I know there are diehard fans of Jean-Claude Ellena out there, prowling the Hermès boutiques, following his every cultured move out there in the scented ether but I sometimes find his work a little on the aloof side, but then this may be the point. It is never less than intriguing however, he is a careful perfumer, who has evolved into an aromatic water-colourist of impeccable and impressionistic skill.
He is unquestionably one of the most influential noses of all time. His trademark use of spiced ozonics and his relentless study of transparency and water in perfumery has made his work intrinsically vital and much copied during his olfactive lifetime. Not content with just creating scent, he also holds forth on the subject in a number of precise and philosophical journals including a strange and elliptical novel, La Note Verte, published last year.
He has been the in-house nose now at Hermès since 2004, in sole charge of shaping and presenting the House’s aromatic personality. Famously he only creates when the muse visits him. This is quite unusual and demonstrates the strong belief Hermès have in his abilities. He is a notorious perfectionist, his honed, skeletal work is transparently beautiful, assembled with a painterly eye rare in commercial perfumery.
While Hermès is perceived as a luxury brand, the fragrances now occupy a slightly blurred area between luxury and high street with other luxury brands such as Annick Goutal, Serge Lutens and Creed, who while not exactly cheap are not exactly hugely overpriced either. Hermès are quite careful about distribution; the more exclusive Hermessence line and some of the more limited editions such as the lock bottles and the recently tweaked Bel Ami Vetiver are only available in Hermès boutiques or exclusive concessions.
I have worn many Hermès fragrances over the years, Eau des Merveilles, Hiris, Jardin sur Le Nil, Rocabar, Doblis, Vanille Galante and Brin Réglisse. My favourite is Kelly Calèche, Ellena’s bittersweet homage to lipstick and scent-stained leather bags everywhere. I go through very intensive phases of craving its innate Frenchness. I always have Kelly Calèche in my collection; it’s not been an easy relationship, I’ve gone on record saying how much I disliked this perfume the first time it tried it. The collision of Barenia calf extract and tuberose seemed so creepy and distasteful to me when I first encountered it. But as is the case with most things that repel me I cant keep away. Sigh..
Foxy favourite, Kelly Calèche by Hermes
So I stalked strange repugnant Kelly Calèche in the Hermès store in Glasgow’s House of Fraser like an obsessed lover. Slowly it possessed me, the weird bitter landscape of sour leather and unripe bloom, mixed with smeared lipstick and skeletal tissues worn thin by worry and crumpled scent. The calfskin note is unnerving to be honest, a little shitty and raw in places as the heady white floral drama unfolds. But oh my… the drydown is one of the best in the business, sweet, rummagy Birkin fine hide, supple and luxuriously aloof. There is the most delightful fade to the mimosa, iris and benzoin blush.
Leather is of course the lifeblood of Hermès, the skin on everything. The house has become a little degraded in recent years by the usual suspects of tanorexic hairless footballers, their WAGS and pointless TV rent-a-celebs parading bags and belts like trophies. The trademark ‘H’ is in danger of becoming a parody of itself. Ashtrays, baby blankets, sandals, crocodile cuffs, beach towels; some of these these are jawdroppingly expensive and ludicrous. Yet the couture, jewellery, watchmaking, saddlery and some of the bags are exquisite and no one can touch them for style and that certain layer of dreamy wannabe magic that only true luxury heritage brands like Hermès, Vuitton and Goyard for example can get away with. Balancing consumer (ie Russian and Middle Eastern)demand with genuine artisanal work is very tricky these days, especially in such a hugely competitive market.
Image: Hermès Leather Forever exhibition
Hermès make big bucks from their fragrance division, Jean Claude Ellena’s Terre d’Hermès alone is one of the world’s most successful mens’ fragrances of all time. He also created mega hits for the house such as Le Jardin Sur La Nil, Kelly Calèche and Voyage. JCE has an intriguing position within the House, creating when he wants to, working in virtual isolation in his exquisite lab in Grasse, homing and obsessing over formulae and then destroying previous mods. He seems like the most charming and avuncular of men, erudite and philosophical as only the French can be, holding forth on the beauty of concrete, grass and water.
