Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Diary of a Nose - Jean-Claude Ellena

I've loved perfume ever since my first bottle of grown up scent (Yves St Laurent's Paris) was complemented though that was by no means the beginning of my fascination with things that smelled good. Smell matters in my line of work - to really know about, understand, and taste wine you have to be able to smell it and decode what it is you smell, most of what we taste is dictated by smell, and then there is it's evocative, mood changing powers... It's a sense that shouldn't be underestimated. 

Jean-Claude Ellena is a parfumeur or nose, in perfume circles it he's a celebrity though before I heard about this book I'd never heard of him. What I had heard of was a surprising number of the scents he's created (list here ) it's an impressive CV and puts into context the general tone of the book, which feels at times like a sort of legacy being passed on to the next generation. 

The Diary follows Jean-Claude through a year as he works on various projects, gathers inspiration from chance encounters, and muses upon what his work means to him, how he sees himself, and his philosophy about perfume in general. The man is an artist and sees himself as such, he certainly doesn't lack confidence which sometimes makes him sound somewhat pompous but he's earned the right to do that; I always found him interesting, his statements worth serious consideration.

I wanted to read this book because of my mildly obsessive and very expensive perfume habit, I expected it to be interesting, it far exceeded expectation. My copy is now full of scribbled notes and questions, not something I normally do to books. I could have read it in a day - it is after all only a short book - but ended up taking a few weeks over it which better suited the diary format and the concentration of ideas.

This book has turned into one that I'll dip into a lot in the future but nowhere did I find it more interesting than when he talks about meeting a top end sommelier. They both feel that a wine should reflect the man who made it least it only responds to market demands that fail to express anything very much. Some wines, and some perfumes undoubtedly do this - a simple set of components designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. However I would expect a Frenchman to want a wine to reflect it's terroir, a sense of place rather than person, it's more usual to find a cult for the winemaker in new world wines. Whisky is built on the myth that the liquid in the bottle represents terroir, but has in fact far more to do with the master blender who can manipulate his product in numberless ways - which is just what the parfumeur does.

Whilst this is most likely not the book to read if you don't have at least a passing interest in perfume it has plenty to offer those who do. I say look out for it. 


  1. Lifelong love of perfume, expensive perfume habit, enjoy reading about perfumers? Hmmm...sounds like you might enjoy the Now Smell This blog.

    I haven't read this yet, although it's on my TBR list. Have you read Chandler Burr's "The Pefect Scent"?

  2. Thank you - I went and had a quick look at Now Smell This and can well imagine wasting far to much time browsing there. My favourite perfume blog is Aroma Folio which is attached to the shop Les Senteurs and is always enjoyable. I haven't read the Chandler Burr book though have considered picking it up a few times - so many books so little time...

  3. I've wanted to read the Chandler Burr book for ages, but this one sounds really interesting too (thanks to your review, of course!). Argh! Too many books!