Jean-Claude Ellena plays with the senses. He creates illusion from reality and makes reality from the illusion. He is a perfumer, a nose. He is the nose for Hermíƒ ¨s Paris. He can make the past as imminent as the present””all with one scent. But most extraordinary is his ability to recall a fragrance stored in his memory on command.
With the millions of dollars of machinery that go into the making of a scent, it is difficult to believe that Ellena conceives it all in his own head. Hermíƒ ¨s has hired Ellena to be their exclusive perfumer””an extraordinary fact given that Ellena is the first perfumer ever for the 100-plus-year-old house. In a marketing era of buying the soup du jour, committing to one nose is a bit uncommon.
But the approach at Hermíƒ ¨s is often unconventional. In fact, it was one of the reasons Ellena took the job. “When you enter Hermíƒ ¨s, you live in a house of métier where artisans build themselves,” Véronique Gautier, president of the Hermíƒ ¨s perfume division, says when the Georgia Straight comes to visit the Toronto Hermíƒ ¨s boutique. And this is so much more than a clever mission statement. What's startling about Ellena's work for the house is that he is never restricted to a marketing brief (a written description of what the new scent should aspire to). No focus groups, no advertising meetings; just Ellena and Gautier. “The Hermíƒ ¨s team gives me the freedom and open mind to create things. There are no market tests; we share together and decide like that what to put on the market,” he says in a separate interview in Toronto. (Vancouver's first Hermíƒ ¨s boutique opened June 1 at 755 Burrard Street.)
Several perfumes later””Un Jardin en Méditerranée, Un Jardin sur le Nil, the Hermessence line, and his latest, Terre d'Hermíƒ ¨s, a men's fragrance””it seems that Ellena works just fine without a marketing brief. He admits that there is nothing unusual about his sense of smell, except for the fact that he has spent 20 years mastering how to observe the various elements and notes in any given scent.
When Ellena sits down with the Straight to discuss his newest incarnations of illusion (Terre d'Hermíƒ ¨s and the addition of Osmanthe Yunnan to the Hermessence collection), he provides a quick primer on the attributes of an excellent perfume: persistence and sillage.
“Persistence is the ability of perfume to stay on the skin,” he says. “Depending on the fragrance, perfume can stay on the skin between one and six hours. For technical reasons this is sometimes easier to achieve [than sillage]. It is the same product that gives the same persistence and so at the end all the scents will smell alike.”
“Sillage, this is the aroma, the aura that surrounds you. I like this idea and I like to make this concrete””light and pleasant, which technically is very difficult.” Ellena is proud of never making sillage too “loud” or “aggressive” or so that “it disturbs you” . “This is not elegant. I search for subtility, presence, and transparence. Others create a wall. This is not nice. I reject this. I like to see a person.”
He likes to see the person, because in his philosophy a perfume is created when the fragrance meets the skin. To paraphrase Giorgio Armani, the beauty of a woman is not determined by the impact she makes upon entering a room but by how long she is remembered after leaving it.
When it comes to devising a scent, Ellena says his nose is merely a tool for control. The smell is already in his head. He invents a scent, then sets about making it. It is not a process of mixing then smelling but rather the reverse. “Creation is walking without really knowing where you are going, but you walk. The only thing is that the road has to be nice, but otherwise you walk,” he says with a laugh. A gentle walk, with plenty of time to stop and smell the roses.