Monday, January 14, 2013

The Diary of a Nose by Jean Claude Ellena: Perfume Book Review

Mηδέν ἄγαν (i.e. nothing in excess)
  ~oracular statement inscripted on the wall of the Delphi oracle in Greece, 440 BC

"We have exiled beauty; the Greeks took up arms for her." 
  ~Albert Camus 

'I was born in Grasse, and yet I do not feel Grassois by nature, nor Provençal, for that matter. [...] My attachment to the place is due to my paternal grandparents, who were of Italian descent and who set up home there. [...] I love the sea and its horizon, where my gaze gets lost as the blue of the sky and that of the sea merge. I appreciate the beautiful bodies, the drape of light clothing, the discreet elegance and restraint. I have never been able to truss myself up in suits; their restrictiveness denotes a rigidness of mind and disenchantment with life. I believe in happiness, in man, in a lay spirituality; I do not trust religions. I would rather have eye contact for a long time than chatter for a long time. And, although I like to seduce, I have a sense of propriety with words. As I write this, I am reminded in particular of Camus, who wrote in L'exil d'Hélène:
"Greek thought always took refuge in the idea of limits. It pushed nothing to its full extent, not the sacred, nor reason, because it denied nothing, not the sacred, nor reason. It took everything into account, balancing shadow and light".
I have never sought to impose anything. My research is driven by a constrant desire to find a balance between what can be felt with the senses and what is intelligible to the mind. I am Mediterranean. '

  ~Jean Claude Ellena, Cabris 26 August 2010

Santorini house, Greece. Source: via PerfumeShrine on Pinterest

The thought that Ellena represents the Mediterranean prototype to a T (in itself a Classical prototype of meaningful, deceptive simplicity) has been at the back of my mind since forever. I had even posed the question to the man himself, to which he had smiled. I now see why most clearly.

"The Diary of a Nose" from which the above Ellena quote originates is the USA edition of the original French title "Journal d'un Parfumeur" (Sabine Wespieser Éditeur), printed by Rizzoli ExLibris, with the official launch date for the USA being 22 January 2013. As I was sent an advance copy I was able to gauge the differences with the French original which kept me engaging company for months on end. The main difference is right there on the cover itself: the odd usage of the word "parfumeur", as in "A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur" (as well as "exclusive parfumeur for Hermès" underneath it) in what is otherwise a 100% English-speaking tome threw me off a bit. It sounds tortured and odd. But that is the only flaw.

If you had only read Rachel Cooke's Observer review of the UK-edition of Diary of a Nose last summer, you might want to reconsider your impressions. Not because this new US edition of the Ellena-penned tome (with its fuschia jacket) is any different than the British version (with the beige-peach jacket), but because Cooke missed the point entirely, much as she should have known better, being an awarded journalist with lots of experience. But such are the perils of being a journalist in general rather than a fragrance writer per se. You get all in awe of the perceived authority of Turania (because you don't know any better yourself, I presume? what gives?) and you spend more time discussing them and their views (missing some of the praise they give Ellena too!) instead of focusing on the book and its author at hand! Not to mention that if this were a real life situation it would be exceptionally rude and inappropriate to describe someone only by way of comparing him unfavorably to someone else! How is that OK in a book review?

Lucia van der Post's jacket description of Ellena as the "Mozart of perfumery" in the Financial Times is quite apt, even though those of us who are musically trained might feel the "too many notes" of the ethereal musical garlands of the classical composer are contested by Ellena's adherence to "less is more" and the laconic simplicity the perfumer aims for. But the comparison is totally understood nevertheless: Ellena makes everything seem effortless -the prime constituent of elegance- even though reading the book one realizes that the process is anything BUT effortless! Like a "Cahiers du Cinéma" auteur, he chooses the word "author" to denote that perfume composition more than anything else is an intellectual work that requires thought behind each step and one which is uniquely personal to the creator who oversees everything about it.

Ellena takes the opportunity to show how ordinary situations form his creations: a standard air flight, when he recognizes one of his creations on a passenger whose smoke remnants surface beneath it; observing the Italian language teacher's way of scheduling his day, slow, observant & dreamy; discussions with friends and people in the field or business meetings (visiting growers of raw materials in Italy, appraising the heritage at Hermès) or more sophisticated/sensuous encounters (a purposefully arranged chef-guided dinner filled with gourmet appreciation or a Japanese Kodo ritual he attends).
All these occasions provide the stepping stone into pondering (instead of pontificating) about scents and of their artistic merits in a way that defies classification, but which indirectly draws upon the extensive body of western art criticism.

The book has the major advantage of being fit to be read out of order, taking the typical form of a diary, with places and dates of entry. I find myself leafing through, returning to a page when fancy strikes, pondering for a while for meanings that take on a different nuance once I have re-sniffed one of his creations, realizing that he doesn't aim to resolve anything (like an open-ended movie, this is a book to make you think for yourself!), just to communicate his thoughts, his questions, his own maturing process. It's an invitation to a dance for two, cheek-to-cheek, rather than a carefully orchestrated performance on video for all to watch in awe.

The final chapter "Summary of Smells", an index where the author reveals a few of his tricks into producing odors  from combining two or three simple raw materials, isn't meant as a chemical cheat sheet into how his perfumes are composed, nor to be parroted by bloggers and writers; it's a game he beckons us to play so as to gain insights and prompt us to experience things anew.
His entry for OLIVE for instance reads:
"This smells describes the Mediterranean single-handedly. From black olives to olive paste, via olive oil, my nose and palate find endless connections: smells of truffles, castoreum, human smells, smells I am drawn to.  
benzyl salicylate 
To which you can add styrax resinoid and thyme if you want to produce the taste of olive paste."

Ellena's prose is tender, unpretentious, ethereal like Giono's stories or Japanese ink calligraphy, and deeply personal. Because, beyond the "search for beauty", art is defined by the purposeful will to communicate something from creator to public, and that something can never be non personal. The more impersonal and all-encompassing that message tries to be, the less artistic the end result becomes. And this is the gist (and gift!) of Ellena's diary...

As the oracle would say "make your own nature, not the advice of others, your guide in life." [1]

The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the life of a Parfumeur 
by Jean Claude Ellena 
Rizzoli ExLibris, an imprint of Rizzoli New York 
ISBN: 978-0-8478-4042-7 
Hardcover 24.95$

[1] oracle given to Marcus Tulius Cicero by the Delphi oracle in 83 BC

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Perfume Books reviews & news


  1. brie16:00

    "art is defined as the purposeful will to communicate something from creator to public".....I love your way with words :) !!!!!

    This book sounds like a fantastic read (but I could do without the fuschia cover!)

  2. Anonymous23:18

    I bought the Kindle form of this book, because I wanted to read ir right away. I will still buy the physical book. I hope it's on beautiful paper. i thought it was a great read. I remember smelling Bulgari Au The Vert years ago, and I will never get over it. It smelled of so many things-so fresh, so clean, so good, and so complex. It got better as it stayed on my skin-how did he dream up the slight smokiness, and how did he manage to make it fit for skin?

    I like to fornat of the book-it can be read all the way through, or I can just pick a chapter and it is a complete work, in and of itself.

    And the image of the house-it's so beautiful. I want to live there!



  3. Miss Heliotrope00:58

    To learn how someone of his experience percieves and understands scent (in its widest use) sounds fascinating. It must be amusing for him to meet his perfumes around the world (one wonders if at times he shudders?). I always find diaries, properly done, good reading - somewhere between a short story & a biography (I recommend Virginia Woolf's if you have the time).

    However, I do worry whether there are people out there who DON"T believe in happiness...

  4. annemariec08:16

    Wonderful review, a lot to ponder. Many thanks. I wonder who Camus meant by the 'we' in 'we have exiled beauty'? I don't quite get that ...

  5. Brie,

    I always wonder if it comes across 'tortured' to the ear (and eye) of a native speaker, LOL!

    The book cover isn't that bad, the fuschia is all right, what I find particularly funny is that the sketch/silhouette of the bottle in question is for 24 Faubourg which is one Hermes that wasn't composed by Ellena! (though he does inspect and readjusts all of the perfumes of the house according to the exigencies of IFRA etc, he has to...) I mean, they could have gone with Terre d'Hermes which is also prime for sketching (architectural lines) and is a best-selling Ellena. Right?? ;-)

  6. Carole,

    you're quick!! :-)

    I personally admire how Eau Parfumee au The Vert is a modern classic. It set the tone for a vast array of scents that felt more "natural" smelling, more subtle too, and it introduced that "tea floral genre" (which "note" is made via a trick that is too good not to know, so you're advised to seek it out in the book!)

    The house photo is from a house on Santorini island, Greece. (I felt the sparsity of line and the intensity of the juxtaposed colors spoke well of the feeling that Ellena communicates through his work).
    They're ALL like that -or a variation of this- there, it's my dream vacation spot! I never tire of it, as many times as I have been there. You can check my Pinterest (linked on the right hand column) for more such pics in the respective board. ;-) :-)

  7. C,

    oh, in my opinion it's not that easy to believe in happiness!! Believing in gloom and that people are out there to 'get' you is so much easier. It also pays dividends in instant gratification because it's so very easy and frequent to have bad things happen to you.

    It takes a relatively well-adjusted, loved and loving individual to believe in the inherent goodness of people and of the world itself. In many ways, it's the Classical approach (and the very reason I embrace it so heartily), the Greek/Hellenic concept of man being a luminous, great being that is free from the constraints of a punishing god and a ruling despot, who can venture out and make one's own mistakes while trying to better himself all the while. The belief that betterment is within human reach, that life is sweet and to be savored ("suck the juice out of life") and to be loved in all its facets, because there is no other life, and that man is purposefully made for ascension, not pathetic enduring and suffering. If he's crashed sometimes, it is because he were arrogant/full of hubris to begin with, not because he didn't try enough, nor because he isn't worthy.

    I find this concept particularly different from other spiritual systems and incredibly optimistic & strengthening. That's what Ellena means -I think- when he says "I'm Med" and that he doesn't particularly believe in religions, though he strikes me as a spiritual being.

    It's a jovial outlook on life and one I fully embrace myself.

  8. Annemariec,

    thank you!

    I can only offer my interpretation of the quote, but I believe he refers to men of his misguided era (contextualise this with his life and times). The loss of the Classical ideal (see above my comment to Miss Heliotrope) is something that has resulted in an unbalance in the world. I think he refers to that.
    (beauty=Helen=the quest for Helen is the quest of everyone of us into regaining the ideal, i.e. our life becomes a Trojan war).

    And please do remember that the Greek/Hellenic ideal is an all-encompassing one, as I'm sure Camus also meant in the above quote. In the words of Isocrates "Hellene is the one who partakes in Classical education. " Everyone can -and should- claim beauty (and truth)! Studying the classics is a tool into that cosmos.

  9. Miss Heliotrope01:24

    But even miserable people believe in happiness - it just happens to other people.

    I would type more but am a finger down short term & it is tricky...

    (PS - isnt pinterest fun?)

  10. annemariec06:49

    Many thanks for your replies to Miss Heliotrope and myself. You've given me something to think about. Camus certainly proclaimed himself a Mediterranean man, I do remember that.

  11. Anonymous23:55

    A very thought provoking article!

    I like J, C. Elena’s take on life. The Greeks seem to be the first to explore psychology, and what follows is a certain kind of attitude – human nature in all its facets/archetypes just exists, so morality or organised religion is a bit of a by-product. It’s ideally more about values we decide as individuals. Which is probably just fine as long as you’re in a land of milk and honey.

    It seems to me that the nastiest dictators only get a shot when poverty and misery can be manipulated. Any perfume that reminds you of freedom and the natural good things of life is an inspiration, I know there’s a paradox there since there’s a capitalist thing going on with perfume, but that’s also the case with art in all its forms. Also I know some people have an issue with perfume as art, but to me art is about ideas and senses, so how can it not be art!

  12. C,

    ah, there's a point there, you're right.
    Well, probably what I really meant is that one has to believe in "an equal opportunity happiness".

    Sorry about the finger, hope you get better soon!

    Pinterest is a great "waster" of time, in a good way. Lots of interesting things there.

  13. Annemariec,

    you're most welcome. Glad it's stimulating.
    As you say, he was that. I happen to love Camus myself.

  14. Rosestrang,

    certainly these achievements wouldn't have happened (and western civilization wouldn't be as we know it) if there wasn't for very specific sociopolitical parameters. I think the diversification of the classical Greek world (the "polis" concept) was what ultimately pushed things into exploring man for what man is. In the city-state (the "polis") it's easier to identify one's own good with the good of the state (everything is on such a smaller scale) and thus give the jumpstart to great things to come.
    And in that people savor the pleasures of life in a more mature, less "hungry" way, more measured, because they know that it is them that have created the means to enjoy them, rather than being given the gift from someone else.

    On the contrary in vast countries/empires with a tight bureaucratic political centre deciding for everything this identification with the state is less easy and leads people to care less about the betterment of the whole than for the betterment of their own situation. It's human nature.

    It's certainly true that dictatorships seize on the turmoil of history, of periods of chaos, of poverty, of war, of misery. (And let's not forget that the rise of the extreme right is associated with that as well..).I think it was Pascal who said that in order to perpetuate the lie one needs to present it as natural and inherent since forever, so as to give it an unshakeable status (or words to that effect).

  15. Anonymous19:31


    Thanks for the equally thought provoking reply! I feel deeply for Greece at the moment, but I notice they're characteristically community minded yet rebellious about the current situation.

    You're absolutely right - the notion of Democracy was of course invented by Greece and people wanted to be part of that because everyone could 'buy in' to a shared security, not at all possible when Democracy doesn't exist.

