Jean-Claude Ellena has just presented his Journal d’un parfumeur (whose English translation will come out next year) to the members of the Société Française des Parfumeurs (22/09/11), describing the genesis of the book and reading out some excerpts.
His quip about doing a two-line formula is just that, a quip, yet Ellena seems aware that the terseness of his style and the deliberate limitation of his palette are at risk of hemming him in. At least, he writes as much in his book, and this is actually one of the excerpts he’s picked. And somehow, it is this sense of self-awareness and self-restriction that come through during the talk.
Ellena knows he is addressing an audience entirely composed of perfume industry professionals. He seems aware of the fine line between acknowledging the level of freedom he is granted and the risk of seeming to boast about it.
The fact is that many of his colleagues are frustrated and disheartened. As an evaluator in a major oil house confided to me, “they don’t choose who they work with. They work with people they don’t understand, and who don’t understand them.” A development they’ve worked on for months can be altered until every original molecule is blasted out of its body; it can be flat-out rejected by a client up to the very last minute, a brutal, disrespectful practice, but one that has been going on for decades.
Therefore, Ellena’s position, as he describes it, is fairly unique. He is left entirely free to develop his fragrances. At most, he is given a name (“Terre”, “Voyage”) or Hermès’ yearly theme (India, artisans…). He relies exclusively on his own judgment: he “hears” the comments made by the evaluators or the marketing team, he explains, but doesn’t necessarily follow up on them. When asked by a young perfumer in the audience whether he’s got someone who acts as his “mirror”, he shakes his head. Ultimately, he claims, he engages in a very narcissistic activity: before the perfume comes out, he himself is the mirror, “and if I look at myself in the mirror and like what I see, I feel better”, he jokes. After the perfume comes out, the public becomes the mirror.
He and the Hermès Parfums chairperson are the ones who decide on what ultimately comes out. But he emphasizes the amount of personal responsibility he takes on, and the nerve-wracking level of exposure that springs from it, which he never experienced when he was working for Symrise. “You are the creator”, he says. “Why would you saddle another person with the responsibility of choosing?”
But despite a choice of excerpts that hinge on his resistance to the tyranny of marketing and trends, or to the gendering of fragrances, Jean-Claude Ellena is not about to lead a Perfumer's Liberation Front. (He spoke a bit more forcefully when collecting an award at the 2010 Fragrance Foundation gala, when he asked the industry to “trust the perfumers”.)
A young perfumer picks up on the word “resistance”: “We are all apprentice-resistance fighters”, she says, “and we would like to follow you.” Ellena has no advice to give her. Then the chairman of the SFP, Patrick Saint-Yves, underlines the fact than in a craft so strongly predicated on know-how, this know-how must be passed on to younger generations: what is Jean-Claude Ellena – who never takes on apprentices – doing about this? There is a pause. Then: “I write.” When Saint-Yves insists, saying that Ellena himself had Edmond Roudnitska as a teacher, Ellena explains that he never received lessons from the master. He primarily learned from his writings, though he came to disagree with some of Roudnitska’s stances. This was in fact why, when he was approached by the Presses Universitaires de France to update the Que sais-je?, he answered he could only write an entirely new book as he could endorse neither the ideas nor the style.
Patricia de Nicolaï also speaks up. In his Journal d’un parfumeur, Ellena says he keeps certain perfumes as benchmarks. She’d like to know which ones. Ellena answers that the references are not olfactory, but technical: diffusion, long-lastingness, sillage. He quotes Diorissimo, Eau Sauvage, Habit Rouge and Bois des Iles.Patricia de Nicolaï prods him: “And among more recent ones?” Pause. Smile. “I’m a bit old”, he jokes, adding that he very seldom smells what’s on the market, except when going through duty-free shops.
What stands out in this discussion is, ultimately, Ellena’s particular brand of solipsism – he himself uses the word “narcissistic” several times. As though Jean-Claude Ellena, who has landed every perfumer’s dream job, could only be a point of reference for Jean-Claude Ellena.
Might it be partly because of his unique position, of the freedom and trust he is granted by Hermès, that his language has become increasingly self-referential? However free he is, he also bears the responsibility of maintaining the olfactory identity he has forged for the brand. And in resorting more than once to the metaphor of the mirror, Ellena may be hinting in a roundabout way that he is aware of the limitations he has imposed upon himself.
Somehow, I’d like to think that underneath his self-control, his limpid austerity, Jean-Claude is damming up a torrent of sensuality; that the mirror may actually be the dam that is holding him back. He often brings up a childhood memory in interviews: the smell of jasmine blending with the sweat of jasmine pickers, which aroused a strong sensual emotion in him as a young boy. As for his first erotic emotion, he has said he owes it to the jasmine and cumin accord of Diorella, the scent worn by the woman who was to become his wife. A drop of that sweat is of course to be found in the masterful Déclaration. But clearly, this underlying sensuality has been reined in, watered down, as though it were too facile… or perhaps too revealing? He’s not saying, and of course it’s not the kind of question one asks during a public discussion…
But I can’t help wondering what would happen if Ellena let loose and betrayed his own aesthetics. Steaming up that mirror could be fun. Or breaking it.