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Scent and sensibility

Most of us wear fragrances because they smell nice. But perfumer Jean Claude Ellena’s scents appeal to those who want a little bit more than ‘nice’. Vir Sanghvi tells more.

fashion and trends Updated: Jul 31, 2010 17:22 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The one designer product that nearly all of us – including those who claim to have no interest in fashion or are openly contemptuous of it – will use is fragrance. Most men will wear some kind of after-shave; the overwhelming majority of women will wear perfume at some stage in their lives and many of us will use fragrance in some other form: shaving foam, perfumed soap, room freshener, skin care products etc.

And yet, even though fragrance is the world’s most used designer product, it is the one element of the fashion world that is subject to the most misconceptions and has the most outright lies told about it.

These misconceptions originate from the fashion houses themselves and one lie is particularly persistent.

This is the notion that a designer makes his own perfume. Never has this been true. Coco Chanel may have invented the little black dress but she never claimed to have created No. 5. Christian Dior launched the New Look but he did not design the few great Dior fragrances that came out during his lifetime.

ScentAnd now, it is even less true. Ralph Lauren has probably had no greater contact with Polo Black or Romance than attending the odd meeting where he was asked to smell the fragrance and okay it before it went out. Giorgio Armani does not sit in his tight blue T-shirt and devise such fragrances as Armani Mania though he may well have a decisive say in the packaging.



Right from the era of Chanel and Dior, the serious business of creating perfumes has been left to specialists. Chanel used Ernest Beaux (who created No. 5) and Dior depended on such perfumery geniuses as Edmond Roudnitska (who created such great scents as Diorissimo and Eau Sauvage).

In recent years, the process is even more industrialised. When a fashion house decides to launch a fragrance, it sends out a brief to several professional perfume companies (with names like Symrise and Firmenich). These companies employ in-house perfumers who submit samples to the fashion house. Eventually, after much market research, the house selects one of these samples. It is promptly launched as “the great new fragrance from Dior/Armani/Ralph Lauren etc.” The man who actually designed the fragrance is never named. Nor does anybody ever talk about the perfume company that actually makes the fragrance and supplies it to the fashion house.

Within the perfume business however, the men and women who actually create the fragrances are revered. Mention Acqua di Gio to somebody who understands perfume and he will not say “Giorgio Armani.” Instead, he will say “Francoise Caron.” Mention M7, and he will not say “Yves Saint Laurent” or even “Tom Ford” (who took the credit for the fragrance during its launch). He will say “Alberto Morillas and Jacques Cavallier” or even “Firmenich,” the company that made the terrific (but commercially disappointing) fragrance.

Once you understand the perfumers, then the brand names become irrelevant. And often they become irritating. For instance, if you like Ralph Lauren’s Polo, you should know that Calvin Klein nearly launched the same fragrance under his own name. It was only when he turned it down (a mistake) that the perfume company took it to Lauren. So the fragrance really has nothing to do with either designer.

Among the superstar perfumers of our time, one name is starting to stand out: Jean Claude Ellena. Even though you have probably never heard of him, you may know some of the fragrances he has created: First, for Van Cleef and Arpels; Declaration for Cartier; Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert for Bvlgari and now, an entire range for Hermès.

Most French perfumers grow up in the small town of Grasse, which has been the centre of the perfume trade for decades. Ellena’s father was a perfumer. So is his brother. And so is his daughter. In Grasse, perfume is a family thing.

Over the last two or three decades however, the Grasse tradition of distinctively French perfumes has taken a beating. An American tradition has taken root in the market. And constant focus grouping of new scents has meant that most recent perfume launches tend to be bland, nearly identical, cheapo fragrances designed for the duty-free shops of busy airports.

Some houses have resisted this trend. Chanel has always made its own fragrances and now Hermès has followed suit, hiring Ellena as its in-house perfumer. But while the great French houses are struggling to find an identity for their scents in the global market, Hermès has found in Ellena a perfumer who has created his own school of fragrance, neither French nor American but distinctive enough to win both critical plaudits and commercial success.

