Master Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena 'I Smell with My Brain'
Part 2: 'Interesting Scents Exist Everywhere in the World'
SPIEGEL: You were born here in Grasse, in Provence, where there are still dozens of perfume companies. Is this the only place once can be a good perfumer?
Ellena: Interesting scents exist everywhere in the world. I live here because my family is here. When Hermès hired me, I told them I didn't want to go to their headquarters in Paris. I need distance. Anyone doing creative work needs that. And you work more when you're alone. I start every day at 8:30 a.m. Perfume is my passion, but passion without discipline won't get you anywhere.
SPIEGEL: At most companies, marketing people decide which perfumes will be released on the market, but you insisted on being able to decide that yourself. In other words, if it's a flop, it's your flop.
Ellena: Marketing people should concern themselves with how to sell things. What makes a good perfume is something that I know better. But, it's true, working on any new scent involves a certain element of fear -- the fear of having no idea.
SPIEGEL: Your Terre d'Hermès was considered a great success. Your Un Jardin après la Mousson, on the other hand, was considered a flop. Do you have an explanation?
Ellena: Perhaps it was the name. The word "terre," or "earth," is something most people understand, but not the word "mousson," or monsoon. I was determined to have this name, "a garden after the monsoon." But I've realized that most people in Europe either don't know what a monsoon is, or they think that this sort of heavy rain is a catastrophe because they've always heard about people dying from them. In India, though, a monsoon is associated with good fortune. People can irrigate their rice fields, and life begins anew. Do you think that perhaps I should have chosen "rain" instead of "monsoon"?
SPIEGEL: Looking out the big windows of your beautiful house here today, everything is overcast. How should a perfume smell that's meant to recall a rainy day?
Ellena: Intense. A scent is chemical information transformed into an electric signal. Our sense of smell is better when it's warm and humid, which is why we perceive smells more strongly in the tropics.
SPIEGEL: Your scent Un Jardin après la Mousson seems to tell an entire story. And you even say it that way, that you "write" perfumes. How does that work?
Ellena: Let's take Terre d'Hermès as an example. Once a year, all of Hermès' manufacturers receive a motto from the company's headquarters. This time it was "terre." One thing that might have called to my mind is ocher-colored earth. We associate colors with scents; for example, the color blue is fresh, like water. But that doesn't tell a story yet. I went to Ireland -- my wife is Irish -- and I sat outside and did watercolors. A landscape changes when people take possession of it. When I see a meadow that has a stick stuck in it, I know a person has been there. So I wanted to tell the story of humanity and earth. What scent occurred to me for a vertical stick of wood? Cedar. And for grass with roots reaching deep into the earth? Vetiver. So I progressed that way, the same way you might write a story, creating new associations.
SPIEGEL: That sounds poetic. But, in reality, what a person likes in a perfume is a simple thing.
Ellena: Yes, but for me as a perfumer, it's interesting to know how I achieve a good scent. People like to eat sweets and, as a manufacturer, I can quickly achieve an effect by using a lot of sugar. But, by doing so, I ruin the flavor. It's the same with overly sweet scents.
SPIEGEL: Taste and smell are certainly very close. Is there a connection between what you like to smell and what you like to eat?
Ellena: I like savory foods more than sweet ones. But I need to be careful with what I eat because it affects my sense of smell -- no garlic, nothing spicy, no onions. I like eating garlic, but only on Sundays.
SPIEGEL: What smells do you not like?
Ellena: A perfumer must maintain distance from all scents, the good ones, too. We like the familiar, the smells of our family -- that also has to do with the fact that we eat the same things. So we can't evaluate the smells from our direct environment very well. I'll tell you a story. When I was young, I was mentored by Edmond Roudnitska, a great perfumer who also lived here. One day, I rang his doorbell, but he sent me away, saying: "You stink of laundry detergent." The next day, I came back wearing the same thing, and this time he let me in. He showed me his dog, a Chow Chow, and told me he washed the dog every day with shampoo and water so it wouldn't smell. Now, I can't tell you that the dog didn't smell. But, then again, it wasn't my dog.
SPIEGEL: Did Roudnitska influence you more than your father, who was also a perfumer?
Ellena: My father rarely talked about his work, and my mother wasn't interested in it. Of course, she was interested in the money he earned from it. But my father sniffed everything -- the book he was reading or the food he ate. My mother found that unseemly. Perhaps I became a perfumer to find out what it was that fascinated my father so much.
SPIEGEL: Your father was the one who saw to it that you became a perfumer.
Ellena: Well, I was not a very good student, and my mother was concerned, but my father wasn't. He got me a job in the perfume industry in Grasse when I was 17.
SPIEGEL: The perfumer profession has changed, partly due to EU standards that have banned various ingredients.
Ellena: I take that as a challenge to think in a different way. Picasso once said: "If I don't have green, I'll use red." Voilà tout. That's all.
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Ellena, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
- Part 1: 'I Smell with My Brain'
- Part 2: 'Interesting Scents Exist Everywhere in the World'