Jean-Claude Ellena, Hermès’ exclusive perfumer since 2004, has composed, in almost fifty years in the industry, a long list of successes, among which First for Van Cleef and Arpels – his first, actually, in 1976 – L’Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert for Bulgari, In Love Again for Yves Saint Laurent… He created the Hermessences as well as the four Jardins, and it is the almost transparent lightness of his perfumes, as well as their genius construction, that make the signature of Ellena for Hermès. A minimalistic signature, easily recognized in the luminous, elegant, no-fuss creations he’s been delivering for the past few years. Following that same path, Jean-Claude Ellena has just designed his first “great feminine” for Hermès. Jour d’Hermès is the worthy successor, both in the intention and name, of Terre d’Hermès, the great masculine that never stepped out of the best-sellers podium since it was launched in 2006. A hearty, talkative Jean-Claude Ellena (his usual self) welcomed me in his office, just above the boutique on rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, and we sat down so he could tell me the story of this perfume, a flower bouquet unsmelled before.
How was Jour d’Hermès born?
The story began about three years ago. I already mention it in my Journal d’un Parfumeur (published in English as Diary of a Nose, by Penguin and Rizzoli), when I speak about the “feminine H”. This “feminine H” was the beginning of the adventure with Jour d’Hermès. Obviously, it wasn’t its name yet, it didn’t have a name at all. All there was was a very clear commercial demand, which was “we have a masculine that’s doing well, it’s Terre d’Hermès, we want the same thing only for women. That’s it, go ahead!” (he laughs this frank, generous laugh that will punctuate the rest of our interview, and that seems to define the man perfectly).
Do you mean Jour is the feminine for Terre d’Hermès?
Not strictly speaking, since the purpose was not making Terre d’Hermès a feminine on the same theme, which I could have done as well.
What was the purpose then?
First thing, we wanted a feminine fragrance. Second thing, in all the discussions I’ve had with Pierre Alexis (Hermès’ artistic director and a member of the founding family) and Pierre Hardy (designer and one of Hermès’ collaborators), the notion of light was there. How important light is to artisans. The fragrance could have been named Light, too. Anyway. We talk, the tell me about Botticelli’s Spring, I answer with Bonnard – we come from different generations! – et mention Marthe, the woman he painted all his life; she never seems to age in his paintings, which is rather extraordinary… But I also tell them about another painter I love, Chassériau, a romantic, orientalist painter, who painted curvy, healthy women, very beautiful.
That’s for the beginning. After a while, we’re talking about Hermès with Pierre Hardy, about the femininity in Hermès, and we figure Hermès is not a House for the night. It’s a notion that feels very important to me: Hermès is a House for the afternoon. Hermès’ clothes are often elegant and effortless; they can be worn from afternoon to dusk, but when it’s the night, in the evening, all of a sudden we’re not dresses in Hermès anymore. We are no longer in the Hermès spirit. Nothing in the house’s feminine clothes is a reference to the night. This was part of my reflections upon what feminine meant. I thought to myself, this can’t be a perfume for the evening, or a perfume in the sensual, voluptuous way – that just couldn’t be – and I figured it would be light, all about elegance and refinement. The frame was starting to look clearer.
And I liked the notion of light because light means transparency, lightness.
Which is precisely your signature as a perfumer.
Yes, it is part of my palette. While I looked at Botticelli, I found an interesting piece of information: in the painting, flowers are everywhere, all over the place, 500 varieties of them. Flowers, flowers, flowers. I’m not saying the sole vision of Botticelli gave me the idea for the fragrance, but if I was to talk about femininity, without using masculine codes, what could I do? Flowers. The essence of femininity is floral. If I use wood, it’ll be both masculine and feminine, same if I use spices. There are a whole lot of societal codes that already apply. So I proceeded by elimination!
When I started working, and I already mention this in my Journal d’un Parfumeur, there is the sweet pea, that I used, and the gardenia: I liked the duality between those two flowers. To me, the sweet pea is a field flower, an outdoors flower, whereas the gardenia is rather an indoor flower, one found in apartments, an intimate flower. On the one hand the bucolic aspect, on the other hand the voluptuousness. I liked the paradox raised by these two flowers and I started with that. But I had to make my discourse more complex, because I certainly didn’t want people to say “it smells of rose” or “it smells of gardenia”, I wanted them to say it smelled like flowers. Which flowers? The ones I want to put in, the ones I want to name. I wanted people to be free to say “it reminds me of mimosa”, “it reminds me of lilies”, etc.
Everyone is free to recognize the flower they want?
Exactly. It was this notion of a great floral, I wanted something that was both abstract and very natural. A naturality I tried to convey in the fragrance without enabling people to distinguish a flower in particular. I thought it was a fun thing to do.
