BY MANDI NORWOOD | August 18, 2014 | Style & Beauty
A stunning new fragrance from Hermès takes its inspiration from iconic leather handbags—and sensual French literature.
Jean-Claude Ellena at his workshop in the south of France near Grasse, the perfume capital.
When Jean-Claude Ellena became “the nose” of Hermès 10 years ago, his first port of call was the maison’s leather vault in Paris. Providing specialized storage for the skins that form the brand’s iconic luggage and handbags, “it was a marvelous treasure,” Ellena recalls, “an Ali Baba’s cave, where each piece of leather was arranged by characteristic and color.
“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.”
This month, 67-year-old Ellena’s dream is realized in the form of Cuir d’Ange (angel leather), a fragrance that’s both gentle and assertive, shifting between delicate heliotropes and woody hawthorn, bashful violets and narcissi, and unrestrained musk.
Ellena’s new fragrance, Cuir d’Ange, was inspired by Hermès’s fine leather goods, such as this Oxer saddle bag.
As with all fragrances, there are layers of notes: the top notes that provide the first fragrant impression, the middle ones that form the heart of the scent seconds after application, and the base notes that linger long after the perfume has dried on the skin. With Cuir d’Ange, the first spray bursts into a generous—but not overly floral—bouquet that’s just sweet enough for a woman and yet robust enough for a man. Minutes later, it settles into a gorgeous veil of caramel, pipe tobacco, and a sprinkling of breezy wildflowers. It feels beautiful on the skin, too, like cool, expensive, powder-soft suede...
“Angel leather,” asserts Ellena, referencing the words of early-20th-century French author Jean Giono, who has been a source of inspiration for Ellena for over three decades. In his autobiography, Jean le Blue (Blue Boy), Giono describes his father in his cobbler’s workshop, “busy making shoes in angel leather for some god with a thousand feet.”
For Ellena, who compares his process of creating fragrances to that of writing a book, Giono’s phrase “angel leather,” combined with his own epiphany at the Hermès vault, provided the compelling concept Ellena needed for his next fragrance masterpiece.
Tell us more about the connection you make between literature and fragrance. I am a writer of smells. For me, perfume is more a poetic creation than a concept. It touches us, moves us, fires our imagination. I have a writer’s approach. I tell stories with perfume. Perfumers all use the same ingredients and raw materials. It’s their writing talent that makes the difference.
Why are you inspired by the author Jean Giono? I see literature—with a capital L—as significant. It has always fueled my imagination, but it’s true I have a special relationship with Jean Giono, which must derive from our Provençal origins and how we understand the world.
Why did it take 10 years to create Cuir d’Ange? It’s a slow process—and very demanding. The hardest Fragrance thing is [figuring out] how I am going to translate the concept into a physical presence. Until the moment comes that the product matches the idea in my head, I put it aside; I come back to it later, I work on it. That’s why it can take 10 years.
Jean-Claude Ellena uses the simplest tools—pen, paper, smelling strips—and his finely tuned nose to create fragrances for Hermès.
Cuir d’Ange is appealing for both women and men. How did you accomplish that? I don’t think smells have a gender, any more than colors, sounds, or tastes do. Unfortunately, societies have created codes that we find difficult to break from. These codes are a framework that helps us live in an increasingly complex world, but one from which we sometimes want to be free. For me, perfumes are like works of art and, as such, aren’t intended for men or women, but for all mankind.
In your book, The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur (Rizzoli, $25), you say there is a misconception that your perfumes contain only natural ingredients, nothing artificial. I see all ingredients as smells, whether they’re natural or artificial. I love them all. I don’t differentiate between them, so long as they serve my idea. The advent of chemical ingredients has given us a much broader olfactory palette. How lucky we are!
What are your own personal favorite scents? The smell of human skin without perfume—my wife’s and my children’s.
Tell us about your studio. Why did you choose to have it in Grasse? 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.
You have created many iconic fragrances, including Van Cleef & Arpels’s First and Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert. Do you consider Cuir d’Ange to be a new classic? I sincerely hope so—to have a perfume that stands outside of time, a perfume beyond fashions and trends.
What’s the difference between French and American tastes in fragrance? For Americans, the notion of cleanliness dominates. Pleasure is allowed if it’s useful—for example, smelling clean and having good longevity—whereas French-style perfuming likes a bit of controversy and the body’s own smells.
How did you finally realize your vision for Cuir d’Ange. Was it a “voilà!” moment? Suddenly, an instant will come when you say, “That’s it! That’s what I was looking for.” Creating a fragrance is a terrible and terrifying process because I’m the kind of person who is continually dissatisfied until that moment comes. And then the pleasure is very short. Like sex—French-style! Cuir d’Ange is number 12 in Hermès’s Hermessence collection of perfumes and is available exclusively in Hermès stores. Tysons Corner, 703-506-4546
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD SCHROEDER (ELLENA); COURTESY OF HERMÈS (BAG, PERFUME, heart)
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