I went to Grasse to meet Ellena at the villa that he uses as his workshop. Almost the first thing he did after saying ‘hello,’ was to dip two paper strips into two different vials. One vial contained a molecule called isobutyl phenyl acetate, and the other had ethyl vanillin (the vanilla note used most famously in Shalimar). He made me smell them. It was the smell of chocolate.

He dipped a strip into another bottle and held it next to the first two. It was now the unmistakable scent of gingerbread.
As I watched in astonishment, his assistant asked if I wanted something to drink. It was a hot day in the South of France so I asked for a Coke.

“Ah yes,” said Ellena and dipped four new strips into four vials. (Apparently, these were ethyl vanillin, cinnamon, orange and lime). I smelt deeply as he held out the four strips.

He had created the smell of Coke.

If you know a little bit about fragrance, you will know that these are tricks. Chocolate is an incredibly complex smell comprising scores of molecules, not just two. Coca Cola has many more than four basic smells within it. Ellena could not possibly have created the full smells of either chocolate or Coke.

But here’s the thing: I believed I was smelling chocolate and Coke.

That, to Ellena, is the essence of perfumery. All smells are essentially ideas. A good perfumer does not slavishly recreate the exact smell of something. He understands the idea of a smell and chooses ingredients that convey that idea. For instance, it is difficult – if not impossible – to extract the smells of lily of the valley or gardenia from the flowers. But hundreds of perfumes claim to smell of both flowers – many are even called ‘Gardenia’ or ‘Muguet’ (French for lily of the valley).

In each case, talented perfumers have used other ingredients to create the idea of the smells of lily of the valley and gardenia.

Ellena takes this idea to extremes. As he says, “I am not interested in reproducing nature in its complexity. What I love is the process of internalising it and transforming it to my taste. Illusion is more true than reality. The plausible is more believable than the true.” (He is French, after all).

Ellena’s style consists of creating olfactory illusions. Consequently, his fragrances are often too subtle to be instantly appealing. Take the saga of his tea fragrance.

In the 1980s, Ellena began to feel that there was a fragrance in the idea of milk-less tea. He wanted the freshness of green tea, the smell of the water boiling, the scent of the smoke. But he did not want to extract tea essence and turn it into a perfume. It was the idea of the tea experience that interested him.

He played around with perfume ingredients and created a smell that captured the experience without actually smelling of tea extract. When Dior asked for submissions for a new men’s fragrance to be called Farenheit, he sent in his tea scent. Dior loved it. Ellena got the job.

Then, they focus grouped the scent. And it failed. Nobody liked it. No man wanted to be reminded of green tea throughout the day. They wanted the standard ‘fresh’ smelling male fragrance.

Dior suddenly backtracked. They rejected Ellena’s fragrance and went with another sample submitted by somebody else. (That’s what is bottled as Farenheit today – though unless I am very wrong, they have mucked about with the formula since the original launch).

Devastated, Ellena took his tea fragrance to Saint Laurent. They turned it down as well. So did nearly everybody else till the jewellery house of Bvlgari agreed to use it as a limited edition scent to be sold only in their stores.

It became so popular in Bvlgari stores that the company realised it had a potential best-seller on its hands and quickly launched it on the mass market. Not only was it a huge commercial success (so much for focus groups!), but it was also vastly influential. Today, everybody does a tea scent. There’s Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea range and there are tea scents at the top of the market (L’Artisan) and the middle (L’Occitane). All this is a tribute to Ellena’s vision.

But the sincerest compliment came a little later when Calvin Klein perfumes tweaked the scent a little, played down the tea element, added some commercially popular ‘fresh’ molecules and sent it out as CK One (by Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont). CK One led to more clones and today that single idea in Ellena’s head has led to a whole gamut of scents.

Ellena did his first perfume for Hermès as a perfumer for hire but Jean-Louis Dumas, the head of Hermès, liked the scent so much that he decided to hire Ellena as Hermès’ in-house perfumer. Ellena agreed, he says, because he thought that Hermès and he shared the same sensibility – elegance and simplicity and a cerebral attitude to beauty.

