Master Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena 'I Smell with My Brain'

Jean-Claude Ellena is one of the world's best-known perfumers. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses how he designs new scents, why people like certain smells and what stinks about being a "nose."

Jean-Claude Ellena, 65, was born in Grasse, in Provence, the son of a perfumer. In 2004, he became in-house perfumer for Hermès, where perfume sales have since more than doubled. The company set up a laboratory for Ellena near Grasse in a late 1960s architect's villa surrounded by black pines and blessed with a view of the Côte d'Azur through full-length windows. Ellena's new memoir is entitled: "The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur."

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Ellena, you are considered the best "nose" in the world. Does it seem strange to you that perfumers are called "noses," whereas no one would think of calling a conductor an "ear"?

Ellena: Yes, it's funny, particularly in my case, because it doesn't actually match what I do. As an organ, my nose simply performs a control function. I smell with my brain. It stores every scent and knows how to combine them. The perfumes I create originate in my head.

SPIEGEL: Is that typical?

Ellena: There are perfumers who take a more intuitive approach than I do. My father, for example, and my daughter, as well. Come on! Let's take a break and go over to my lab and I'll show you something.

SPIEGEL: A break? We just got started.

Ellena: It doesn't matter. Come on, come on.

SPIEGEL: What are you planning? Why are you opening all these bottles?

Ellena: We're going to play a little. Take this test strip; I've dabbed it with orange oil. Wait a moment! I'm soaking the next one in a chemical substance called Rhubofix. And, now, lay both test strips next to one another -- et voilà. What do you smell?

SPIEGEL: Grapefruit.

Ellena: Ah, correct. And now -- one moment please -- take this coconut scent and now this strip with mint scent and, again, lay them on top of each other. Do you smell it? Fig. And, now, choose a scent.

SPIEGEL: Oh dear. Very well, how about passion fruit?

Ellena: I'm sorry, that's not possible. I don't have the ingredients here. I've reduced the number of ingredients I work with, and now I have only 200. Most perfumers have 1,000.

SPIEGEL: You've limited yourself by choice?

Ellena: Yes, it's a matter of control. Excess scares me. And I want to force myself to create simple scents. The first perfume I made, when I was 28, called "First" …

SPIEGEL: … which was a great success …

Ellena: … well, it's a bit overloaded, with 160 ingredients. Far too many. My scent Terre d'Hermès, from 2006, has just 30 ingredients. That's good. I want to be simple, like a Japanese haiku. It's actually the most difficult thing, being simple.

SPIEGEL: Here in your laboratory, you have as many chemical scents as natural ones. Most people think a good perfume needs to be entirely natural.

Ellena: Yes, unfortunately that's true. It's a matter of names. We associate images with natural scents. When we hear "patchouli," we think of a flowering plant from India; when we hear "vetiver," we think of grass. But when you give things chemical names, they lose their poetry, and people become afraid. Chemistry is seen as a bad thing. But chemistry isn't a bad thing for us as perfumers. In fact, the entire industry first came into being because of the enormous developments in chemistry at the end of the century before last. Everything we call perfume today is always a combination of natural and chemical ingredients.

SPIEGEL: Why is the perfume industry dominated by France?

Ellena: It's because of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who very much supported leather, cloth and perfume production. Thank you, Roi Soleil! And since we've been working with perfumes for so long in France, we're good at what we do. It's a matter of experience. These days, though, the industry doesn't allow young people the time they need to develop. After all, we learn from our mistakes.

SPIEGEL: You've just written a book in which you emphasize how closely you are involved with the arts. Do you wish to liberate the perfumer's work from the sphere of capital?

Ellena: Developing perfumes is a creative process. What I do is different from what a craftsperson does. When craftspeople begin their work, they have an idea of what they will end up with, whereas I haven't the slightest idea. I'm also not ashamed of the fact that perfume is a luxury product and that people earn money from it. Please! Those are jobs being created.

SPIEGEL: Talking about perfume is more difficult than talking about art.

Ellena: Do you think so? How would you describe a painting by an unknown artist? "Oh, it's very blue." Or: "It's a lovely, dark red." Then you get no further than that. We help ourselves out by using the artist's name, and that makes it easier to talk about: "Ah, okay, it's a van Gogh." When it comes to perfume, the industry has helped us out with a similar trick. The moment someone says, "It's Chanel No. 5," then everyone has an idea of what it is.

SPIEGEL: You wouldn't have written a book about the daily life of a perfumer if everyone already knew about it. It's a profession we don't talk about very much.

Ellena: Thirty years ago, I may well have been the first to talk to journalists about perfume. At that point, it was fashion magazines, and they wanted three or four sentences. Now, though, people recognize that this is an important line of industry. Far more revenue is made with perfume than with CDs or DVDs, and we talk about CDs constantly. When it comes to talking about scents, yes, we're still in the early stages.

SPIEGEL: The words we choose are telling: In German, you say that someone "composes" a perfume. Do you see yourself as a composer?

Ellena: What I do is far removed from what a composer does. After all, there are only 12 different notes that provide the foundation in music. Okay, yes, you can vary those notes in an endless number of ways, but you have to consider that my foundation consists of 200 scents. And, even more importantly, the equivalent of musical harmony is created in a very different way in perfumes. In music, for example, there is the triad: C-E-G. I can play those three notes simultaneously on the piano and then I have harmony. With perfumes, though, I can mix two ingredients, as we just did, but they don't actually meld. Each scent evaporates in a different way and, ultimately, the individual scents continue to exist in parallel. Things can truly blend in music, though not in perfume. That creates a challenge, but also an opportunity.

SPIEGEL: Your scents give the impression that this is exactly what you're trying to demonstrate. They are not just lovely; you always mix a small element of confusion in them, something bitter or even slightly foul. Beauty, as some poets claim, only becomes apparent when it very nearly crosses over into something ugly. Do you share this view?

Ellena: Oh, if we start talking about beauty, we'll be sitting here together for a few more days. If you see it that way, that's okay. All I can say is that I've grappled with the question of what this means, what I've just described to you: that scents don't actually mix but, rather, exist in parallel. I'm interested in Japan, Zen Buddhism, Taoism. The idea of the Tao is that it is complete, that everything belongs together, although the Tao is made up of components that can't actually be brought together. This idea confirms my experiences with perfume.

SPIEGEL: But what distinguishes a good perfume from a bad one? The quality of the basic ingredients?

Ellena: Not necessarily. Sometimes I achieve a better result with ingredients of mediocre quality rather than with exquisite ones. The important thing to me is that a scent corresponds to my idea of it. I'll give you an example: I wanted to use a lavender scent for a perfume and combine it with licorice. So I went to a lavender field nearby -- good quality. But I have my own idea of lavender, and this lavender from the field had elements that deviated from my idea. So I went to a laboratory and told the chemist there: "There are these small molecules that don't sit well with me." Three hundred separate molecules make up the scent of lavender. The chemist broke the lavender down into its component molecules and removed the ones I didn't want. Then I liked the scent.

SPIEGEL: A perfume only works if a large number of people like it. How do you determine what is currently in demand?

Ellena: I don't want to know. That's the wrong approach. A perfume is right if it's right for me. When I was young, I was very interested in the market and wanted to do everything right. I wanted to serve this and that interest. And what came out of that? As I said, an overloaded scent.

'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
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