Jean-Claude Ellena came to Hermès with one of the most impressive CVs in perfumery. With Givaudan training and a thorough grasp of traditional perfumery, he rose to the top of mainstream perfumery at the same time that he became a driving force in the early independent perfume movement. Had he retired before working at Hermès he would still have had one of the most prominent careers in the industry. He was brought aboard at Hermès with the edict and the resources to reinvent the brand’s fragrance wing.
The Hermessence collection was key to the total renovation of Hermès fragrances that Ellena undertook, but it was still one piece of a broader plan. Under Ellena, Hermès reformulated its existing perfumes to bring them closer to the brand’s modern aesthetic, launched the Jardin series, created a new line of Eaux de Cologne, and fleshed out its mainstream offerings with the Jour, Terre and Voyage perfumes.
A not disinterested cheat sheet:
Ambre Narguile 2004. The velvet and paisley sequel to Ellena’s l’Eau d’Ambre.
Vetiver Tonka 2004. Vetiver sweet tea. Woods with a large spoonful of sugar.
Poivre Samarcande 2004. Terre d’Hermès with a better stylist.
Rose Ikebana 2004. Pastel rose with a sweet/tart watermark.
Osmanthe Yunnan 2005. Ellena revisits his Dif Co Osmanthus. More tea, less milk. Delicate but durable.
Paprika Brasil 2006. Warm/cool. Moist/dry. Meant to evoke spicy, vegetal something or other.
Brin de Reglisse 2007. Licorice sticks and a cool floral breeze. Simple and utterly charming.
Vanille Galante 2009. An intellectual vanilla. Not overtly emotional, but very satisfying.
Iris Ukiyoé 2010. A vegetal, watery iris stunner for 4-5 minutes. Then, whoops, Elvis has left the building.
Santal Massoïa 2011. Sweetened spectral sandalwood similie. Too many steps from the real deal.
Epice Marine 2013. Lucid dreaming in the kitchen. Kooky. Wonderful.
Cuir d`Ange 2014. Dusty mauve floral. Not quite old-school, hardly modern. Totally its own thing. My fav of the lot.
Muguet Porcelaine 2016. Ellena goes punk for his historical lily-of-the-valley.
Ellena is transitioning out of his role as house perfumer at Hermès, making way for his successor, Christine Nagel, but as of late 2016, the Hermessence line is still strictly Ellena’s. The most recent addition, Muguet Porcelaine, is ostensibly his last, though the same was said of Cuir d’Ange, which preceded it. Looking at the twelve year timeline of the collection shows very little concession to trend. There’s not an oud, a liturgical incense or a cotton-candy cupcake in the lot. The focus is on soliflors, sweet woods and sheer spices, with common themes threaded throughout. Each perfume focuses on a note (osmanthus, licorice) or notes (ambre, culinary spices.) Ellena’s interpretations of the notes are not outrageous by any means, but there are a few twists and a few patterns emerge.
The florals are the sheerest perfumes in the collection. After about half an hour the rose, iris and osmanthus are almost ghostlike. They hold their shapes perfectly but recede into the background quickly. I’m often surprised when I press my nose to my wrist at how coherent the perfumes remain, but I must in fact press my nose to my wrist to find them. The florals are also the least edgy of the lot. They are pretty and have a contemplative quality that keeps them interesting, but they aren’t provocative in the least.
Woods, not spices, are Ellena’s entry point to neo-gourmanderie. He finds sweet tones even in dry woods such as vetiver and pulls the sweetness forward close to the point of edibility. Massoia, vetiver and cedar become mouthwatering. Ellena tests the limits of his wood-based perfumes, making them as harmonic and radiant as possible. Those who balk at the trend toward excessive woody-ambery tones won’t find Santal Massoia, Vetiver Tonka and Ambre Narguilé appealing. On the other hand, for those who appreciate sweet, creamy tones but avoid ‘dessert’ notes and specific culinary references, these three perfumes are quite attractive. Wringing wide, encompassing tones out of woods is the signature of Ellena’s contemporary style. It is often called minimal, but the word is misleading. The term suits the reductive aspects of his approach–his insistence on the least number of moving parts and minimal adornment to the work. But minimalism in the arts also implies a reaction to abstract expressionism and downplaying emotional inspiration. While his work might be structurally minimalist, the impetus for his perfumes has an emotive element.
Spices. Many of the same materials form both the spicy and woody qualities that infuse his perfumes. Take “pepper” and “cedar”, two descriptors often used. Most likely they are different sides of the same woody-amber materials. Imagine that woods are Ellena’s syntax and spices are his punctuation marks. The spice-named Hermessences form more than one-third of the collection and are a logical progression from Ellen’s work prior to Hermès: Cartier Declaration’s cardammom woods, Frédéric Malle Angelique Sous la Pluie’s bitter angelica and Bvlgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert’s tea note. They cover the broadest range of volume and hue in the collection and are in some respects the most modern.
