In The Realm Of The Sensualists

For Hole & Corner issue no. 8


Among the thoughts contained in “The Diary Of A Nose”, which Hermès' master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena published in 2012, the following is perhaps most lucidly resonant of his worldview, while also being perfectly congruent with the visitor's experience him.

I try to avoid the sun, and favor shady woodland,” writes Ellena, now 68. “I find the langour of beaches boring, but am drawn to creeks and reefs. I love the sea and its horizon. Where my gaze gets lost as the blue of the sky and that of the sea merge… I have never been able to truss myself up in suits; their restrictiveness denotes a rigidness of mind and disenchantment with life. In believe in happiness, in man, in a lay spirituality; I do not trust religions. I would rather have eye contact for a long time than chatter for a long time. And, although I like to seduce, I have a sense of propriety with words… I have never sought to impose anything. My research is driven by a constant desire to find a balance between what can be felt with the senses and what is intelligible to the mind.

I am mediterranean,” he concludes.

It's a book that's worth re-reading, just as it's worth staying awhile with his text before we visit him and his atelier at Cabris, high in the shaded hills above Grasse, Provence. In “Diary Of A Nose”, Ellena enlarges upon on the graft of writing perfumes, of the depth and poignancy of sensuality, of his history and the unforgiving tutelage of his mentor, Edmond Roudnitska; of orientalism and the erotic, and of the douceur described by the Provençal author Jean Giono.

There are also disdainful asides on marketing, corporatism and rigid modernity: “I no longer listen to the market – creativity sometimes needs a deaf ear”, he writes, elsewhere lamenting the “determination of an ignoramus who wants to learn everything, know everything. Control everything and measure everything”. Some of which might come as a surprise, given that he has mastered the olfactory portfolio of grand maison Hermès since 2004, and written blockbuster scents for Bulgari, Frédéric Malle, Van Cleef & Arpels, Balenciaga, Cartier, and Yves Saint Laurent before then.

But scent and sensuality is in his blood, and Jean-Claude Ellena writes luminously of his own anguish, too. This man, whose father was a perfumer, and who has made perfumes since he was 16 but never wears it, says that he likes “all smells”. He rejects prettification: in one chapter he describes encountering a field of sage on a hilltop in the Haute Alpes, and the “human sweat smell of the sage… I myself was quite happy for these flowers to give me the smell of my own bestiality, my non-eternity, the smell of life.”

The Diary Of a Nose” recounts a life lived fully and enchantedly, in sympathy with sensuality, and for the creative process of writing perfumes, for writing them is what he does. There's also that nuance that Ellena alludes to above: he sees himself as a conduit for ideas, for the gifting of the things he creates, which lie in the balance between knowledge and intuition, science and mystery. Something deep, unknowable, and beyond words: magic, perhaps, or that lay spirituality he refers. He knows that what we we seek in a scent is the transport to special, remote states feeling and memory.

We met last July in the Maison Hermès hidden among the trees in Cabris. We'd driven up from Nice and around the hills of the Alpes Maritimes, peering over hairpins and chasms into meadows of lavender, rose de mai, jasmine and mimosa, past tumbledown houses overlooked by eucalyptuses and pines, the cicadas pulsing perpetually. Far to the east of France, near the Pyrenees, Kenny Vanbilsen and Pierrick Fedrigo were dueling to bag the Bastille Day stage of the Tour De France – always a point of pride for French riders.

It was hot. The sun was embalming this hazy, aromatic place, far from Paris and deep in the realm of the senses. We arrived at the brutalist pavilion – “austere, monastic” as he put it – where Ellena works with his Swiss-Italian colleague Christine Nagel, 57, and his daughter Céline, 47. Nagel joined the house in 2014, while Céline makes a range of home fragrances for Hermès.

And here he is, the mediterranean man who enjoys joke and laughs a lot, as the wise tend to do – a charming and cavernous “Ah! Ah!”, not unlike Sesame Street's Count von Count. Genial in his white shirt and firm handshake, he greets us as warmly and invite us in.

The atelier is monastic in the way that westerners might describe oriental modes of living – it's elegant and zenlike with origami on the coffee table, and Ukiyo-e-style ink paintings on the wall. One can look out through the glass walls towards the garishly encrusted Côte d'Azur where “tous les bling-bling” mix, while inside here, simplicity runs deeper.

