A Perfume Expert Advises Men to Dip into their Girlfriend’s Stash
If you were to meet Jean-Claude Ellena, you might be surprised to find hardly any trace of scent on him. In his personal life, the perfumer eschews wearing fragrance and would rather go without… unless, of course, he is working. “I don’t wear perfume so as not to interfere with the creative process,” he says. “I only use my own trials to check the effect on my skin.”
The perfumer is dedicated to the craft he discovered as a 16-year-old apprentice. He found the new, exotic world of mixing scents and creating olfactory memories to be both strange and intoxicating, and devoted himself to becoming an astute student of the process, from distillation and extraction, analysis to research. “At the time, things weren’t yet organized and pigeonholed; everything was possible,” he recalls. “So I found out about lots of different activities related to perfume. That’s how I acquired an overall understanding of everything associated with the world of perfume.”
He went on to create such memorable fragrances as Cartier’s Déclaration, Van Cleef & Arpels’ First, and Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée au thé vert before forming an exclusive alliance with Hermès in 2004 [Ellena retired from the Paris perfume house in 2016—ed.]. In a way, his joining the venerable design house helped his career come full circle—he had been a huge admirer of perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, who composed Hermès’ first scent, Eau d’Hermès, back in 1951. Though he had worked with the brand in the past creating a new writing for their perfume, Amazone, his official debut came with the introduction of Un Jardin en Méditerranée, inspired by the Tunisian garden in the home of Hermès’ director for displays, Leila Menchari.
Memorable locations encountered on his travels would go on to become a recurring theme in his work. For instance, Un Jardin après la Mousson was composed when he decided to “take my nose for a walk” after a storm in Kerala, India, and Un Jardin sur le Nil was born during a return journey from Egypt. The brand’s rich heritage as a purveyor of luxury leather goods has also served as inspiration, as in the case of Kelly Calèche, created from his memories of a visit to the Hermès leather store.
“Something I’ve read, some music, an idea, a smell, someone I’ve met…everything,” he replies when asked how he chooses his muse. “At first the idea is tenuous but, because creating perfume is a poetic act, it’s up to me to find which route to take to express it. When the route is beautiful, then the perfume is a success.”
His latest endeavor is a new edition of Terre d’Hermès, the brand’s ode to the earthy and woodsy. “What I wanted was to produce something that fits in with the theme, but is very fresh and icy and has great staying power,” he explains. When it comes to the way men should wear fragrance in their daily life, he discards the belief that guys should stick solely to masculine scents and even encourages you to dip into your girlfriend’s fragrance stash, if you like. “Forget diktats and advertising. Be daring and try so-called women’s perfumes because there are no genders with perfume,” he declares.
“A perfume becomes masculine on a man’s skin and feminine on a woman’s skin.” Besides, there is nothing more personal than the way a scent adapts to your unique body chemistry. “Perfume has a story—it tells its own story and it’s up to you to hear it. When you apply it to your skin, it contributes to who you are.”
Hermès, Greenbelt 4, Makati