Vanille Galante’s hints of booze, fruits and wood focus on the attributes of the whole vanilla pod and steer well clear of the dessert table. It is the middle ground between a classical exploration of a known material and a modern stripdown-and-rebuild. Epice Marine draws inspiration from contemporary cuisine, mixing diverse spices for jarring but gratifying effect. It is the out-and-proud oddball of the Hermessence line. Poivre Samarcande and Paprika Brasil have the characteristically ‘Hermès’ balanced woodiness, and like the others mentioned above, are likely to set off alarms for the woody-amber sensitive. The pair don’t step far enough outside of a safe-zone to make an impression. They give the impression of hitting their marks and not flubbing their lines. They seem the least inspired, but I’ve read comments from many who find Poivre Samarcande the coziest in the collection. Brin de Reglisse, on the other hand, uses simplicity to its advantage and hits the perfect balance between black licorice candy and a field of lavender.
The final two perfumes in the collection, Cuir d’Ange from 2015 and Muguet Porcelaine from 2016 stand apart from the rest of the Hermessence perfumes. Cuir d’Ange might have been the final Ellena perfume for the brand. At the time of its release it was mentioned as his swansong. It is a confident step away from the restrained Hermessence sensibility. It is larger by every metric and provides a more complex experience for the wearer. Unlike the other florals in the collection it is parched and unsweetened and sports a searing suede note. At the time it was released I wondered if it hinted at big, broad moves in Ellena’s future as he stepped away from Hermès.
As it turns out, Cuir d’Ange wasn’t Ellena’s last Hermessence. His finale was Muguet Porcelaine, a subtly creepy lily-of-the valley soliflor. Like the flower, it has a 50/50 balance of white and green, but how the colors are filled in is interesting. Downstage center is a stable muguet note that avoids functional-product connotations. Flanking the star upstage is an interesting set of ancillary notes: cucumber for aquatic effect, pear for crunch and neroli for a cloisonné shine. Imagine that in the wings a muddied floor is being mopped and whiffs of soil and bleach have found their way onstage.
Diorissimo was Edmond Roudnitska’s essay on floral abstraction. After Roudnitska dissected the flower to learn its inner workings he sewed it back together as tightly as he could. Diorissimo was soapy and cold but had a hint of soil and wood, suggesting both a muguet bouquet in a vase as well as a garden bed. It has the texture of a white marble bust. Ellena pieces together his muguet much more loosely, to the point of leaving the seams exposed. The first few times I smelled it, I caught the pieces, but wasn’t able to see the whole picture. Now, I take in the whole melon-bleach floral picture and find it spooky and wonderful. Cuir d’Ange is the most forceful entry in the collection and Muguet Porcelaine the most bizarre. Ellena summoned an angel (ange) to break from the ethereal sensibility Hermessence line and chose lucky 13 in the Hermessence line to say his piece on the historical topic of lily of the valley. A strong finish.
Ellena’s style is often described as: Sheer. Radiant. Pastel. Diaphanous. Water-colored. Transparent. All true, and I use these terms as well, but they are surface descriptors. Simple stylistic decisions don’t appear to be Ellena’s primary concern. His style is an outcome of his method and techniques. Despite the soft labels, Ellena’s approach is direct, undistracted and his technique appears rigorous and consistent. He searches for the most concise presentation of his olfactory ideas. The Hermessence line might be luxurious, but it is hardly ostentatious or ornamented. Even when the perfumes are light in presence, the dynamics are legible and unambiguous. Ellena interrogates his materials and his perfumes until they give him exactly what he wants from them. This exacting approach could be pressured, even punishing without considered artistic principles, but Ellena has honed his approach over the course of his career. The resulting perfumes are poised but not static, fluid but un-rushed.
Unsurprisingly, the perfumes share a closely delineated spectrum of tones and one drawback is the risk of olfactory fatigue that a certain set of woody tones tends to induce. Still, this range is not inadvertent and is the result of Ellena’s strict, meticulous approach to his materials. The challenge Ellena sets for himself is to coax different ideas out of a narrow palette of materials. Despite these limits the Hermessence perfumes range from pretty (Rose Ikebana), cozy (Brin de Reglisse) and festive (Ambre Narguile) to odd (Epice Marine), aloof (Cuir d’Ange) and quietly disturbing (Muguet Porcelaine). Ellena manipulates scent’s capacity to get at emotion through perception. He doesn’t tell stories, he creates moods.
I recently heard choreographer Deborah Hay answer a question posed after a performance of her work. An audience member asked about the the role of imagination in creating her performances. Hay said, “I don’t use imagination to make work. I pay close attention to perception.” This approach, this deep-dive into the fundamentals seems pertinent to Ellena’s work. His perfumes seem to arise from the specifics rather than trickle down from concepts.
The roots of the Hermessence line can be found at Ellena’s last stop before Hermès: the Different Company. The brand launched in 2000 with three perfumes, all by Ellena. They were Osmanthus, Bois d’Iris and Rose Poivrée. The trio consisted of a sheer soliflor, a radiant wood and a spiced floral–effectively the three genres that define the Hermessence collection. Ellena came to Hermès with a track record and a head full of ideas. Hermès offered him a wide open playing filed to realize ideas he’d previously explored. Along with the advantages, there are likely constraints to working in a luxury house: profit/loss balance, expanding markets and fickle consumers. Who knows what discussions took place behind closed doors at 24 Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, but judging by the perfumes, Ellena was able to stick to his guns and pursue his artistic interests.
(review based perfumes purchased from Hermès and samples provided with purchase)