shows more than decent tenacity on skin – it hangs on for days on fabric.
Iris Ukiyoé plays on its subject in more ways than one, shape-shifting through the various watercolour tints of the scent of irises in a way that conjures the very notion of iridescence. Is it orange blossom, rose, vanilla, lily, muguet? Or a chimera?
* Added on Oct. 12th: I managed to forget Rose Ikebana, which of course introduced the Japanese motif in the Hermessence, and was inspired by the art of floral arrangement. I should therefore amend the phrase to "It was only a matter of time before another Japanese scent, this time inspired by Ukiyo-é..."
Illustration: Cy Twombly, Nicola's Iris (1990), because it was a little too easy to go Japanese on this one...