One of the greatest perfumers in the world, a Master Perfumer. Jean-Claude Ellena.
Through his work, he’s been a part of my life for years now! On my skin. Not surprising when you think about all the perfumes he signs! I also love him maybe because I’m sentimental about his path in perfumery, maybe because times are a-changing. His way is the “old French school”, the classical way.
Shall there be stories like his in the future?
No, but there’ll be other stories about him. With twists. Reinventions. I also think that he is now – better than ever. I can already see the plot of a movie, not Perfume, but “Ellena-The Story of a Nose“.
Ellena picked jasmine as a child with his grandmother in Grasse, he worked as an apprentice at the factory of essential oils at the age of sixteen. He can tell from which field surrounding Grasse a rose Centifolia oil comes. His father, brother, and daughter Celine are perfumers.
He studied at Givaudan, became one of the founding members of the Osmotheque, retired in 2016 from Hermes, founded a perfume house –The Different Company, created for Bulgari, L’Artisan Perfumer, Van Cleef&Arpels, Sisley, Rochas, Cartier, YSL, Acqua di Parma, Giorgio Armani, Lalique, Frederic Malle, Perris Monte Carlo, Le Couvent des Minimes, Houbigant, etc. and now…after more than 40 years of work and 100 perfumes he created, I think we are yet to smell great things to come!
At Pitti Fragranze Jean-Claude Ellena was a special guest (like a rock star!), and attending visitors had the chance to experience the first major retrospective exhibition dedicated to him, presenting masterpieces of his career – curated by Chandler Burr (perfume critic and ambassador of Pitti Fragranze), and to participate in conversations that followed.
Chandler Burr chose these fifteen fragrances for the Pitti exhibition:
First, Van Clef&Arpels (1976), Eau Parfumee au The Vert, Bulgari (1993), In Love Again, YSL (1998), Anqeliques sous la Pluie, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle (2000), Rose Poivree, The Different Company (2000), Declaration Bois Bleu, Cartier (2001), Cologne Bigarade, Frederic Malle (2001), Bois Farine, L’Artisan Parfumeur (2003), L’Eau d’Hiver, Frederic Malle (2003), Ambre Narguile, Hermes (2004), Terre d’Hermes, Hermes (2006), Un Jardin sur le Nil, Hermes (2008), Kelly Caleche, Hermes (2007), Eau de Gentiane Blanche, Hermes (2009), and Rose&Cuir, Frederic Malle (2019).
To have an opportunity to smell and enjoy all these perfumes in one place, what an extreme pleasure!
Burr explained his choice of perfumes dating from 1976 -2019:
“Some (fragrances) are important because they established the art medium firmly within entire aesthetic schools: Bulgari Eau de The Vert (1993) was the first great work of Minimalism in scent; L’Eau d’Hiver (2003)is one of the medium’s seminal works of Abstract Expressionism.”
The Master himself, participating at Pitti for the first time ever, said in the conversation that followed that he considers himself being in the Third Stage of his professional development now: if Stage One was “corporate work” to fulfill briefs given, Stage Two – Minimalism, reducing, sometimes his own formulas, then he sees his “Third Stage” as developing right now: the new Rose&Cuir for Frederic Malle marks a new beginning – just being himself, playing with possibilities.
This is how a “Bonus” content – stole the show. I’m happy that it did!
For the Conversation that took place in the Pitti Conference Room, Ellena chose 5 perfumes and told us stories connected to each one:
Eau Parfumee au The Vert, Bulgari (1993)
At the time, Ellena was 28 years old. He says that the current state of fragrances on market inspired him. Yes, it was a complicated formula to begin with, rich and sophisticated. Virtuosity to balance all the ingredients was a challenge to him, later he purified the fragrance reducing it to 19 components. At the time, in 1993, he was responding to the era, his Nose belonging to it.
He chuckles while talking about The Vert: Maison Dior rejected it and went with Fahrenheit instead! But, he believed in it, underlining again that if we are looking at perfumes as an art form, the illusion is more important than reality, seduction IS at the core of art, creating an illusion. What was Ellena’s illusion here? He created a perfume that smells of tea, and there’s no tea in it at all.
Cologne Bigarade, Frederic Malle (2001)
Ellena talked about the exhibition in the Museum of Perfumery in Grasse, featuring the history of colognes through centuries. Colognes date three centuries back, they are the beginning point in the history of perfumes as we know them today. Made for the aristocracy, as a perfume, not a hygienic product. In the 18th century, one small bottle of cologne would cost you 1/4 of your salary. In time colognes became a popular product and moved all the way to supermarkets.
And suddenly, from Eau de Cologne, the word cologne was removed and everything became Eau this and Eau that. Like with Eau Savage: there’s no “Cologne” in its name… So Jean-Claude Ellena approached Frederic Malle with a new perfume: Cologne Bigarade, putting “Cologne” back in the name of a perfume.
