Penguin, 175pp, £14.99
HIS artistic creations have earned comparisons to Mozart, but Jean-Claude Ellena’s latest book, The Diary Of A Nose, A Year In The Life Of A Parfumeur, sadly fails to achieve the masterpiece status of many of his fragrances. Admittedly, it’s difficult to describe the artistic process, and describing an artform that’s also a multi-million pound industry is tougher still, since the last thing you want to do is give away state secrets.
Ellena’s previous book, Perfume: The Alchemy Of Scent, took readers on a behind-the-scenes look at the industry, describing how fragrance is conceived and marketed. This, however, is a series of pensées and, while it dishes up food for thought, it never adds up to a fully satisfying meal.
With more than 40 years’ experience, Ellena is one of the world’s most accomplished perfumers, and in 2004 he became the first “parfumeur exclusif” for the luxury brand Hermès. Given an enviable degree of freedom, he chooses to work alone and at his own pace in a glass cube not far from the French Riviera. Ellena’s goal is to convey the emotion of an odour, rather than merely capture it in a bottle. “I do not choose a raw material on the grounds of the quality of the smell, but also for the possible uses I anticipate for it,” he writes, and elsewhere, explains: “When I want to evoke a smell, I use signs that – taken separately – have no connection with the thing I’m expressing; there has never been any tea in Bvlgari’s Eau Parfumée Au Thé Vert, mango in Un Jardin Sur Le Nil by Hermès, or flint in Terre d’Hermès, yet the public ‘feel’ they are there... Although perfumers are traditionally compared to musical composers, I have always felt like a writer of smells.”
For that reason, though he does use code numbers for samples, he also names them, for therein hang their tales.
Despite the long leash he’s on, Ellena bemoans the fact that marketeers rule the world, and describes the psychological struggle between wanting to please his employer – and by extension, the public – and the need to be true to his artistic vision. He is amazed that his Terre d’Hermès is the fourth bestselling men’s fragrance in France, and equally puzzled about the relative lack of success of Un Jardin Après La Mousson, “which I believe is one of the most beautiful floral compositions I have written”.
The final section, A Summary Of Smells, will only be of interest or practical use to students of perfumery. Bearing in mind that the natural smell of chocolate is an amalgamation of several hundred molecules, Ellena presents a rough guide to the compositions of just under 20 smells – from hyacinths to sugared almonds. Candyfloss, for example, can be conjured with vanillin and ethyl maltol, while gardenia can be evoked via aldehyde C-18 prunolide, styrallyl acetate and methyl anthranilate.
“Smell is a word, perfume is literature,” says Ellena at the outset. Sadly that’s not an apt description of the diary, but it certainly is a must-read for his fans and for completists building perfume libraries both in books and bottles. «
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