This month I read Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent, written by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. The English book has been on my reading list since a small number of copies were distributed in 2009. Some say the passing of Arcade Publishing’s owner delayed the release of the book. Others say further improvements of the translation had been requested. Whatever the reason I was happy to finally receive a copy after the book’s official launch last month.
The jacket cover describes the 11 chapters, 106 pages as a revelation of “the secrets behind the art and business of creating perfume”. Jean-Claude Ellena’s work as the ‘nose’ of Hermes was captured with poetic words by author, Chandler Burr in his book, The Perfect Scent. In contrast, Ellena’s book is more of a practical, matter-of-fact approach to perfume writing. Fans of The Perfect Scent looking for further insight into the mind of Ellena, arguably one of the most influential perfumers of the past twenty years, may find themselves left hungry after reaching the end of the book. The master perfumer provides a few morsels of personal wisdom to feed on, but his text focuses more on a basic A-Z of the perfume industry. Chapter one starts with Jean-Claude Ellena’s recount of modern perfumery and a rudimentary explanation of the human olfactory system. The book covers perfume materials, Ellena’s approach to working with these materials, recent advances in aroma analysis, perfume marketing and some considerations for launching a modern perfume. In chapter five, his appreciation for the work of Edmond Roudinitska gives you insight into the impression this mentor had on a young Ellena. Discussing the materials Ellena works with he reveals aspects of his modus operandi that have not been published before. Known for his short formulas which have the ability to conjure the soul of a raw material using limited strokes of his imaginary perfume wand, Jean-Claude Ellena generously offers a list of every raw material his perfume laboratory contains; adding he has only used a total of 140 raw materials in his work over the past three years. This is a staggeringly small amount considering perfume students can spend years learning thousands of aromas.
Ellena shares with his readers the process he works through to decide which ingredients are to find a place on his perfumer’s organ. “Is the odour a new one? If not, can it replace an existing fragrance more cheaply, with comparable or even superior technical performance? Does it extend the olfactory range to which it belongs?” And although many perfume marketers employ the use of the ‘we use the finest raw materials available’ cliché, Ellena writes, “while the quality of a substance can contribute to the originality of a fragrance, a ‘fine’ jasmine, a ‘fine’ rose or a ‘fine’ synthetic molecule does not make a fine perfume. The beauty of a perfume does not arise from the sum of the qualities of the raw materials but from the harmony of the materials, the way they are used, juxtaposed and given expression.” There is also a section in the back of the book that raises the idea of perfume copywriting as a means of protecting olfactory ideas. This is an interesting subject given the flood of copycat perfumes that follow a successful original. One of my biggest takeaways from this reading was a better understanding of Jean-Claude Ellena’s approach to perfume creation. That is his lack of interest in recreating nature, but instead using nature to create a multisensory illusion. For example in his creation Un Jardin Sur le Nil, the scent of mango is used to recall a trip on the Nile and an encounter Ellena had with a riverside Mango tree. His purpose was to create a perfume that portrayed this moment in time, not simply a scent that smelt of ripe tropical fruit. The book is short and easy to read, ideal for a weekend on the sofa. On my last visit to Paris I came home with a copy of the perfumer’s journal written in French. As I attempt to improve my French I can see Journal d’un Parfumeur focuses more on the perfumer’s personal thoughts and ideas on perfume, making an excellent companion to Alchemy of Scent, which is an olfactory encyclopaedia by one of the world’s great perfumers.
English, 176 pages, 2011
A sampling of fragrances by Jean-Claude Ellena: