A decade on, Jean-Claude Ellena continues his work as Perfumer of Hermes. His mandate from the luxury French brand has always been to launch a new scent when he feels ready. In the time-pressured world of fashion and beauty, it is unusual for perfumers to have this level of freedom in their work. Cuir d’Ange is the 11th Hermessence perfume. Speaking with press last year when the perfume launched, Jean-Claude Ellena spoke about it being an idea he developed over a period of 10 years. When he was recruited in 2004, he visited a room in the Hermes atelier where leather is laid out in storage. It is a place where precious hides, tanned by master tanners, are stored in a controlled environment. Here they await transformation into some of the world’s finest leathergoods. He was enamoured by the scent of the tanned leather, which to his surprise smelled of flowers. Ellena often draws parallels between his work and the work of other artists. On this occasion, he drew a link to the world of literature and the words of writer Jean Giono, who in his autobiography, described his father working in his cobbler’s workshop, “making shoes in angel leather for some god with a thousand feet.” Cuir d’Ange, or Angel Leather in English, borrows from Giono’s words and Ellena’s experience in the Hermes Atelier.
Hermes launched Eau d’Hermes in 1951. Like Cuir d’Ange it was inspired by the odour of leather, the interior of a Hermes leather bag nonetheless. Eau d’Hermes’ perfumer was Edmond Roudnitiska, one of the great perfumers of the 20th century and a hero of Jean-Claude Ellena. In the foothills near Grasse, Ellena works from Cabris, the same village where Roudnitska resided from the height of his career to his retirement. Roudnitska’s influence can be perceived in a number of Ellena’s compositions and after I read about Cuir d’Ange, I thought Ellena may have woven a reference into his olfactory story that hinted to the DNA of Eau d’Hermes and Roudnitska’s love of cumin, civet and the famous Prunol perfume base of Delaire. When I smelled Cuir d’Ange it was immediately obvious that Ellena had gone in a completely different direction. Cuir d’Ange is modern and free from any nostalgia. If cleanliness is next to godliness, the perfume’s angelic title advises that this is a fragrance free from any fecal references, notes that Roudnitska lavished upon his creations. Even the musk notes have lost all their innate erogenous power. Ellena re-engineered them to take on an ethereal, transcendental character. The overuse of musk is also a theme we rarely see from Jean-Claude Ellena, who is known for creating ultra-transparent compositions that are never weighed down by an excessive use of musk notes.
About Cuir d’Ange, Jean-Claude Ellena says, “Using the smells that are my words, I wanted to write a poem to rekindle the love duet between leather and the skin. Its softness and lightness, its tension and its caress. Heliotropes and hawthorn, leather and musk.”
I had a Proustian moment when I smelled Cuir d’Ange’s opening riff for the first time. In New Zealand during the 1980s, many primary schools had a dental clinic on site because the government funded dental care for children. Students would be summoned from class twice a year to visit the school dental nurse. I remembered the scented paste the nurse used to coat her polishing drill. It smelt of oranges and cloves and I knew that if I could smell this paste, there would be no fillings or pain. It was just a routine polish. Sitting horizontally in the chair, I would smell this spicy paste whilst looking up at hanging artwork other students had made from paper, cotton dental swabs and tooth floss. I now realise they were strategically placed to help distract children, but at the time, I looked forward to finishing the appointment so I could decorate my own cotton swab and dental floss butterfly with coloured pens. Smelling Cuir d’Ange reminds me of this rite of passage, the smell of the nurse’s polishing paste and the antiseptic she used to sterilize her instruments.
Like many of the Hermessence perfumes, Cuir d’Ange is relatively linear in the way it evolves on skin. Instead of developing new characteristics as it ages, what existed to begin with amplifies when the musk notes gain momentum and mature. As the arc of the perfume begins to fall, a soft haze of leather, musk and powder remains. The first impression is a spicy floral note laced with bitter almond paste. An intense dry wood-clove aspect powers this floral bouquet of hawthorn and heliotrope. It is this aspect that reminds me of my childhood visits to the dentist. The perfume’s olfactory texture is cleverly reflected by the choice of leather Hermes used to cover the bottle’s cap. If you own a bottle, try running your fingers over the satin-textured leather cap as you smell the perfume. Instead of building Cuir d’Ange around a crude leather accord that would typically use aroma chemicals redolent of burning tar, Ellena’s leather accord is more sensual. His accord captures the sensation of skin in contact with the soft and buttery leather used to create Hermes’ famous leathergoods. Ellena’s musks are opalescent, shimmering and dance on skin. The relationship between leather and skin is viewed through a romantic lens and this feels more fifty shades of pink rather than it being fifty shades of grey. The milky almond note inherent in heliotrope also adds to the softness of the fragrance and hours later, what remains on skin is a delicate veil of spiced milk, musk and woods.
I am watching with interest to see what affect the union of Jean-Claude Ellena and renowned perfumer Christine Nagel has on Hermes perfumes. Hermes recruited Nagel to join Ellena last year, and I am guessing Cuir d’Ange is one of the last Hermes perfumes we will see that is entirely his own. Thinking of Santal Massoia and Cuir d’Ange, I feel like Ellena has turned another creative corner in his career. Sometimes described as perfumery’s equivalent to a watercolour painter, Ellena’s most recent Hermessence perfumes have a new sense of weight and richness; to me they feel more like oil paintings. It is exciting to see where Ellena’s olfactory journey will take us next. Coming into Australia’s cooler months, I’m enjoying Cuir d’Ange even more. It wears close to the skin, creating a cocooning sillage. It feels like a winter cashmere stole.
Perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena
Bottle Designer: Annie Beaumel – adapted by Hermes Studio
Release Date: 2014
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Dry Woods