Jean-Claude Ellena, son of a perfumer and now chief perfumer for Hermès since 2004, has been attuned to scents from a very young age. “My father saw everything as an excuse to sample a smell,” he told TIME by email. Ellena wants to elevate the craft of fragrance to an art on par with writing or painting, and his new book, The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, chronicles 365 days of his creative process, travels and experiments as he tinkers with multiple scent formulations. Here are five things we learned from his work and wisdom:
1. Coming up with the right name for a scent is essential, as that is the consumer’s first point of contact.
The name of a fragrance is very significant from a marketing standpoint. Most television or magazine ads don’t allow us to smell the product that is being promoted, so companies must create a brand image that comes to life. Just by suggesting an association, a name can put an idea in the consumer’s mind. But that label can’t do all the work, Ellena says: “The name doesn’t necessarily express the smell. A perfume’s name works if it opens up an imaginary world.”
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2. Fashion and perfume are not as closely related as we may believe.
Ellena writes in his book, “Perfumes and fashion…may appear together in public but they do not live together.” A fragrance produced by a well-known fashion house can piggyback on a designer’s reputation, but essentially fashion is fast-paced and ever-changing, while Ellena’s scents are designed to have a much longer shelf life. “I believe that a perfume needs to fit with its era but not fit into a trend or fashion,” he says.
3. Scent is like a piece of music. It has to have a hook or a catchy chorus to draw you in.
The first notes of a perfume must have something pleasurable and desirous about them, even if the scent develops more complexity as it wears on, much like the musical notes of a song. Ellena extends this sensory awareness even further by recognizing “sound colors” in jazz music, prompting a wish to transform these “sound colors” into scent colors. For the perfumer, the five senses are wholly intertwined, and though he focuses by nature on smell, Ellena’s work is heavily informed by the other four.
4. A fragrance can go through hundreds of drafts.
Formulating a scent is akin to finding one specific needle in a haystack; this can often prompt physical, mental and olfactory exhaustion. “I give my life to perfume in pursuit of a style, a way of expressing it,” says Ellena. His labor-intensive methods usually do not lead him to build a new draft from the previous one in a linear progression. Instead he will make numerous attempts to arrive at his desired scent in a continuous, repetitive strive for precision.
5. It takes roughly 10 years for a new smell to become a standard in the industry.
Perfume itself is thousands of years old; the use of incense and fragrance oils can be dated back to ancient Egypt. While artificial scent molecules are the norm in perfumery now, these synthetic compounds were shocking to perfumers who first encountered them a hundred years ago. Today, a new combination will be regarded as commonplace after a decade.
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