He also considers Bigarade, a bitter orange, to be so very much “Provencal” (and I suddenly remembered tasting those most wonderful Marmelade-d-oranges-ameres in France…), it was, in his opinion, the most Mediterranean product you can imagine – bitter oranges growing by the Mediterranean sea…
This is when he said something that made us all laugh: “I like bitter, bitter is intelligent. I prefer to smell bitter, to smell intelligent. Everybody now wants to smell sugary, and sugary…just isn’t intelligent.”
Cologne Bigarade, in his own words, has a very simple structure, 20 components were used. He smiled and added: “You have to have a cologne! Everybody does.”
L’Eau d’Hiver, Frederic Malle (2003)
Burr calls this perfume “the most silent one”, the “pure silence”. I’ve always loved it, for a number of reasons. Including very emotional ones.
Ellena explained his idea from the beginning: when he starts to work on a perfume, he likes to have a name for it. So, he wrote “Cloud” in his notebook (Nuage). Then he began to think about clouds, delicate, summertime clouds, searching for lightness in the scent he was creating, murmuring not shouting. Frederic Malle changed the name to L’Eau d’Hiver after smelling the first versions, and Ellena proceeded to finish the formula.
This is where he gave us another piece of his thoughts. Ellena says that he loves perfumes that smell good on people when he’s sitting next to them. Good, not strong. That a fine perfume should never yell, shout or scream. L’Eau d’Hiver is murmuring softly…
Bois Farine, L’Artisan Parfumeur (2003)
The story behind Bois Farine is fascinating: Ellena says that people often ask him: “You like to travel and travel a lot: are you looking for new raw materials, new ideas?” He answers that ideas come to him: most often in botanical gardens, as places where a perfumer can always find some new, interesting, or unknown scents of trees or flowers.
He was sitting in a botanical garden while traveling around L’île de La Réunion. There was a plant blooming there, and he was fascinated by an unknown flower: when he came closer to sniff it, it smelled like – flour. He made a watercolor drawing of it and saved it in his notebook.
When he returned to France, he was asked if he would like to make a perfume based on his travel experiences, and he remembered that strange flower. This is where Farine (Flour) part of the name came from. Bois (Wood) was another story: it simply related to names of places that had the word “Bois” in them, Bois here, Bois there so he decided to call this perfume Bois Farine. The process of making it had its funny moments too: he took some flour from his kitchen, kept smelling it, playing with it, sniffing it.
Ellena also finds flour to be something essential – we eat bread, pizza, or pastry made of it, and he finds the image of a woman threading dough with her hands, covered in flour – very erotic.
Ellena told us that Bois Farine has only 10 components and that its formula is the shortest one he ever made.
Terre d’Hermes, Hermes (2006)
The idea behind Terre d’Hermes is connected with terre – of Ireland.
Ellena likes to make watercolor drawings everywhere he travels, so when he was in Ireland he concluded that this country was simply ideal for this activity because while he was there, the air was so damp that his drawing paper never got dry! While observing green fields around him, he noticed some rods and fences breaking up the landscape, traces of human presence in nature.
He was asked to make a masculine perfume for Hermes, and this memory became the centerpiece of the new perfume. In his thoughts, vertical equals masculine, wooden rod in the green, the grass-covered ground was masculine…So he started with Cedar, a “vertical” component as he calls it, and built the fragrance around it.
He admits liking to use cedar, as opposed to sandalwood, which he doesn’t use very much or very often. There was another challenge for him: to make a masculine perfume without Musc or Moss! He did that, and the rest is history.
I found really interesting how he answered one question coming from the public: a lady asked him if there is a perfume that he admires, and wishes he had made.
Ellena said that when he was young, there were a few perfumes he loved so much that he wished he had signed them, like Edmond Roudnitska‘s Diorissimo, later on, he loved Fiji…but with time, this changed.
Not the appreciation of these perfumes, but the feeling…of love.
He said: “I know now too much to have this kind of emotion. Like here, at Pitti: I walk by, feel a perfume, and I know how it was made. The moment I feel a perfume I start analyzing. Without emotions involved.”
This made me somehow sad: I would never want to lose love for perfumes, moments of falling in love with fragrances, the pure joy. Again, is being this brilliant a blessing, or a curse? Or is it merely an “insider’s” thing…I wonder.
After this session finished, I went to the exhibition room and smeared some perfume on my wrists: on one hand In Love Again (YSL), and on the other hand the new Rose&Cuir (Frederic Malle). I fell in love with it. Thank you, Maestro Jean-Claude Ellena.
A “Rose” where there’s no rose, “Cuir” where there’s no leather, and yet you feel both, intensely, a grand illusion, an ultimate seduction. Signed by Master Perfumer, Jean–Claude Ellena.
The Plum Girl