Suzanne's Perfume Journal

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Not long after I started reading the exquisite little gem of a book, The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Perfumer by Jean-Claude Ellena, a poem came to mind: the famous William Carlos Williams poem, This is Just to Say.

In my own view—as a lay person who is not likely to ever study a perfume formula, but who loves perfumes and is very much interested in the creative process behind them—I think that having more books like Ellena’s (and like Denyse Beaulieu’s fabulous The Perfume Lover) will actually do more to further his dream. I have not touched on all of the aspects of his beautiful diary, but I can tell you that reading it is almost like having a conversation with the perfumer and realizing why you love the art (or craft ... Ellena considers it both) of perfumery so much. You find yourself nodding your head when he describes how he feels about smells on an emotional level; you find yourself thinking about your own creative process as Ellena’s unfolds on the page; and you smile while reading (under his “Summary of Smells” that end the book) how jasmine blossoms have a different odor depending what time of day you encounter them.

The Diary of a Nose is personal, but like Ellena’s perfume creations, it is airy and inviting, written as if he wanted to leave a space for the reader to participate in its narrative too.

A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur by Jean-Claude Ellena was published in France last year. In January 2013, the US version became available, and my review is based on a press copy provided to me by the publisher, Rizzoli New York. It can be purchased for $24.95 (hardcover) from Rizzoli’s flagship store on 57th Street in New York, or from online vendors like Note: the book cover shown above is for a different edition (the International Edition that was later published by Penguin Books).

The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, copyright © 2011 Jean-Claude Ellena, translation copyright © 2012, Adriana Hunter (Rizzoli Ex Libris, New York, 2013, p. 119)

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January 29, 2013:

This poem has always fascinated me. It seems too casual and simple to be a poem, but that is precisely what is ingenious about it: the way it is written reflects the casual regard the narrator has for the person (presumably a wife or lover) whose plums he has eaten, but that he describes the appeal of those plums in such simple and direct terms imbues them with the kind of specificity that has impact. This is a cut-and-dry matter, the narrator seems to say: Those plums were front and center and so damn good, I had to have them—sorry. Except the poem itself is not so cut-and-dry; it engages the mind and has me toggling back and forth in my point-of-view. At one moment, I’m the trespassed person whose breakfast plums have been taken from me, and in the next, I’m the trespasser who couldn’t resist their sweet, cold and delicious allure.

It is the poem’s extreme economy of words coupled to the vivid clarity of its description that compels me to do both—and it’s a construct I now see as being analogous to the way that perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena works, though I would not have arrived at such an analogy simply by smelling his perfumes. I arrived at it by reading Ellena’s book, and may I suggest that if you are the perfume lover who wants to believe that in this age, when thousands of perfumes are launched every year, there are still perfumers composing fragrances in a deliberate and thoughtful manner, then this is a book you must read. The Diary of a Nose is a serene, kaleidoscopic look into Ellena’s creative process. Written over the course of a year, in 2010, it documents the experiences, large and small, that inspire and influence him; the way he approaches his work on a theoretic and stylistic level (as well as the hands-on working level); and the effect that changes in the industry (and his place in the timeline of perfume history) has had on him developing his individuality.

Most perfumistas are familiar with Ellena’s work and can tell you that his fragrances for the revered fashion house of Hermès, where he is the in-house perfumer, have a streamlined style and a sense of airy lightness about them. His perfumes have a recognizable signature—and implicit in that signature is Ellena’s understanding that perfumes are part of a continuing olfactory narrative that starts with him but gets taken on by the wearer. His creative approach, he says in his book, “does not imply a desire on my part to impose on people, but a constant need to awaken pleasure and curiosity, and create an exchange. So I deliberately leave gaps, ‘spaces,’ in perfumes for each individual to fill with their own imagination; these are ‘appropriation spaces.’”

It is an approach arrived at, in part, through his interest in Japanese culture. A number of passages in his book detail Ellena’s affection for Japanese art, cuisine, and its ethos, or cultivation, of courtesy. His description of having a meal in a Tokyo soba-noodle house allows the reader to understand how the presentation of food—the juxtaposition of textures, colors and tastes; the subtlety of its flavors; the eschewing of sauces and mixtures that, in Western cuisine, are often used to correct mistakes—informs Ellena’s approach to composing his fragrances. The Japanese influence is recalled even more strongly in his diary entry of July 2, 2010, when at the launch of his Hermessence perfume Iris Ukiuyoé, he delights in having the opportunity to talk to journalists about the concepts of fullness and emptiness. “Fullness, which is so dear to the West where the subject of a painting fills the entire canvas, leaving little room for individual imagination, where the eye is led from left to right and the idea of the work, once grasped, is fixed for all eternity,” he explains, is in opposition to the style he favors: “Emptiness, which is valued in Japanese art, where the subject floats and dissolves into and on the surface of the paper, leaving gaps and spaces for individual projection, in which artists celebrate nature, life, the seasons and other forms of eternity.”

Ellena’s influences also include people. Among them, the late, great perfumer Edouard Roudnitska, with whom he developed a friendship and looked upon as a mentor of sorts. Roudnitska’s lily-of-the-valley masterpiece Diorissimo is a reference perfume for Ellena (he keeps a bottle in the fridge of his workshop in Cabris, where he is asked about it by some young perfumers who come to visit). Brief mentions of his family include the remembrance of his mother’s perfume; a charming description of picking jasmine blooms alongside his paternal grandmother, during summers when the two of them would help a neighboring horticulturalist bring in his crop of flowers (he confesses to not being very industrious at that boyhood job); and the gift of a shoe-box-sized file of perfume formulae, neatly arranged and typed out by Ellena’s father, who was also a perfumer. Of the latter, Ellena admits that while he viewed his father’s bequest to him as a treasure trove, he felt the need to break away from these formulae that represented the past and has never re-read them. In fact, one of the reasons he favors working with a restricted olfactory palette, using more simplistic formulae, is that he believes there is a tendency towards creative complacency (repetitions and reuse of known accords) when working with more complex formulations. Even so, he goes on to say:

Nowadays I have a different experience when I read old books of perfume formulae, devised from the late nineteenth century up to the present day. And it is one of my dreams that they will one day be studied and made public, to show that perfume is the result of complex intellectual activity, work involving the mind, and not some haphazard combination of smells.

The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur
Book Review