Beauty Insider: Jean-Claude Ellena

The latest from Hermès perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena.


Jean-Claude Ellena has been the in-house perfumer for Hermès since 2004. This month he launches un Jardin sur le Toit, an homage to the garden that sits atop the company’s flagship boutique in Paris.

Where did the idea for your new scent come from? I’d already done three fragrances based on gardens, and it was starting to feel formulaic. But when I told friends and customers that we were going to try something different, they said: “No! We love the garden scents!” I thought, Okay, but it has to be different this time. The previous scents were based on exotic gardens, so Pierre-Alexis Dumas [Hermès’s general artistic director] and I thought it would be fun to do something inspired by our urban garden. I spend a lot of time up there, so it made sense.

What’s growing on the roof, and how does it show up in the fragrance? It’s mostly trees—there’s magnolia, apple, and pear—so the blend is more fruity than floral.

Do you have several scents in the works at the same time? Yes, right now there are eight or 10—but in the end, 90 percent of what I create goes into the garbage. I’ve been working on a lily of the valley fragrance for a few years, and it’s very difficult. It has to have a shape that’s unique. A rose is a rose, but so what? Tell me more.

How do you know when you’ve got something special? When you’re creating a blend, of course you think it’s great. You created it! But you have to walk away and see how it holds up. First, I put it aside for two weeks. If it still says something, I leave it for another two. If it’s still talking to me after a month, it will also talk to other people. That test is really better than any focus group.

Are there any smells that you detest? No, because all odors are material. When you start in perfumery, you encounter certain notes and say, “Wow, this is awful.” Then, after a few years, you see that awful things can be very interesting to use. Your way of thinking changes.

When you walk down the street, do you smell everybody and everything, or can you turn off your nose? I can’t turn it off but I can identify an odor rapidly, and once you identify something it’s not so disturbing. It’s almost like knowing what a wild animal is. Yes, it’s a tiger. Okay, now go away.

Do you burn scented candles in your home? I don’t like them. Burning candles is a way to avoid your own smell. I prefer smelling odors from the kitchen, the fireplace, your dogs, your cats, your kids. The odor of your life is who you are, and I prefer to know you, not your candle.

Images: Courtesy of Hermès