Running alongside the more accessible mainline launches are the Hermessence fragrances, a series of more experimental, quixotic aromas with a more artistic ethereal bent. I cant say I’m the biggest Hermessence fan, I find them somewhat wan and irritating and the longevity is usually negligible. I loved Vanille Galante’s lavish banana sundae custardy excess though and Brin Réglisse’s pared down shadowy palette had a lovely puritan style. But generally they have felt a little like the most nouvelle of nouvelle cuisine, minimalist exercises in olfactive fiddling, which while they may be of interest to Ellena in his sun-drenched silent lab are not really doing much for me. They get mixed reviews with even the good reviews radiating a general whiff of the Emperor’s New Scented Clothes.
Hermessence Epice Marine
I was very hopeful for another Hermessence, Epice Marine last year, a much-vaunted collaboration between Ellena and the renowned Michelin-starred Breton chef Olivier Roellinger. On paper, this mix of haute parfumerie and fine cuisine seemed very alluring. The two men met in 2011 and bonded over a series of discussions about taste and scent. Olivier’s Breton heritage and love of the sea would come to dominate the development of the scent. He was also very well know for his poudres d’épices, collections of globally inspired spice blends designed to captures the essences of places. Roellinger’s hometown in Brittany, Cancale, is a port used in the past for importing spices etc into France. This became the olfactive anchor if you like for the collaboration, the scent focussed on the meeting points between sky, water and spice. Ellena’s work has in may ways been obsessed with water; the Nile, monsoon rains in Jardin Après Le Mousson, the saline trade aquatics of Voyage, the mauve watercolour bleed of Iris Ukiyoe, all these shimmering damp moods have demonstrated JCE’s quest to define the molecular scent of H20 itself.
Jean-Claude Ellena & chef Olivier Roellinger
Epice Marine is as it declares spiced sea; an undeniably piquant mix of saline, algae effects with cumin, Sichuan pepper, ozonics and wet iodine stained whisky. It’s good for a very short time. I’m not a fan of cumin in scent to be honest, but the spice here smells toasted and slightly bready which takes off the pungent armpit smell I loathe so much. I just don’t get the sweeping fog and dampness I wanted so much. It’s a very transparent scent with barely any project or sillage. It goes through an odd nutty stage reminiscent of crushed sesame seeds but then this is submerged in the peaty whiff of Islay malts and the translucency of algenone, the molecule that lends Epice Marine it’s briny aroma. It disappears so fast off the skin, if it lasted longer and developed balls it could be the most astonishing scent. I think that in their desire to pay homage to the ephemeral nature of foggy coasts, sea mists and damp spice clippers, delicacy has sadly won out over endurance and impact. There are moments of great beauty as there always are with Ellena, he is a master of the sudden effect, the ray of light, the sunset, a salt-drenched zephyr, but Epice Marine does not have enough of those moments for me to make it as interesting as it could have been.
Cuir d’Ange is the twelfth addition now to the Hermessence collection and I think a return to form after the rarefied aquatic excesses of the previous offerings. I was concerned that Voyage had become an Hermès blueprint. The name of Cuir d’Ange is a direct reference to the writings of Jean Giono (1895-1970), the Provençal author, whose novels include the beautiful Le Hussard sur le Toit, filmed by Jean Paul Rappenau in 1996, starring Juliette Binoche. Giono is Ellena’s favourite author, they are both soaked in a passion for all things Provençal and in Jean le Bleu, published by Grasset in 1932 there is a passage that reads:
‘I can never pass by a shoemaker’s shop without thinking that my father still exists, somewhere beyond thiss world, sitting at a spirit table with his blue apron, his shoemakers knife, his waxends, his awls, making shoes of angels leather for some thousand legged god’.
In an interview with Boston Common to celebrate the launch of Cuir d’Ange, JCE reiterated his connections to the area that obsesses him so:
‘I live and work in the south of France near Grasse, the perfume capital. I was born there. It’s an incredible space, steeped in history, filled with light and smells. The workshop I come to every morning is a house designed in the ’60s and built into the side of a hill. The workshop is open; the doors are never closed. My work tools are sheets of paper, a pencil, a fountain pen, an eraser, smelling strips, and rotating smelling-strip holders. The laboratory is at the far end of the house, as far as possible from my office, so that I’m not distracted by the smell. I work exclusively from memory.’
