After a career of almost half a century, Jean-Claude Ellena retired 3 years ago. Ellena practically grew up in the jasmine fields, where his grandmother picked the flowers. While working as a teenager in a factory where essential oils were made, he learned about other ingredients. He literally breathed their aromas while processing them. That experience led him to the (internal) perfume school of Givaudan. And that was the start of an exciting career in perfumery.
Working for different big brands, he decided to start a niche label on the side in 2000. He founded The Different Company, together with designer Thierry de Baschmakoff. When Hermès asks him in 2004 to become their house perfumer, he trusts his daughter Céline to succeed him at The Different Company. He is happy at Hermès, enjoying a creative freedom that not many perfumers have. He retires in 2016, succeeded by Christine Nagel. In his book ‘L’Ecrivain des odeurs‘ (’the writer of scents’) he claims he chose Nagel himself, but nevertheless seemed to struggle at one point with her very different style.
The signature of Jean-Claude Ellena
Ellena got his first break in 1976 with First, a perfume for Van Cleef & Arpels. The bright aldehydic floral reflected the luster of their jewelry line. It was the first ‘perfume bijoux’. Later on he also made perfumes for other jewellers like Bvlgari and Cartier. First is a fairly baroque perfume (typical for that time), a perfect point of reference to see his style evolve towards less complicated yet refined formulas. Heavily influenced by his mentor Edmond Roudnitska (who created perfumes for Dior such as Eau Sauvage and Diorissimo), his signature increasingly ‘purified’. He makes the most out of high quality ingredients, stripped of any frills. His perfumes are like haikus: every note has its function, but still with a certain poetry.
Yet that label of ‘minimalism’ bothered him, as if he was incapable of making a sensual, feminine perfume. With Jour d’Hermès and L’Eau d’Hiver for Frederic Malle he tried to put an end to these prejudices.
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Jean-Claude Ellena has a way with words. He has written several books and regularly gives talks. He likes to be interviewed by journalists (often to the envy of many of his colleagues) and they like him. Journalist Chandler Burr followed him during the development of Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, who wrote a book about it: The Perfect Scent: A year in the perfumery industry.
Must smells by Jean-Claude Ellena
*Van Cleef & Arpels First: a typical seventies aldehyde floral fragrance that has not withstood the years very well. But it remains an interesting point of reference to compare his later work with and to see how his style evolves.
*Bvlgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert: the first perfume that used tea as an ingredient (to my knowledge). Quite innovative for that time.
*Frederic Malle L’Eau d’Hiver: an unusually sensual perfume for Ellena. This ‘eau chaude’ starts off very fresh and wraps you imperceptibly in a creamy almond veil.
*L’Artisan Perfumer Bois Farine: perhaps his most unusual creation, inspired by a tree found exclusively on La Réunion. The blossoms smell of flower (flour), Ellena incorporated the aroma into a dry powdery woody scent.
*Hermès Un Jardin Sur Le Nil: this is one of the most interesting perfumes in the Jardin range. A floral perfume with unusual aromas of green mango, carrot and tomato leaf that make the prominent wood base a little less severe. Original without foolishness. The process is described in Chandler Burr’s book The Perfect Scent.
Hermès Terre d’Hermès: a male classic with a large female fanbase. It very well reflects Ellena’s signature, thanks to key ingredients such as grapefruit, Iso E Super and vetiver, which you can find in a lot of his creations.