Early in his career Jean-Claude Ellena was drilled by the pioneering Edmond Roudnitska in the way of short formulae for perfumes. “Roudnitska said, beauty is universal. He taught me simplicity.”

You have to understand,” Ellena says. “It is my way of thinking as a perfumer. When I started, the formulae were very complex. Perfumerie was secret, the way I could think about perfume was very complicated. I started with this approach in 1976. This perfume could contain 160 products. With time, Terre D'Hermès is only 30 products. This is my own way of doing things, my vision – how to do things with a minimum, the best effect with the shortest way. I'm still working on that.”

Perfumery is an art,” he adds. “I have to show I can do everything with only two things. This is part of my philosophy. I was impressed by Japanese thinking, the way of simplicity – wabi sabi, 'perfection in imperfection', haiku, this way of doing things. Of course I use it in parfumerie – I found a way…”

Ellena understands Hermès (“it is authoritatively French”), and his record at the house speaks for itself. He authored the Jardins collection (Jardin Sur Le Nil, Sur Le Toit et al), its Hermessence line, and the elemental Terre D'Hermes among many others, mastering a repertoire which ships 20million bottles per year. The atelier bespeaks this process, and his emphasis on perfume over product, sensualism over marketing. “I am anti-concept, pro-feeling. It comes from here,” he says tapping his chest where his heart is.

We tour around the house, to the lower ground where he and Nagel share an office with two desks facing each other: his is rather more chaotic than Christine's (“she's an extrovert, I'm an introvert”), where the work is overseen by paintings by a friend of his, a local artist, and Ellena's collection of toy frogs; once, the journalist Antigone Schilling came to interview him, bringing a frog. He's been given many since. At 8.30 every morning, work begins here with coffee, discipline, blotters, molecules, thought.

We pass formulae for perfumes hanging in frames on the wall, listing ingredients with names so fragrant you can almost smell them by looking at them: vetiver, armensis, majantol, Germiol, rhubofix, Rosafix, poivre Noir. Then we step into the laboratory, where assistants manipulate centrifuges under the hum of gigantic Liebherr fridges housing essential oils (citruses are especially fragile, and need be kept cool). Ellena uses a reduced portfolio of only 200 from the possible 500 or more. A quick show and tell: he waves a taper under our noses – alcohol phenlyethans, the scent of a wilting rose, conjuring a vivid olfactory image. And then some magic: first, a taper is dipped in fructone, the smell of apples. Combine it with ethyl maltol, scent of candy floss, et voila: it synthesises into the perfume of strawberry. Add another – benzoic aldehyde – and it transform into an OMG-that's-yummy cherry scent.

I want to give an illusion, I play with that,” Ellena says. “When you eat a strawberry, four or five hundred molecules give you the taste. But, the work of the perfumer: to give a strawberry effect, I don't need four or five hundred molecules. Part of my job is to find the shortest way to give you the illusion. For the rose, only two molecules… I play with that.”

This reduction, concentration and synthesis is the perfumer's art, and he likens it to a language: “Smell is a word, perfume is literature”. To make a new word, he tried the experiment in 2012 to use celery oil, hitherto unused in perfumery. A field in Belgium was found, sewn and cultivated, resulting in 1.2kg of celery oil, at a cost of €3,000. Authoring the literature of perfumes relies on the stable grammar of reproducible quality, and it can take up to two years to bring a formula to the boutique sheves . Another recent innovation was the use of roasted cumin seeds, which formed some of the notes in the Epices Marine scent for the Hermessence line, which he developed with the help of a friend, the chef Olivier Roellinger. The cumin lends a masculine odorousness, an almost BO-ish quality; recall that Ellena rejects no scent.

With perfumery I can talk,” he says. “Creation is a mise en récit [storytelling]”.

* * *

In “The Diary Of of a Nose”, Jean-Claude Ellena writes of philosopher Chantal Jacquet quoting Nietzsche who said, “to philosophise was to have a nose”. “There is an element of the sixth sense to it too, of sniffing things out: perspicacity, discernment, intuition, insight, sensitivity, subtlety,” he adds.

