The Diary of a Nose, By Jean-Claude Ellena (trs Adriana Hunter)

Dreams of an olfactory worker

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The Independent Culture

Jean-Claude Ellena featured in a recent Channel 4 documentary as Hermès' resident wizard or "parfumeur exclusive"; the creator of Terre d'Hermès and the Jardin series as well as First for Van Cleef & Arpels and many other big sellers. Born in Grasse in 1947, he is a legend in perfume circles. This book is not a conventional diary but a year's worth of jottings and musings, giving a sidelong glimpse into his creative process.

Ellena describes himself as a "writer of smells" but also likens his art to that of a composer and painter. More fundamentally, he's a chemist, with a love of synthetics that may seem paradoxical for a nose famous for his florals. As he explains, synthetic sources are "more interesting" than naturals; for example, phenylethyl alcohol "provides a consistency, a roundedness and a tranquillity that are more important than the smell of roses with which it is associated".

The diary's entries range from a few paragraphs to a few pages long, the most fascinating of which concern Ellena's current projects. There's the women's fragrance inspired by a display of "small, crimson-coloured" winter pears in an Italian market. Back in the lab, he adds "floral notes … and a chypre accord, a composition of patchouli with woody and labdanum notes, which should play like background music as the perfume develops". Other works in progress include updates of the classics Calèche and Bel-Ami, three colognes and a few other things "that might never see the light of day".

Some entries are more philosophical, and Ellena has a way with an epigram: "Perfumes and fashion … may appear together in public but they do not live together." Or: "I like pleasures when they are shared, that is my definition of luxury."

He flits from topic to topic like a butterfly, but there are many insights into his rarefied realm along the way. Up until the Seventies, he informs us, "perfumers were still using powdered dried blood, tobacco cuttings and sheep droppings macerated in a soup of chemicals" for a musk effect. He visits a bergamot farm, noting how the scent changes according to which month the flowers are harvested, and falls with delight on an extract of nasturtium that promises new vistas.

Some smells are just stinks, and he's alert to garlic breath, sweat and stale cigarette smoke on others. But he relishes it all – not surprising for one who detects in a single flower "the smell of roses, white flowers and horse droppings". He also writes simply and well about food.

There's a very odd appendix with pages of chemical recipes for a variety of natural smells, presented as though readers might have a lab at home. More than a chemist or composer, I'd call Ellena a poet, not least because like them, his defence against a world which sees his art as a frippery is to take himself very seriously indeed.