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The Diary of a Nose, By Jean-Claude Ellena, trans. Adriana Hunter
This fascinating chronicle of perfumery takes readers on a creative journey of odours
Saturday 25 August 2012
Why is it that the poet tells/ so little of the sense of smell". There is the obvious retort that the novelists are not so oblivious. Proust is saturated with odours and then there us Patrick Süskind's Perfume: "Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will."
Perfumers such as Jean-Claude Ellena, parfumeur exclusif for Hermès, seek to tap that power with chemistry in the service of seduction. Ellena has used his skill in the art to create classic perfumes such as Terre D'Hermès. The Diary of a Nose describes his creative journey though the year 2010.
But writing about the craft of perfumery is difficult because we don't all possess equally acute senses of smell. Ellena writes often about mint and we can all relate to that, but he also uses the names of chemicals, the odours of which most cannot conjure up. Elena writes about art, literature, music, Japan and painting besides perfume and he takes cues from all of these in his creativity. He describes only one meal but that is revealing of the link between gastronomy and perfumery. Most of flavour is odour, as Heston Blumenthal understands perfectly. Blumenthal began his experiments in molecular gastronomy thanks to a collaboration with the fragrance manufacturers Firmenich.
Ellena insists that perfumery is an art, not a science, but pays tribute to chemistry for the vast range of synthetics that he uses and for the gas chromatograph which can reveal every single ingredient in any aroma. He names the 16 ingredients of the perfumer's basic lexicon and closes the book with 23 recipes for basic scents, which rather touchingly assumes we'll have a bottle or two of allyl hexanoate or benzaldehyde in the cupboard.
Like everything in human culture, our perception of fragrance changes over time. Ellena describes how odours such as spearmint and lemon have been destroyed for perfumery by their omnipresence in toothpaste, chewing gum and cleaning fluids. Also, how hard it is to create genuine new aromas in a sophisticated world. He might seem a little precious at times but he isn't a snob, noting that when a strong flavour/aroma such as Coca Cola enters the world it then becomes impossible to recapture the innocence of its innovation.
Ellena is an artist-craftsman and this is his diary-cum-notebook. Such gleanings are always fascinating when the writer communicates honestly – even at the expense of the occasional technicality – his trials and errors in the pursuit of genuine novelty.
Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camou-flage' is published by Yale
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