Indeed, Ellena's native sensibilities seem to puts him at odds with the projections of contemporary business and progress (though he's agnostic about natural or chemical sources for his formula). By an alternative faith in sensory incantations, he has succeeded creatively despite what the world of “marketing” represents, rather than because of it.

Paradoxically, the work of a being nose is only partially about sniffing; it entails no special physiognomy, the cells in the nose renew every 30 to 40 days. Rather, it's about vision. One senses that here, in this house of dreaming, he is able to scrape away the modern to reveal again the ancient mystery of senses, centering them back where they belong – among people and their inhabitations, roots, plants and patterns, among stories and places. That's why the atelier is important.

It has to be far from the centre of decisions, otherwise, a lot of people come every day saying, what are you doing, can you show me?” he says. “No, I don't want to show you – it's work in progress. This was the first thing – we have to be independent. Life, everyday life. The second thing is, we work only on creation, we don't think about the marketing approach. Work, work again, we work only on this subject: parfum. We show only when we are proud of what we have done. Whatever you think, I don't mind. But how you react is important: do you have pleasure?”

His is a singular vision, as befits a man whose compassion for sensuality is original. Jean-Claude Ellena describes himself as “an alone fellow; it's no problem for me to work alone.” Nevertheless, the atelier expanded in 2014 further when Christine Nagel, a graduate of the prestigious Givaudan school, came to work for Hermès.

One day, the telephone rang, and she was invited to visit Cabris. “Jean-Claude said to me, que'est-ce que ça te dirait, de travailler ici? [What do do you think about working here]?”, she recalls. Later, when the offer came, she punched the air, out of joy.

What does Hermès mean to her? “Something authentic, a concern for details. An aestherticism, a singular style. It's not necessary to talk about high quality, it's evident. But a clarity of approach.”

Have her formulae become more simple to match Ellena's minimalism?

I'm very different, but I share his values. My formulae are very short, perhaps less short than Jean Claude's. Perhaps I am more latin. Hemes has a lot of possibility.”

For now and for the future, the way Ellena, his daughter, and Christine Nagel propose it, this shared vision for parfumerie chez Hermès is of creation and poetics, a craft isolated from the demands of the market, pursued for its own beauty.

No market test – this is our philosophy,” Ellena says. “The sales figures are interesting for Hermes, and I can say, Hey, it's working well. To defend my place. If I see someone who is very pleased with the perfume I am very happy. But we are storytellers. I am more convinced about that because I meet people – Olivier Roellinger, [the chef] Pierre Gagnaire – and I can see the way they want to do it: to write a story in the head, and find the products necessary to make the story.”

Roudnitska always told me,” Jean-Claude Ellena, says. “Don't do it for the ego, do it for the formula.”

Recently, his team have conceived olfactory stories to be told in the home, as Céline Ellena worked to create a line of fragrances for interiors spaces. She drew inspiration from Gaston Bachelard's “The Poetics Of Space”, as well as from her father.

I learned life with my nose, and then with my head” Céline says. “We were in an artistic, intellectual milieu. My grandfather was also a perfumer. It was a place where sensuality was important.

Perfume happens here,” Céline continues. “One imagines the scent, the story, and then we work with materials to make the perfume. What I liked was when my dad would tell stories, and when I smelled the perfume, I could tell other stories. I wanted to write stories by hand when I young, then I gave it up: I understood that I could write stories with odours and my own grammar.”

What else did she learn from her father? “Patience. To be able to sit with being empty. Wait, be a sponge, walk around. Be patient.”

And what did dad learn from his daughter?

Enthusiasm!” he grins. “Ah! Ah!”

Afternoon fades into dusk across Cabris, and we're at the end of this tale. We'll leave them to the dreaming, reducing and telling of stories, but we leave with a question: what is a story? In this reading on the literature of perfume, story is something ephemeral and powerful, a scent of truth bottled in a world of banality. Something that's shared but can never really be owned – something to be given away.

Creation a gift that you share – it's no longer yours any more,” Jean-Claude Ellena says, bidding us farewell as warmly as he welcomed us.

Outside, the Provence air smells of pine and lavender.