Traditionally, very few perfumers get to live the life of a rock star. Except for a select bunch, including Guerlain’s Thierry Wasser and Chanel’s Jacques Polge, most perfumers are essentially underappreciated chemists who alter our memories without so much as a humble “thank you” from the masses. They don’t get fame or glory, don’t get the luxury of time and space, and although they win briefs worth millions for their parent companies, many seldom get any recognition when it comes to marketing and selling the end product.
However, such is definitely not the case with Jean-Claude Ellena, the first ever student at what would become the legendary Perfumery School of Givaudan in Geneva. His legacy will live on in our fragrant sphere as long as the ghost of Elvis or Madonna will to music fans. Ellena’s start in fragrances was early on in life when he helped his grandmother pick fragrant jasmine to sell in Grasse to perfumers. He became an apprentice at an essential oils factory at age 16, and in 2004, aged 57, became Hermès’ official and only exclusive master in-house perfumer (a strategic move to go after competitor fashion house Chanel). Hermès is a French luxury lifestyle brand founded in 1837, when their prime export was artisanal harnesses. Now they sell mostly accessories, jewellery, and fine fragrance, and Ellena is heavily involved in the entire process, very much to the consumer’s delight. His egotistic yet humble personality makes him a loveable character for television and press.
Ellena has a unique approach to fragrance, and an even more unique contract with the brand; he allegedly doesn’t have to create anything unless he is feeling inspired. Now, as blissful as that might sound to a busy office clerk, one can easily imagine how the creative mind would wander and challenge itself in such an easygoing environment. Indeed, the man keeps busy in his forest home, where he is alone with his thoughts and lab assistant to imagine and create. He takes lavish trips around the globe to gather inspiration, and lives like a sort of monk that perfumery students study and admire. When I first read about him in Chander Burr’s “The Perfect Scent” I became obsessed with his poetic approach to the art, which has been called a renaissance in fragrance; unlike the old Guerlain’s he admires so, his own works are delicate and light yet hold strong-willed emotions that vividly capture the essence of his temporary muses. He is very much a talented painter in fragrance molecules with a touch of surrealism.
In 2003 he introduced a line of new fragrances that would go on to become a staple in Hermès’ perfume business (which reportedly tripled in just five years of his reign). Les Jardins translates to “gardens,” a fitting title to the unisex scents inspired by nature’s best moments, twisted to show them in a sort of minimalistic and ethereal light. Un Jardin En Mediterranee, Un Jardine Sur Le Nil, Un Jardin Sur Le Toit, Un Jardin Apres la Mousson and Le Jardin de Monsieur Li took a collective 12+ years to develop, exuberant sums to research, and the world’s collective breath when they released. The range shares a unique natural romanticism, yet Ellena says he has “no interest in trying to reproduce nature. I want to transform it, create olfactory illusions.” And so you have, Jean-Claude; so you have. He is not a believer in “natural” perfumes – to him, perfumers must use the chemicals at their disposal to create the extraordinary.
The fragrance I chose to highlight today is debatably one of the better known of Les Jardins, the one inspired by the cultural Mecca of Egypt. Home to massive pyramids that are mysterious as they are awe-inspiring and vast deserts that stretch as far as the eye can see, many would look at the country and wonder where Jean-Claude would find a bright idea for a perfume. Perhaps in a local souk? Or maybe in a tomb of an ancient ruler? The answer comes from a source older than that of Tutankhamun and even humanity itself: the mythic Nile River. Unlike the heavy oud and rich spices we’ve come to associate with the Middle East in this past decade’s fragrance releases, Ellena’s Egypt is, like its famous river, fresh by nature.
The story goes that upon the historic waterway sits a magical garden where a lone, barely-ripe mango fruit hangs from a tree, begging for the sun’s warm rays to age it into an insanely sugary treat. This barely sweet and heavily green fragrance merges with the acidity of fresh tomato, juicy membrane and all, and a hint of completely tame grapefruit for the top notes of Un Jardin Sur Le Nil, making for one of the strangest and most wonderful scents from any designer line of our time. In its heart the fragrance holds powdery pink peony and bitter earthy carrot, where it merges with grass and warm cinnamon. It is a completely transformative perfume that reads genderless on the skin and has poor projection but excellent longevity.
Verdict: Anyone who fails to appreciate Un Jardin Sur Le Nil because it is not blatantly pleasant is missing Ellena’s point entirely. The purpose of the juice contained within this most heavily-built glass bottle is to transport the soul and set the imagination running, but that can be a tough order since it is not an outright ‘pretty’ perfume. It is harsh on the brain yet smooth on the nose, a fragrance meant to evoke the creator’s memories of a fleeting emotion – wonder, enchantment, anxiety and nervousness – from many years ago. It is available for up to 70% off retail at FragranceNet.com, and I encourage you to pick up a bottle and experience Ellena’s subtle witchcraft for yourself. Myself, I’m looking forward to experiencing the next instalment of the enchanted series: Mr. Li’s Garden, out this past year. Stay tuned.
*Prices true at time of writing.
Enjoyed this article? Love fragrance & beauty? Make sure to subscribe to Nosegasm.com by email so you don’t miss the hottest reviews, latest news, and awesome giveaways. Find us on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, too!