So you’ve come up with a sort of universal flower…
Yes, it could be the universal flower. That’s the idea behind it. The idea was, if it is multifloral but you can’t name a single flower, it’ll be a stronger statement. I think of old perfumes like Paris, built around the rose: if I’d done the same thing, it would have restricted my point. I wanted to be symbolic.
You, the minimalist of perfumery, are offering a generous bouquet. Is Jour d’Hermès’ formula as short as usual?
Yes! Technically, I need two products to make a rose, five to make a jasmine, five to make a gardenia, four to make a sweet pea. But if I look for the ingredients all these flowers have in common, there are seven. Which means that there are common components, and that it only takes a little proportioning, making products resonate with each other, to have it impossible to know which flower this is about. I am not going to make a portrait of each flower and then juxtapose them; because I have a global knowledge and a vision of the whole thing, I know what I need to keep in order to convey everything. It is this knowledge of each component, on top of a global vision, that prevents me from redundancies, multiplications, overloads. Then you need to put everything in balance, and that’s quite a bit of work. In the traditional process, perfumers would represent each thing, each of these things being already made of 20, 30 components. They ended up making complex things, piling up, and I got rid of all this. Once you have the knowledge, you can have fun, you get a real freedom I didn’t have when I did like they did. I went from prefab to building from scratch. There are examples of this at the end of Journal d’un Parfumeur. With very few elements I can make a jasmine effect, a gardenia effect, etc. With 10 products I can do everything. And then it’s just a matter of proportions: at some point, balance is achieved.
You have created many unisex fragrances, and I believe you wish for perfume to emancipate from the feminine/masculine codes. What does creating a perfume for women mean, then?
Indeed, I do not believe in feminine or masculine perfumes. But society has created these codes, for economic purposes, codes that are pure invention, just like conventions, they have no reason for being and you can easily eliminate them. There are archetypes given by the market, they range from Chanel’s N°5 to old perfumes like Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, and they are representations of feminine perfume. The question is, how do you resist this, make something that’s not like them, that doesn’t use these existing codes again, and still exists in the middle of all that already exists? I tried to find a way. The notion of flower, yes, but first I’m not going to tell you which one, I avoid that trap; and when I smell it I can’t say it reminds me of another fragrance on the market. I do proceed by elimination. Oddly I enjoy working under constraint more that working freely. It allows me to draw a frame. Today, there is maybe more freedom in the masculine genre, which can be worn by women, when the opposite is not so true, and men are not ready to make that leap.
Men are more reluctant to wear feminine fragrances…
Yes, much more, and in my opinion they are wrong because Mitsouko on a man works wonders, so does Shalimar, it’s amazing. But they are not close to doing it.
On today’s market, which I believe is getting more and more standardized, what are the traps of the feminine genre that you observe?
It is ruled by an increasing number of codes, I see that, alas! These traps are very constraining. They range from white musks to all the fruity notes you can possibly think of. Fruits and vanilla, that’s all I see!
And patchouli! So think outside the box, and all of a sudden you’re going somewhere else. I take you to something else, without really saying what.
At what moment does the artistic dimension of your work start to matter?
When the rose no longer smells of rose.
When the smell is different than the one nature created?
Yes, it starts when I seize the smell nature created and then twist it, put it in tone with me. Copying nature does not interest me as an end. Of course I know that when they smell a perfume, people will say “it reminds me of this and that”. But that’s not what interests me. What interests me is the emotion it will arouse. I want to stage that emotion; whether I do it with rose, wood or daffodil doesn’t matter. The result is all that counts. You have to go beyond the original smell, the material’s smell. The material must become something else, and that’s when it becomes artistic expression. If the materials allow you to create tension, if there’s a supplement to the smell, if you go beyond the original smell, it becomes interesting.
When we start our carreers as perfumers, at first we’re very close to nature and we take it as a reference. At some point, you need to get perspective, to completely detach yourself, and wonder how you can express that material differently. Then it becomes a construction of the mind, purely intellectual, and I get distance from the original emotion to create a new one. (He makes a long pause) This is really hard to explain! But that’s what turns me on. That’s why I’m still making perfumes. To go beyond. Giono came up with an expression I love, he said: “when I write, I want to go behind the air”. I really liked that image, this idea of going behind, to express what you can’t see at first.
One day Frédéric Malle asked me this question, he said: “could you make a perfume that’s totally abstract?”. I’d answered “no, I don’t think I’m able to. There’s something I’m going to miss, I won’t know how to do it”. As much as I’m interested in abstract painting, I wouldn’t know how to do abstraction in perfume. One of the reasons is that perfumery is a very young art, that needs to grow, evolve, and from where I’m standing now some stages haven’t been passed yet. Even if I made an abstract smell, my fear would be that people wouldn’t understand it. And it holds me up. Maybe I should do it.
As far as you know, are there any abstract perfumes out there?
There are no perfumes that are truly abstract, they always more or less refer to something that exists.
