I haven’t bought books in a while, so when I opened a bundle of them from Emmett at Christmas I was super-excited. I read Alexa Chung’s book first, then moved on to The Diary of a Nose, a daily journal by Jean-Claude Ellena.
Ellena is the house perfumer for Hermès, though in the book he refers to other projects as all. He appears to live the most enchanted life I can imagine: he has a loving wife and gorgeous perfume studio, and he lives in France not far from the Italian border. He and his wife often drive down to Italy for specialty groceries, and he is frequently sent on scent-research trips to places like Japan. For someone who loves scent, this sounds pretty much like heaven on earth.
All of this is entertaining and jealousy-inducing, but the really brilliant thing about this book is the way we get to experience Ellena’s mind. This man experiences the world and his human senses so differently than most, and it’s intriguing.
For example, one afternoon he is exhausted from finishing a perfume, so he decides to visit a small market in Ventimiglia to purchase some delicacies and share a plate of pasta with his wife. When he arrives, he is overwhelmed by the scent of winter pears, so much so that he buries his nose in the stacks of fruit and in turn gets in trouble from the salesman. He writes in his diary that “stealing” a scent like this makes him inspired and joyful, and that he always writes down his feelings and the raw ingredients around him in the exact moment he finds a particularly enrapturing scent. He says, “The olfactory portrait I draw up in the laboratory won’t be a reproduction of what I smell here, but the image of the smell committed to memory.”
This sentiment is repeated throughout the book: Ellena never makes a scent to smell like something, but rather to create an experience, a feeling and a moment that one connects to a certain scent. He says when he meets people who wear his perfume and describe it back to him exactly as he’d imagined, he is truly satisfied.
For him, every note of every scent is a “delusion.” For example, his recipe for the smell of lilacs is phenyl ethyl alcohol, helional, indole, and essence of clove buds. Depending on the kind of lilac (early season, purple, etc.) he is trying to encapsulate, Ellena will change the volume of each ingredient in the recipe, and this recipe will only make up a small bit of the whole perfume he is working on.
The whole thing is both complex chemistry and delicate art, and Ellena is the master.
For him, scent is music, sight, taste and smell all at once; scent is life, and he truly eats, sleeps and breathes it. His dedication really does show, too. He acts as a consultant to fashion houses all over the world, takes on special projects on a freelance basis, and since he became Hermès’ house perfumer in 2004, company perfume sales have tripled, all without him paying attention to market trends. Not only does he have a great nose, one might argue he is the great nose.
Reading this book has filled my head with thoughts of perfume and scent. What are my bottles of perfume trying to tell me? Where did the perfumer who crafted them imagine they’d transport me to?
As I lie in bed reading or knitting, I catch waves of my glorious new Tocca “Colette” candle (it’s so incredibly delicious), or Emmett’s Jo Malone scent as he slips under the covers, and think about all the feelings they evoke. Though I have travelled into the diary and mind of Jean-Claude Ellena through his book, it seems he has taken up residence in mine as well.