In his 12-year tenure at Hermès, Jean-Claude Ellena has created one of the most distinctive collections of any perfume house. A philosopher and deep thinker, he’s one of the few perfumers who can also explain his vision in words. Open one of his books – The Diary of a Nose (third picture) or Perfume – then spray Osmanthe Yunnan (£171 for 100ml EDT) or Un Jardin sur le Nil (£59 for 50ml EDT) on your wrist, and spend a few moments reflecting on how an artist can transform an idea into scent. I call Ellena an artist without hesitation or self-consciousness. His work speaks for itself.
Ellena follows in the footsteps of another man who has done much to argue for the status of perfumery as art. Edmond Roudnitska is the author of many masterpieces, from Dior Diorella (£82 for 100ml EDT) to Rochas Femme (now discontinued, but available from third-party sites), and his method and discoveries still influence creators today. Ellena’s previous work paid tribute to the great master in a subtle, respectful way, while offering a novel perspective. His Cartier Déclaration (£73 for 100ml EDT) echoed the animalic notes of Roudnitska’s Eau d’Hermès (£72 for 100ml EDT). In Voyage d’Hermès (£61 for 35ml EDT), I notice traces of the late master’s Dior Eau Sauvage (£49.50 for 50ml EDT).
But it is with Muguet Porcelaine (£171 for 100ml EDT) that Ellena references Roudnitska most memorably. Lily of the valley, a delicate blossom with a potent scent, is impossible to capture by anything other than a perfumer’s imagination. Roudnitska kneeled at the lily of the valley patch near his house in Cabris to study the fine nuances of the aroma, reminiscent of pale rose petals, green sap and clove. In Diorissimo (£82 for 100ml EDT) he evokes the fragile beauty of May flowers, damp earth and vibrant greenery. The idea is elegant but dramatic.
Ellena’s Muguet Porcelaine is a Japanese ink painting compared with Roudnitska’s impressionist étude. It’s more transparent and luminous still, and has the limpid sweetness of lily of the valley accented with green. Its top notes are of such a vivid quality that I can almost hear the spring buds bursting.
The challenge with making a lily of the valley accord today is that many ingredients, such as the ones Roudnitska used, aren’t available to perfumers; they have been discovered to be allergens of one sort or another. Muguet Porcelaine doesn’t seem to be hampered by this problem, and it has the exquisite radiance of Diorissimo, paired with Ellena’s trademark refinement. The finish is bright and sun-warmed. It lingers delicately but steadfastly – another Ellena touch.
Muguet Porcelaine is also a reminder that the biggest achievement of a perfumer is not to render nature as truthfully as possible, but to weave a fantasy. It’s a perfume for creating a reverie, a dream, a spring of one’s own.