Hermès has a long (non-commercial) connection with India (largely because of Jean Louis Dumas’ love for the country) so it asked Ellena to do a monsoon fragrance. He had never been to India but went off to Calcutta at Hermes’ bidding. He liked the city well enough but (understandably enough) did not think there was a best-selling fragrance in its smells.
Hermès suggested he try Kerala instead and his monsoon fragrance, Un Jardin Après la Mousson, launched a few years ago, was a hit, both critically and commercially. (Try it: it has no specific Indian smell but its fragrance transports you to the backwaters).

His biggest success for Hermès however was the blockbuster Terre d’Hermès, a relatively simple fragrance (Ellena uses under 30 ingredients per fragrance; others can use over 100) in the Ellena mould but less subtle and therefore more instantly appealing. It is Hermes’s biggest seller and has already become a classic. (I asked the great Jacques Polge of Chanel to name a masculine fragrance of the last five years that he admired and he picked Terre). Terre will be as influential, I think, as the tea scent and his brilliant Declaration for Cartier which merged smoke, clove, cardamom, coriander and cinnamon in a citrusy men’s fragrance.

There’s a new fragrance out this year, which is subtler than Terre which I wear and love. Sadly I can’t talk about Voyage d’Hermès until it is launched in India in September.

Ellena is something of a free spirit. He is aware of his own talent and eager to do different things with fragrance. One of my favourites of his fragrances is a cologne he did for the niche perfume house of Frederic Malle using bitter bigarade oranges. The idea was to do a cologne with an unusual note to replace the standard citrus. Ellena’s other credits include a firm called The Different Company which he started with a partner and where his daughter is now perfumer.

When we met in Grasse, he was good enough to suggest a picnic lunch in the garden of his villa-workshop. It was somehow typical of Ellena that the food came in picnic baskets from La Bastide Saint Antoine, a two Michelin star restaurant run by Jacques Chibois in Grasse. Ellena likes his food and enjoys the connection between fragrance and cuisine. The three star chef Pierre Gagnaire uses Terre d’Hermès and loves it so much that he has created a dish that incorporates the smells of the fragrance. (It is served at many of Gagnaire’s restaurants including Sketch in London). Alain Senderens, another famous French chef, once invited Ellena for dinner and constructed a whole menu around his fragrances.

I asked Ellena what it was like living life with a hyper developed nose. Does he judge everything by smell? What about wine, for instance? The answer seemed to be that while he valued smell, he did not trust it as a reliable indicator of the truth (“the illusion is more true than reality,” notwithstanding). For instance, even wines that smelt great did not always taste as good, he said, a little sadly.

So Ellena does not necessarily dismiss people on the basis of how they smell. He remembers going, as a young man, to see the great perfumer Edmond Roudnitska and being sent away because Roudnitska thought he smelt of ‘cheap musks.’ Now. Ellena uses no fragrance himself because he thinks it might interfere with his nose. And he avoids the proximity of cheap fragrances. He is particularly annoyed by the smell of dihydromyrcenol, the molecule used in detergents (and increasingly, in men’s fragrances). His own clothes are never washed in detergents with that smell. And if he goes to a hotel where the pillow reeks of dihydromyrcenol, he puts one of his shirts over it before he goes to sleep.

Unlike many perfumers, Ellena now treats fragrance as an intellectual activity. His first big hit, First for Van Cleef & Arpels, is widely admired but it is recognisably a fragrance within the French tradition. The work he has done since then is not so easy to classify. Declaration marked a departure for men’s fragrances. And the green tea scent invented a whole new genre. He can still churn out classical fragrances but he would much rather do something that has not been done before – an ambitious aspiration in a business where commercial success can be elusive.

The success of such fragrances as Terre and now Voyage (available in most of the world though not yet launched in India) demonstrates that the world is now ready for intellectual fragrances, for scents that break with classical traditions and that rise above the clichés of the duty free shop.

Most of us wear fragrances because they smell nice. But Ellena’s scents appeal to those who want a little bit more than ‘nice.’ They tend to be bought by people who want to smell ‘interesting.’

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