Prior to last night's awe-inspiring Hermès fête, we sat down with the French brand's legendary perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. With over 50 years of experience in the fragrance industry, Ellena is the nose behind some of the world's most divine scents and has been Hermès' in-house perfumer since 2004.
Our chat with Ellena comes at an especially momentous time in his career as he's just named his successor, Christine Nagel, another major player in the fragrance world. While her official start date is TBD, she and Ellena have spent the interim collaborating and learning from each other. We spoke with the newly-minted confidantes about the art of fragrance, searching for the perfect scent (they likened it to searching for a soulmate), and passing the torch.
MarieClaire.com: Jean-Claude, you got your start in fragrance at an early age. What was your draw to the field?
Jean-Claude Ellena: My parents were desperate to put me somewhere, so they put me in the perfume industry at age 16. [Laughs]
MC: That makes sense since your father was a perfumer, too. So you must have some favorite memories then?
JCE: When I was young, my mentor was Edmond Roudnitska, who was a great perfumer in France. When I first met him, he invited me to his house in the South of France. I arrived, a bit shy, and he opened the door and looked at me. "You stink," he told me. "You smell like detergent. Come back tomorrow and maybe we can talk."
MC: Is that why you never wear cologne? Is this so it doesn't affect your sense of smell or interfere with another scent you are testing?
JCE: Yes, I need to be neutral because I don't want to disturb myself when I'm working.
MC: Do you have a favorite perfume?
JCE: I wear Terre d'Hermès. Before I came to Hermès, I would wear it three times a year, so I have the same old bottle. [Laughs] I'm faithful, because I try to understand the perfume. I haven't finished understanding it. With a great perfume, day after day, year after year, you discover something new.
MC: After all your years in fragrance, do you have a favorite essential oil to work with?
JCE: All of them. The thing is, I have no preference on oil. When I was young, yes, because I knew nothing about perfumery. When you know nothing about perfumery, you fall in love with everything. It's the same with women.
Christine Nagel: You always have to discover a new side of the person you're with, otherwise you get bored.
JCE: When you're young, you love everyone, and at the end, that might not be the best decision.
MC: It is daunting to find one's true love, so how can someone go into a store, sample several perfumes, and find their signature scent?
JCE: I've got the same problem with yogurt and books. [Laughs] Don't buy into advertising, follow your nose!
CN: Put it on your skin, but not too many perfumes. Two or three in one visit. Don't look with your eyes, look with your nose and take your time. It's important to have confidence when you wear it. If you love it, you'll finish the bottle because wearing it is instinctive.
MC: How did you guys end up working together?
JCE: We looked at each other from afar. I saw what she was doing, she saw what I was doing. It was respect and admiration. She's good, I'm good. Together, we are excellent and getting better. The thing is, we understand each other very well. We are speaking the same language.