One of the most thoughtful and polemical writings on perfumery, Edmond Roudnitska's booklet Le Parfum, sadly went out of print a few years ago. Although a classic in its own right, it showed too many signs of old age to be reproposed to the general public in the "Que sais-je"-series. To fill this unforgivable void, the publishers asked Jean-Claude Ellena to write a new booklet on perfumery under the same title. And much to my personal delight, it's finally available: I got my copy through French online bookstore fnac.
If you expect this new title to be the 2.0 version of its famous predecessor, you're in for a big disappointment. Ellena has his own story to tell: whereas Roudnitska's booklet was first and foremost a critical pamphlet (convincing lawmakers to attribute official artistic status to perfumery, in order to protect it from plagiarism), Ellena primarily focuses on his personal experiences in the field, leading us through some of his well-known creations to explain what he regards as the essence of his profession.
That profession, of course, has everything to do with olfaction. In a chapter dedicated to the sense of smell, Ellena discusses matters of sensitivity, perception, and the ability to distinguish fragrances from each other. I've always been intrigued by that last phenomenon; even more so since I've read Ellena's comment on that subject:
I can't think of anything that doesn't have a smell. As an apprentice, not only did I learn to make the olfactory distinction between a jasmin concrete from Egypt, Italy or Grasse, but also to determine from which evaporator the absolute was obtained: be it made of copper, tin, stainless steel, or a glass balloon. [...] In time, I learned to recognize the round odor obtained from copper, the elegant odor produced by tin, the metallic effect of stainless steel, and the flat odor generated by glass. This goes to show that with a little training, one can effectively learn to discriminate odors. (p. 25-26)
The ability to discriminate odors is only a small element in the perfumer's profession as a whole, but it's all the more important for someone as selective as Ellena. In his view, to create means to choose — and in the past 20 years, he effectively reduced his palette (he calls it his "collection") from 1000 to 200 ingredients:
There are about 20 cedar notes available on the market, but I only need four of them; of all the moss absolutes, I use only one; as for methyl ionones, alpha-ketone (known for its refinement) simply lacks character, therefore I use a variant that is five times cheaper, but with a much wider and more elegant odor characteristic. (p. 41)
To give you an idea of his sense of minimalism, Ellena has used a total of just 130 components for his last 10 creations. While this 60-year-old perfumer has nothing against the notion of progress, he likes to keep things as simple and down-to-earth as possible:
Despite all the software applications that help us with our formulations nowadays, I prefer to write my formulae down on a piece of paper, with 30 lines and 6 columns. That way I always have a general overview of the formula, and I can easily make technical or aesthetical annotations if necessary. I use the software to check for IFRA regulation conformities and pricing. (p. 45)
Intuition plays an important part in Ellena's compositions. His work revolves around curiosity, creativity, and the refusal to conform to rigid methods. And, perhaps just as importantly, he truly enjoys his job. His description of the creative process behind Hermès Un Jardin sur le Nil is a clear proof of that. On inspiration he writes:
I am a pilferer, a thief, a scavenger of odors. To me, nature is a pretext, a point of departure, not a source of artistic inspiration. [...] In my perfumes, I don't try to emulate the odor of tea, flour, or figs as they effectively are. To create is to interpret odors by changing them into signs. These signs need to convey a specific meaning, like green tea becoming the sign of Japan, flour becoming the sign of skin, or mango the sign of Egypt. It's more than a simple knowledge-based craft; I write down these creations in a style and taste that are my own. You can copy my way of writing, but it's not transmittable; in that sense, it has entered the realm of art. (p. 59)
There are many other topics covered in this little book, ranging from the perfumer's vocabulary to the role of marketing. There's even an interesting remark on perfume classification, one of the few instances where the author raises a more polemical voice:
I've taken part in the perfume classification committee of the Société Française des Parfumeurs*, but nowadays I wonder what its use really is. Only few people are able to imagine what fern smells like; most don't know what it's composed of, and have no idea what the combination smells like. [...] In today's olfactory classifications, I believe that the most valuable information lies in the perfume's date of creation, it's name, and the name of the brand that launched it on the market. The date allows us to put perfumes in an evolutionary perspective (as long as we are able to smell them), while product names and brands give us some indication of the degree of creativity involved in each company. (p. 77-78)
I'm sure that some members of the SFP will frown at this comment. For the readers of Now Smell This, on the other hand, the best is yet to come! In chapter six Ellena devotes two paragraphs on the phenomenon of perfume criticism, which he sees as a positive development for perfumery. He mentions Chandler Burr's appointment as the New York Times perfume critic, and goes on to praise the editors and commenters of Now Smell This:
In my view it's a demonstration of genuine interest in perfumes and the perfumer's profession. In their comments they applaud young talent and new approaches to perfumery; this allows us to briefly forget those top-10 lists of bestselling fragrances, which don't provide any critical insight at all, other than revealing what percentage of the consumers were seduced by which product. (p.80)
On that high note, it's time to wrap it up. Le Parfum is a good introduction to perfumery, most of all a great resource for novices, and for Ellena-fans too. Although some parts have been published earlier (I read a paragraph in chapter one which I instantly recognized), and while it cannot replace Roudnitska's scholarly work from the same series, it offers a wonderful insight into the views and opinions of one of the greatest perfumers of our times.
Le Parfum is available through several online bookstores, and costs around 10.00 USD (or 7.60 EUR).
Jean-Claude Ellena (b. 1947) also co-wrote Mémoires du Parfum (2003) with Josette Gontier.
Bonus reading (if you read French): a very nice recent interview with Ellena!
Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (Sept. 2007)
Softcover, 128 pages
* see also: Marcello's review of Classification des Parfums et Terminologie.