From an interview with JCE by Mandi Norwood in Boston Common Magazine, link below:
This soft, gently animalic treatment of leather, tanned, florally cured, blushed and powdered is my favourite Ellena in years. His previous leather Kelly Calèche was bitter and fabulously confrontational, soaked in leaf litter, sap and crushed petal. Cuir d’Ange is the smudged tips of leather-winged angels, cutting air as they watch our lives, deciding on value, love, death and ruin. It is a fantasy of light reflected wing and almond scented dissolve.
As with many of Ellena’s compositions, it took me a few samplings and wearings to really appreciate the understated beauty of it. It’s true that while it doesn’t really break new ground in terms of interpreting a leather note, it does provide a wonderfully expensive and coy peek into the Hermès atelier. The notes include heliotrope, the very French note of hawthorn, violet, narcissus, musk and of course leather. The amandine facet of heliotrope plus the aching nostalgia inherent in violet dredge powder over the supple leather blooms. Hawthorn is a very odd note to use, in actuality it smells of piss and sweet clover honey crashed together in one heady unbearable blossom. The garden of my teen years had a menacing hawthorn tree that swarmed with bees and wasps in summer; when I stole away to smoke at twilight the air was choked with the scent of indolic, dizzying bloom. In Cuir d’Ange Ellena has used its acerbity to counterbalance any overtly animalic cured effects from the leather and musks. The narcissus is beautiful and something he used to delicious effect already in Vanille Galante. It can soothe and pacify excess, while bringing a cool, creamy indolic sensuality of its on to the olfactive party.
My friend and go to aroma consultant, Mr E. said that Cuir d’Ange smells like his friend’s dad’s taxidermy workshop. I get that. It’s the mix of fur, wing, hide and preservation. It has a strange aura, one of odd sensuality, I had John Philip Law as Pygar in Barbarella in my head for ages and could shake the damn image at all.
There are many levels to this elegant and supple scent. Hermès leather is iconic and joining this most esteemed of French luxury house 10 years ago, JCE visited the secretive leather vaults and handled the vast array of exquisite samples stored away from the damaging effects of heat, sun and pollution and touch…
‘..There I saw and touched the most beautiful leather, even some that weighed only a few grams in my hand, so soft that I hardly dared to touch it,” he says. “I realized that each leather, tanned naturally, had a different scent, and the most beautiful and expensive pieces smelled of flowers…. I was seized by happiness and decided right then that I wanted to create a perfume inspired by leather..’
From an interview with JCE by Mandi Norwood in Boston Common Magazine, link below:
The different methods of curing leather will always result in a variety of olfactory finishes. Calf, crocodile, lizard, goat, buffalo, ostrich all treated and stitched exquisitely with beeswax treated Moulin thread. All these skins will have their own distinctive odours, weights and tactile finish. This (whether or not you are comfortable with the skin trade)is what makes the finished pieces are alluring and ultimately so expensive. The floral tone to some of the finished skins and set JCE’s olfactory imagination on the long and modulatory road to Cuir d’Ange.
Image: Hermès Leather Forever exhibition
Yes, this is a commercial leather scent, with one eye on the Birkin-swinging, cashmere-clad ladies who populate the hushed Hermès boutiques, but it is also a subtle and I think personal statement of origine by JCE, making a lovely link between his love of Giono, artisan craftsmanship, Provence and his tenure at Hermès which will change irreparably now with the recent arrival of Christine Nagel to work alongside him and possibly succeed him.
This concept of marrying skin and scent, our skin, the Hermès hide and JCE’s aromatic curing of a perfumed leather accord into a soaring and sophisticated signature perfume is a beautiful and quietly magical thing. When I’m wearing it.. if I stand very still and listen..I can almost catch the beat of a powdered wing behind me.
For more information on Hermès perfumes and leather goods, please click on the link below: