Former Hermes and Bvlgari perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena may be one of the world’s finest perfumers, but he also hides another talent: the ability to write about the art of perfumey in a compelling and fascinating way. He’s able to explain complexities of chemistry and ingredients in a clear and understandable manner. This is no small feat. How do you explain the art of a product that is invisible to the eyes?
Ellena, author of several books about scent, came to global fame as the in-house perfumer at Hermes. His journey and creative process was chronicled by former New York Times scent critic Chanlder Burr’s ‘The Perfect Scent’. Burr followed the perfumer for a full year as he formulated his first fragrance for the famous French luxury house. What comes across in the book is Ellena’s love for ingredients – whether they be flowers, mosses or spices. He treats them like a painter’s palette for the nose.
Jean-Claude’s latest book is called ‘Atlas of Perfumed Botany’ where, like a detective, he charts the botany and geography of perfume compositions. He offers a varied and fascinating cartography of fragrances, tracing the historical connections and cultural exchanges. Here’s a brief passage on the history and importance of oakmoss.
“The history of humankind abounds in surprises, and there is something reassuring about being able to experience wonder again and again. The first use of oak lichen, or oakmoss, goes back to ancient Egypt, where it was used for embalming and filling mummies. The procedure, which occurred over the space of seventy days, was supposed to enable the departed to reach the shores of the hereafter – a lengthy voyage,” he writes. “Egyptian embalmers knew not only that oakmoss has preservative properties but also that it retains the fragrances added to it. Now, some three thousand years later, perfumers use oakmoss absolute for base notes and to the same end: to ensure the perfume will last for several months.”
“When I was starting out in the perfume business, in the 1960s, one of my first jobs was processing mosses (lichens). Demand was so high that we would work around the clock. I was sixteen years old and assigned the graveyard shift. For safety reasons, there were always two of us loading and unloading the extractors. The bales of moss came from Morocco and Yugoslavia, in cubes a meter long on each side. We would untie the cords, spread the contents on the ground, and moisten it to improve the overall yield. We had to do this with a watering can – a hose would have been too much – and the rule was two cans per bale…I liked the scent – especially the scent of oakmoss.”
The book is accompanied by charming illustrations that help bring Ellena’s stories to life. It’s an interesting book filled with personal and insider stories.