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Tête à Tête With Jean-Claude Ellena

On the eve of publishing his memoirs, the master perfumer talks to WWD’s Pete Born about the art — and commerce — of modern perfumery.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 03/08/2013

Jean-Claude Ellena, the exclusive perfumer of the house of Hermès since 2004, is a giant in his field who has made a long series of landmark perfumes. He has the sublime skill of a master craftsman and the vision of an artist. He is also a perceptive and emotive writer who has just published The Diary of A Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, his meditation on the transcendent voyage of creating fine perfume.

This story first appeared in the March 8, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Recently, he sat down for a wide-ranging discussion on his career and the profession he so loves.

The book is about your creative life. How do you start a project? Do you start with a concept, an idea?
JEAN-CLAUDE ELLENA:
Always I have an idea. My desk is a kitchen table and I have running ideas. When Hermès comes to me and says we need a new cologne or men’s fragrance, I need something to propose. You have to decide, make a choice. So I pick one and I start to work more on it. Sometimes during the process I might stop and say, “This is not a good idea,” so then I change.

In the book you talk about jazz and your appreciation of Bill Evans, and how you would like to transpose those “sound colors” into “olfactory colors.” How would you like to paint those sound notes in perfume?
JCE:
I love the rhythm of Bill Evans, the way he plays jazz, and this is kind of a challenge with me. If I can make perfumes as beautiful as he plays music, then I would be happy. The link is more in the challenge, not the link in the way of translation. For myself, it means a lot to give this kind of emotion to somebody else.

There’s been some talk with some perfumers like Christophe Laudamiel about trying to make perfumery a popular art form, like music and movies. Are you in that school? Do you think it should be to that level of popularity or it should be more esoteric?
JCE:
This is what I call a marketing answer. It’s not a problem for an artist. I do what I feel, and if what I do pleases people, then I’m happy. This is enough.

In the book you indicate that you would like perfumery to be appreciated as an intellectual body of work with a coherent philosophy, rather than just a happy collection of smells.
JCE:
For me, perfume is very serious. This is my problem. It means for me, all the intellectual process and all the philosophy are my own feelings. But when I give the perfume to someone, they can’t understand it at this level. If you understand at this level, good. I’m happy. But if you understand only on the level of “I like it”—this is enough. Really, this is enough.

Take reading. You can understand a book at the level of a story; you’ve read the story because you want to know the end. Or, you take the story and you like the style, the way that I write. This is a plus. But there are a lot of people who don’t read at this level, they read only at the level of the story. If I take William Faulkner, who I like very much, you have such a lot of levels—you can read only at the level of the story, but if you read at the level of the style—this is deeply more interesting, because how he writes is amazing. But you are not obliged to read at this level.

There have been many arguments about the value of market testing, and you certainly don’t believe in it. Why not?
JCE:
[Laughs] Because I’m sure about me, meaning I know if I’ve done good work. I don’t know if I’ve made a success, because this is out of my control. It’s the public or the advertising that gives you success. There are no recipes for success, but there are recipes to do good work. I believe that now I know if I’ve done good work, so when I get something, I say, “Okay! It’s well done.”

Does marketing have too much influence on the fragrance business?
JCE:
Yes. Marketing doesn’t know what inspiration is. They tell you how to sell, but not how to be creative.

Do you have any ideas about how we should foster that creativity? Everybody complains about too many launches.
JCE:
That’s right! But this is not new. It’s always been like that. The industry has to give creativity back to the artists and not to the marketing people. If Hermès is doing so well, it is because Jean-Louis Dumas [the late chairman of Hermès] always said it’s the artists inside Hermès who say what to do.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, perfumes like Chanel No. 5 and Guerlain’s Shalimar were fashion sensations. The business is now going through a bit of a renaissance, but how do you think it can regain the popular glamour of the past?
JCE:
You have to care about quality—quality not only of the perfume, but also of the bottle, of the packaging—quality everywhere.

In the book, you touch on the subject of art versus commerce. How do you find the balance between the art of making perfume and the necessity of it having to sell?
JCE:
You have to find a balance. If you only look at the results, it’s wrong. If you start to listen to people—they don’t know what they want, but they know what they don’t like or what they like. So you have to propose. What is a way to be there and not ask the market what they need? Because the market really doesn’t know. This is my belief.

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