By Lisa Jones on April 4th, 2016
Jean-Claude Ellena fascinates me. I have read his book, (The Diary of a Nose), I have read a book about his creative process, (Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent), and I have smelled a lot of his fragrances. He is charming and charismatic, one of the original spokespeople for the emerging celebrity perfume ‘noses’ when they started to be recognised by the public, and his appointment as the in-house perfumer at Hermés was a newsworthy event in the wider world of fragrance fandom, not just the perfume industry. He created the Hermessence range that placed Hermés firmly in the niche fold, as well as enormously successful mainstream releases such as the Jardin series, Jour, Voyage, Terre, and the rejuvenated Eaux.
For me, there was a point at which Jean-Claude Ellena jumped out from all the other perfumers to become someone who made ‘my kind of fragrance’. I am an awkward cuss, as I am a woman who doesn’t like ‘girly’ scents. I actively dislike florals and give serious side-eye to anything that tries to use candy notes in my vicinity. I don’t mind a little sweetness, I enjoy powder, and I can take some vanilla, but I am not sugary, flirty or froufrou. I am a woman who loathes Angel with a passion. (I think that should tell you everything you need to know about me as a perfumista.)
I remember the day I encountered the remarkable feat of scent reconstruction that is Un Jardin en Mediterranée, which Ellena created for Hermes in 2003. I was – and still am – captivated by the image it creates in my mind of a sunbaked Provençal garden. I want to sit down at a table in the shade of the fig trees and have a lunch that includes tomatoes picked warm from the plants I can smell on my wrist. It’s a feat and a fête in a bottle. I love to wear it on summer days, and its relaxed picnic vibe may be responsible for me drinking more chilled rosé than any of my other perfumes.
With summer covered, I was delighted to discover Ellena’s L’Eau d’Hiver for Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle and fall in love with it straight away. This soft, angelic heliotrope with is sparkling, sweet light does the remarkable trick of being both featherweight and lasting. I’m sure there are specific names for the chemicals that Ellena uses to achieve what I think of as his signature style. There are plenty of copyists who try to emulate this remarkable halo effect, but few can pull off the trick, and certainly not with such finesse. I wear L’Eau d’Hiver all year round, but there is a particular thrill to wearing it on crisp winter days, when the warmth of this seemingly-simple little O shines around you. It is one of those fragrances that move in and out of focus over the course of the day, and I find I can smell it on myself for a few hours in the morning but then catch lovely little wafts during the day that remind me of how radiant and glorious it is (and therefore I am, by association).
Of course, when I discovered that once upon a time Jean-Claude Ellena had founded his own perfume company, The Different Company, I wanted to smell every single one of his creations for the line. I did manage to smell a couple of them, but until recently I hadn’t managed to get hold of the one that sounded as if it was made just for me: Bois d’Iris. I love woody notes and I adore iris. Having said earlier that I am not froufrou, it may seem odd that I am so fond of iris in fragrance. After all, it’s a flower, so doesn’t that mean it’s floral? Well, as Claire has so eloquently explained in her series, in perfumery irises are chameleons that go from plushest powdery bosoms to carrotty green and reach out into the silvery mirror glass shards of cold-hearted icemaidens like Hermés Hiris and Serge Lutens’ Iris Silver Mist, which was so mean to Claire in such a good way. Of course Jean-Claude Ellena is far too much of a charming gentleman to brutalise us; I honestly don’t think he’s capable of it (I’m quite the fangirl in case you hadn’t noticed). And Bois d’Iris is as quintessentially Ellena as it gets: charming, well-mannered, suave and interesting.
While he harnesses the pale, cool, translucent facets of iris in his trademark watercolour style, Bois d’Iris feels richer, deeper perhaps, and is very definitely warm-blooded. The fragrance is light and airy, in a similar vein to L’Eau d’Hiver, and has a delightful spicy topnote, where iris is zipping along with bergamot (which my nose always reads as incense for some strange reason) to create a beautiful warm and elegant spiced opening. This lingers well on the skin and moves smoothly through into a clear, luminous iris that has some richness as it is warmed by a little carnation that also keeps the spicy undertone lingering and starts to feed in a touch of light woods. The base is of vetiver and cedar with an alleged touch of leather, which I can’t find at all, unless it’s simply a light skin suede that helps keep everything warm and snug. The spiced freshness of the vetiver and cedar are perfectly in tune with the spice of the top and heart notes and the move between each stage is subtle and seamless.
If I’m honest, there are so many links between 2000’s Bois d’Iris and 2003’s L’Eau d’Hiver, that I’m tempted to see one as a precursor to the other. They share Ellena’s characteristic watercolour luminosity alongside warmth and radiance and an ability to surround you with a halo of fragrance through the day. While angelic L’Eau d’Hiver sings soprano with heliotrope; cherubic Bois d’Iris with her spicy iris and cedar sings mezzo and does it beautifully. Overall the fragrance is, I would say, completely unisex and very approachable. This is not something you would be nervous of offering to a newcomer to niche fragrance, and I can imagine Bois d’Iris being a well-received gift. I mean, what’s not to like?