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Conjuring paradise

The minimalist master of perfume, Jean-Claude Ellena, aims not to capture nature but to perfect it.

October 28, 2007|Lanie Goodman | Special to The Times

GRASSE, FRANCE — On a warm autumn morning, Jean-Claude Ellena emerges from his glass-walled villa perched on a wooded hilltop in the Riviera backcountry near the village of Cabris. Dressed in gray slacks and a crisp white shirt, he is quietly handsome with a ready laugh and a mischievous glint in his eyes. At 60, he carries about him an aura of Cary Grant.

Although Ellena rarely gives interviews, today he is happy to talk. After four decades in Paris and New York creating more than 100 fragrances including bestsellers such as Van Cleef & Arpels' First, Bulgari's Eau Parfumee au The Vert and, more recently, Terre d'Hermes, he is finally where he wants to be: hidden away in a Provencal pine forest where he can explore his inspiration.

One of the most accomplished perfumers in France, if not the world, Ellena considers himself less a nose (as perfumers are referred to) than a "fragrance composer," a fitting sobriquet considering the chain of melodies that he's recently scored for his newest employer, Hermes. Minimal yet evocative, simple yet complex, Ellena's fragrances continue to be unconventional.

"I have no interest in trying to reproduce nature," he says, explaining his philosophy. From a big wooden desk in the living room, Ellena mulls over his formulas while taking in a view of the forest and the Mediterranean in the distance. "I want to transform it, create olfactory illusions. Perfume isn't only about the scent of flowers. I can add molecules to make a fragrance harsh, soft, dry, fresh, bubbly, light, cool and warm."

His latest illusion in the Hermessences collection launched this month and is called Brin de Reglisse, which translates to "a bit of licorice." To create it, he felt he needed a little help and turned to his colleagues at an independent perfume lab in Grasse. He asked them to slice natural lavender into 50 distinct groups of molecules, sniffed them all, discarded five and reassembled it. "My lavender had a much purer, cleaner smell," he says, comparing it with the natural scent. "Then I had to find something to dress it up that would be a little unusual. I chose a touch of licorice."

His laboratory is a small, sunlit back room in the villa that Hermes acquired especially for him (he lives a short walk away), with a table and a stainless steel carousel filled with 200 tiny glass vials of synthetic and natural odors. There are two scales to weigh samples to the exact milligram and a mini-fridge to store pricey undiluted essential oils. Rose oil, for instance, sells for almost $8,500 for a little more than 2 pounds.

Ellena's methodology -- and originality -- provides a sharp contrast to the world of perfume today. Indeed, he represents a throwback to another time and place when perfume was a carefully crafted luxury commodity designed for elite and wealthy clientele. That his fragrances are both luxurious and accessible is a mark of his adaptability to modern tastes.

When Ellena was approached by Hermes in 2004 about becoming its official in-house perfumer (Chanel, Patou and Caron are the only other luxury brands with their own nose), he accepted but only on his own terms: He'd be allowed to dream up formulas at his own pace and on his own turf.

"He's a veritable aesthete," says perfume expert Jean Kerleo, Patou's chief nose for 35 years and now the founding president of France's national perfume conservatory. "He started his training very young, at home with his father, who was a very good perfumer. After working many years with huge multinational companies, he's been able to pursue a very personal direction."

Ellena began his training as an apprentice in a local perfume factory in 1964 when he was 17. Over the years he has cultivated a deep memory of odors, an olfactory vocabulary that he draws upon when he begins developing a new fragrance. Perhaps the greatest professional influence in his life was the renowned perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, who created Eau Sauvage for Christian Dior in the 1960s and was a pioneer at developing minimalist formulas.

In the early 1990s, Ellena worked in New York for two years and found the American corporate approach too cut and dried. "I've been told that I'm very French," he says, "and the way I presented my ideas didn't go over well. I'd be talking poetry; they'd be talking product, and whether or not it would make money."

His decision to leave Manhattan -- and an industry in which he'd receive marketing directives such as "make it smell like a woman in stilettos" -- is not surprising. Due to market pressures over the last few decades, most perfume is diluted into eau de toilette or eau de parfum. What was once an elitist privilege -- purchasing a highly crafted extrait de parfum -- is no longer in vogue. Many luxury brands, in their struggle to create new perfumes and advertise them, cut costs mostly by producing less expensive, less complicated fragrances.

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