Céline Ellena talks about the power of scents to linger in our memory and on our skin. And why the best perfumes may be the ones that only murmur to us, and know when to disappear. She spoke to us from her home in Spéracèdes, France, just a stone’s throw from Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.
OPEN: How do you describe what you do? CÉLINE ELLENA: I’m a perfume composer. That means I create fragrances for brands, like a novelist or a musician. But I tell stories with fragrance. And that means relating emotions. What touches us – in our hearts, in our blood, in our gut. Telling a story with a fragrance is the most direct way to touch your memory and draw out your emotions, no matter how deeply they’re buried. I use raw ingredients like a painter uses paint, or a musician musical notes. By mixing these ingredients I create a fragrance that moves you and tells you a story.
Do you work for a particular company now? For 20 years I was employed as most perfumers are, in big companies you’ve never heard of that create perfumes for brands you have, like Unilever and L’Oréal. I was surrounded by a big team of marketing and sales people and assistants, and I almost never saw the actual client. I really enjoyed it, and this kind of industrial setting is where most of the big-name perfumes come from. But now for the last 10 years I’ve been an independent perfumer. I’ve got a tiny workshop, and I do everything myself: I do the research, create the formula, measure the ingredients, and send off the samples myself to the client – the brand – whether they’re in nearby Grasse, Paris, Korea or China.
That sounds like a slow process. A typical project can take between one and three years – and Covid lockdowns, particularly in Asia, didn’t help. I have one project I started a week before the first lockdown in March 2020, and the client just called to assure me it’s finally about to come out on the market.
Why are smells so powerful at evoking memory? I’m not a brain expert, but the nose is our most primitive sense with a direct connection to the brain. With the other senses there’s more of a circuit to follow, hoops to jump through. But the nose connects directly to the most primitive parts of your brain. There’s no intellectualization, it’s immediate. With professionals like me, however, it’s different. When I smell something my whole brain lights up, because I work making connections, imagination, projection. I can imagine a scent without having to smell it. You might do that with familiar smells, like strawberries, but it’s very limited.
It’s funny, because when you say strawberry I think of that artificial strawberry smell in candy and strawberry syrup. The same with grapes – it’s the artificial grape smell in American grape soda. That’s an interesting example, because the grape smell you’re talking about doesn’t exist in France. I know it, because I’ve created a fragrance based on it, and I lived in America when I was a child. But to a French person that smell would be meaningless. Grapes, yes. But the way ‘grape’ is interpreted in America is completely different from France, Russia, or Asia.
It’s one of those strong childhood memories. Yes. In France, when somebody talks to me about the smells of their childhood, I can tell where they grew up and how. I know about their life and their state of health. It’s cultural.
Speaking of which, you moved from Paris back to the village you grew up in. How has this move affected your work? I did spend my early childhood and my holidays here in Spéracèdes, but I’ve lived in so many other places. Spéracèdes isn’t where I grew up, where I transformed. So when I came back here to live, it was a bit like a perfume you remember only vaguely, but no longer have an affinity with. I had to learn to live here. Now I couldn’t go anywhere else to work. Here in Spéracèdes there’s peace and calm and light. And I’m right next to Grasse.
The historic capital of perfume. It really makes it easier. I live around the people I work with and can get to my lab on foot.
When you’re working on a new fragrance, how many ingredients go into it? There are different ways of looking at that. My father, the perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, learned from another master of the previous generation, Edmond Roudnitska, that you should make a fragrance with few ingredients. You have to choose your ingredients carefully and work so that each ingredient gives the best of itself. There’s a principle called the rapport-d’odeur, the way that each ingredient does a pas de deux, how each mixes with, repels, attracts, completes and overlays another. That’s the challenge of this craft. That’s why it takes years and years of research. The idea is that each ingredient is essential, and if you remove one the whole thing collapses. The word I use to describe it comes from architecture: tensegrity. It’s the relationship of tension that keeps a structure standing.
And if you can remove something and the structure doesn’t collapse, then it was unnecessary to begin with, right? Exactly. And you’ll have to start again. Nothing extra and nothing too much. Every element should exist to support the others.
What kind of scents do you prefer in your perfumes? I have my favourite wines – I prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux. But perfume is the one domain where I can’t have a preference. I work for my clients, and to have a preference is to limit yourself. You’ll end up repeating the same things. I stay neutral, open, objective. I prefer to remain a butterfly.
How long should a perfume last? There are two aspects to the duration of a fragrance: sillage and persistence.
Tell me about them. Sillage is like a ribbon that follows you wherever you walk. That makes people say, wow! (She mimes someone stopping and turning their head.)
That would make a good TV commercial! That’s it, it’s the hook. Or think of a boat and the trail it leaves in its wake.
What’s the ideal sillage? There’s no ideal sillage, though, unfortunately – and this is just my opinion – today I think many brands want their sillage too big. Not like a boat, but a multi-story cruise ship.
That’s not a pretty image for a perfume! When I worked for Hermés creating their home fragrance collection, I told them I wanted to make perfumes that murmur.
Murmur? Yes, quiet perfumes. When I said that, their eyes went wide. ‘Perfumes that murmur? But perfumes must smell!’ I think perfume should only reveal itself as you get closer to someone. It’s intimate. Since the Covid confinements, people have come to rediscover and appreciate scents that murmur, that are intimate, that reassure, that are domestic as well, that come from your companion who maybe doesn’t know how to perfume themselves well but just puts a tiny bit on.
And the other characteristic – persistence? Persistence is how long it stays on your skin. Today the fashion is for perfumes that stay on your skin for 24, 48, even 72 hours. I prefer perfumes that disappear, that make room for your skin, for other things. If you still want to smell like that perfume you just put it on again. I like perfumes that wake up your senses, create emotions, but that let themselves be forgotten as well. Because in the end what’s really important is the person.