NEW YORK — Hermès perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena offered insights into his methods of composing fragrance for the Friends of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute here Wednesday night.
Ellena, who just published a book titled "Perfume" (Presses Universitaires de France), gave a 45 minute lecture called "Le Parfum" before nearly 100 people in front of the Temple of Dendur in the museum's Sackler Wing. He explored a range of topics, including his sources of inspiration, how he interprets aromas and the way fragrances are perceived.
For instance, the olfactory notes of a fragrance are often compared with the musical notes of a song. However, while music is "successive" in structure, with one note audible after another, Ellena asserted that this structure is nonexistent in perfume — the notes of a scent are perceptible as soon as one opens the bottle, he said. "Olfactory expression is total," Ellena said in French through a translator.
Ellena's intention is not to literally translate aromas while composing a scent, he said, but to interpret them and, from these interpretations, illustrate something in nature. He spoke of specific aromas that have come to represent places, namely mango fruit, which became representative of the Nile River; a fig leaf, which came to represent the Mediterranean, and green tea, to represent Japan.
"I am a pilferer, a thief, a scavenger of odors," he said, adding he's not interested in copying nature but rather "transforming it" and conveying aspects of nature using as few materials as possible. "It's a challenge to be simple," he said. "If I'm simple, the better [one] understands." If a composition is "too complex," he said, "the message is lost."
Ellena, a 60-year-old native of Grasse, France, started in perfumery at age 17. In the five years since becoming perfumer at Hermès, Ellena said he has created a dozen scents for the fashion house. When asked if he has a favorite fragrance among his creations, he replied, "Each one is important to me. I prefer to be judged on all the fragrances I create, not just on one."A lover of food and wine — and the interaction between the two — Ellena said prior to the lecture that he often goes beyond just smelling flowers. "Just by curiosity," he said, "when I smell something, I have to eat it." He of course checks with a friend who's a botanist before consuming flowers. "Peony and tulips are very good," he said, adding he avoids eating lily of the valley. "It's poisonous," he said.
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