And since each one of us has their own sensibility, we can never make sure that a fragrance won’t evoke anything to anyone… Unless maybe if we used only chemical components that can’t be found in nature?
Not necessarily, because these chemical components have been chosen because they smelled like natural things! This is where there’s confusion. As a perfumer, when we choose the new molecules we’ll be using in perfumes, the choice always gets made in reference to nature. For example, on a mint leaf you can smell the mint, obviously, and then you smell a chemical molecule and say “what I find interesting in that smell is its cold, green facet that I can somehow connect to mint. Even if it does not smell of mint, this cold, green aspect interests me”. But this molcule doesn’t make a reference to anything that exists. If a molecule does not evoke something natural, it won’t convey emotion and it won’t be chosen, it will be put aside systematically.
That’s the question of knowing whether art imitates nature… Do you think there’s no conveying emotion with a perfume if it doesn’t evoke anything?
In any case there is no stopping people from thinking it reminds them of this or that. Everyone will find their own references. And that’s for the best, because it makes the discourse richer. It’s the same with colour: we talk about blue and it’s sky blue, or ocean blue… In abstract painting, it’s about evoking your subject. It’s not a landscape, it’s not a still life, it’s colour.
In the beginning did you try to be very figurative before you emancipated yourself from it?
In the beginning it was with jasmine: I challenged myself to make my jamine smell of jasmine more than jasmine itself.
A sort of hyper-realistic approach?
Yes, I had a lot of fun with it. I wanted to go further than nature, to be stronger than God. For the atheist that I am, that’s quite a program!
What’s the verdict?
I was! But once I did that, I wondered if I could do it with few means. And I had a genuine intellectual, physical pleasure doing it, finding combinations with materials. With two materials I would do a jasmine effect when there had never been any jasmine in the formula.
Does the heritage of Edmond Roudnitska urge you to always condense, simplify, go to the point?
What he passed on me is the notion of simplicity. Every time we talked, he would say “Jean Claude, each time you’re thinking a formula, think simply”, meaning “eliminate, eliminate, eliminate, go back to the essential”. And I analyzed his perfumes through chromatography and I saw that he did what he said. It was no lies.
The other thing he passed on me is the notion of perspective towards what you’re doing. Take the time to smell what you did, take the time to think about it, to analyze it. Don’t always be in action. Action, reflection. That was him. And for me, beyond the nation of simplification, there’s the pleasure of virtuosity. Then only comes creation, and that’s the stage after that. It’s when you have to make a choice and ask yourself “why do I want to do it? What’s my intention?”. Most of the time it’s muddled, but I reach for what I have in mind. For example, among the themes I’d like to explore, there’s the smell of hay in summer. But not literally: what I want is the feeling you have when you walk or ride your bike through a field where the hay’s been cut. There’s a really, really strong emotion that works everytime, that awakes you, that stimulates you. Something happens. How can I express this warm and overwhelming smell other than by reproducing the smell of hay? That’s how I did the tea for Bulgari (l’Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, in 2004): it’s a tea that contains no tea. But that smells of tea. Everyone thinks it’s the smell of tea but it’s not. Pure illusion, that’s when it gets good. But it’s not easy.
How is that hay smell doing?
I’m still doing research! I would also love to make the smell of cold, the effect of cold. Can I translate it through smells? It’s much more conceptual. Can I give you a shiver through smell? I’m extremely interested. That’s the kind of approach I call creation. To get there you need to know materials very well. It takes practise.
If you were to take a young perfumer under your wing, like Edmond Roudnitska did with you, what heritage would you pass on?
I would re-use the idea of simplicity, because that’s still up to date! Simplicity, concision. When we are in a creative process we tend to spread out, to work on periphery more than on center, because it’s easier. So I would tell them to refocus the discourse and the work.
But the same applies to writing: in the end, what’s the story I want to tell? What is my unifying thread? I like this idea of a thread: if I put too much on the side, I weaken my point. It’s the same. Refocusing, adding, refocusing, adding. It reminds me of a video I saw that showed Monsieur Dior building his clothes on women. He was on the screen with a women, overloaded with flowers and details: he takes some off, tears things off, takes a little perspective, comes back, takes a step back again, and all of a sudden it’s looking much better. You can always load the boat at first, but then you have to eliminate, prune, make cuts. And it hurts.
I can relate!
Yes, it’s hard to give up on saying something. To accept that you’ll save it for a future chapter. Look at perfumery, up until the 1970s: we said everything. We put everything in, and the more we put the more generous we felt, while in reality the discourse was muddled. Many of these perfumes will disappear.
At the same time, you don’t want to go too far the other way: as much as I believe that a strong message will last, I believe that, when you oversimplify, you take the risk that of not saying anything. Forgetting to say something! That’s a great danger.
Photographies: Ryan McGniley