    I'm getting off the subject of perfume quite a bit! But anyway, I read a book a while back (in an effort to keep up all the mental gymnastics from art college days)by Michel Foucault called Fearless Speech, all about the original Greek ideal of democracy. It was fascinating and it really highlighted where we in the West have strayed somewhat from the ideal! I'd say that's much to do with, as you say 'perpetuating a lie'. Not least good old extreme marketing and appealing to the lowest common denominator! Having said that, I feel lucky (?) perhaps relieved, to be living in the West, however insidious politics can get!

  16. R,

    it's good to get off the subject, as really it's also included in the real world, so talking about the real world can't hurt it. ;-)

    The tragedy that has befallen modern Greece is that the people trusted corrupt politicians and continued to vote for them in the hopes that there would be a chance for each of them to make things better for their village, their community, their club, their region etc. Promises were given, but the money were siphoned into politicians' private lives and families and to anyone who was dealing with them (that is big state contractors and media moguls). THAT is the triptych that has preyed on Greece: politicians, state contractors, media moguls (take it from a Greek). The average Greek layman didn't (and mathematically couldn't!) create such a fiscal chaos. Naturally they do bear some responsibility too; we should have taken extra care not to vote for people we had clues were not as they promised to be. And we shouldn't have allowed this to escalate that much back in 2008, even if a mini revolt was necessary. :-(

    In a now characteristic relance Greeks try to support each other, like they always have done in times of crisis. "If the state can't take care of us, as it should, we will take care of each other". There's also a tight sense of family here which is very important (Kids take care of their elderly parents instead of putting them in convalescent homes, parents sacrifice everything for their children and try to provide them first and foremost even as adults, there is a network of relatives to address when things go tough and they usually are very supportive, even in families with problems, etc)

    Of course Greeks are rebellious about it all, because they realize that none of the "measures" now taken is working and they are continuously asked to pay asinine and onerous taxes (taxes they can't meet anymore!) that are put there in order to fill a black pit, a Danaides' barrel just to rescue the European banks and the Greek banks (which ventured well beyond their power). This money doesn't return to the community or the state to benefit it.
    The master-plan just isn't working; if you read Paul Krugman in the New York Times he explains it all very very well and much better than I could ever hope to. :-)

    As to the notion of democracy, I think its invention also had to do with two parameters that we fail to understand today. And it's good that you bring on Foucault into this, as I agree we have strayed.
    One was that the men who invented it were men who had solved all the tiny problems of day to day survival. (This is the only way to build a glowing civilization). They were frugal to begin with (he who has small desires is rich!) and the other was they had slaves -those were war prisoners- to help them accomplish more menial jobs, thus allowing them to have the necessary time to sit down and think and devise things in art and culture and politics. This necessary idleness was crucial! And contributed to the Classical idea IMHO.
    (And this is why modern administrations are so keen to keep everyone on our toes into having to paying a different bill every day, so that we won't have the time and free mental ability to sit down and THINK! This is how they perpetuate their situation, how they perpetuate the lie....I deduce you understand this yourself, from your comment above, so maybe I'm repeating).

    But yes, I feel relieved to be living in the West too (the sheer power of having control over one's own life /comportment and destiny is priceless), and despite all the very recent problems, I also feel rather lucky to be living in Greece too. It's no wonder German people come to retire here, "to live like a human being" rather than a working robot.

  17. Prince Barry09:01

    Tbh, I am not a fan of Ellena's scents. I only like 2, Terre d'Hermes, only in the parfum, and Brin de Réglisse.

    I thought that Chandler Burr, in The Perfect Scent, as being big headed and arrogant. Nevertheless, I bought this book because it was about perfume. I was shocked, he comes across as being a thoroughly nice guy, and reading some of his entries was like reading poetry.

  18. Barry,

    thanks for stopping by! :-)

    Trust me, if Chandler was talking about big-headed and arrogant, it must have been people in his previous book than the one you're referring to. ;-)

    Ellena is totally nice and polite, honest to goodness; when I interviewed him he graciously allowed for the odd disruptions and gave me PLENTY of time to discuss anything *I* wanted to. Not something someone as celebrated as he would grant so casually, and yet!

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed his book, it does read like a poetry book, what an insightful observation on your part. Thoughts and ideas collected in snippets, with a most refined flow and an open ended promise.
    Have you tried his Eau de Gentiane Blance or Angeliques sous la Pluie? (both genius IMO) They might appeal to you.

  19. Prince Barry10:05

    Thank you my dear, it's a pleasure visiting you on here. I am going to pop by more often.

    Agree about the characters from the other book.

    I am sure that I have a sample of Gentiane somewhere that I never tried, I shall dig it out and give it a try and let you know.

  20. B,

    please do! It'd be a pleasure having you here :-)

    And looking forward to your impressions on the Gentiane. I had reviewed it on these pages with a very specific imagery (use the Search function, if you like), but I wouldn't want to influence you. Try it first, compare notes later.

    Have a lovely afternoon!


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