Sunday, June 3, 2012

Que sais-je sur le parfum? Review of Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent by Jean-Claude Elléna

Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent (2011), by Jean-Claude Elléna, the house perfumer at Hermès, is a curious book. Compact and pithy, it manages also to be profound. The first forty pages of this work elicited in my mind memories of the French pocketbook series Que sais-je? This series is similar in some ways to the X for Dummies yellow-and-black paperback series in English, except that the French would probably never have fallen for books with such self-deprecating titles.

Each Que sais-je? series book provides a quick, concise and respectable introduction to a discipline or topic. The emphasis is on theory, not practice, as in the Dummies series. Let's say that you want to find out what you missed out on from the history of philosophy while earning your degree in business administration. Well, you can buy a copy of Que-sais-je sur la philosophie? and read it at the beach, after which you'll know what Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, Kant, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and other figures from the history of Western philosophy are famous for.

These handy little books exist on just about any possible topic of interest and are written by scholars in the respective field. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books in the series. They are designed to bring people up to speed quickly about entire domains of knowledge. For those interested in learning more, the books contain bibliographies for further investigations.

To my great surprise, it turns out (I only just discovered upon googling Que sais-je?) that Jean-Claude Elléna is in fact the author of the latest version of the Que sais-je? volume on perfume! (The previous one was authored by Edmond Roudnitska.) So this book, Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent, in English, appears to be, at least in part, a translation of that French work.

I am ordering a copy of Que sais-je sur le parfum? first, because I'd love to own one and, second, because I'm dying to find out whether the middle forty pages of this book, in which Elléna waxes philosophical about his art and profession, made it into the Que sais-je? volume on perfume.

Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent may initially seem, based on the first forty pages, to be a misleading title, and I imagine that many readers did not make it past the first third of the book for that reason. There is a taxonomic quality to some of the text, with lists of ingredients and short histories and background information on perfumery.

The primary reason why I was reminded of the Que sais-je? series was precisely the taxonomic outline form used. Some of the sections are divided with paragraphs having numbers or subnumbers or bullet points next to them, all of which gives the feeling of a scientific catalogue. The presentation seems in places as dry as a  science lecture and the voice appears to be that of a teacher or professor, not that of an artist.

Suddenly, however, after forty-two pages of lists and short descriptions as dry as dust, emerges the perfumer's sultry voice, revealing his own perspective on what he does. It's magical, in a way, even alchemical, how Elléna suddenly switches gears, removes his lab coat and becomes a philosopher reflecting on his place in the universe. He quotes several other thinkers in this work—Montaigne, Pascal, Leibniz, Proust, Picasso, and others—but the most amazing phrases are all his own:

I am a pilferer, a thief, a scavenger of odors. For me, nature is a pretext—a starting point, and not a source, of inspiration or creative insight. (45-6)

Illusion is more true than reality. The plausible is more believable than the true. (47)

It may seem paradoxical, but creativity is linked to forgetting. (51)

Every day that I work with perfumes I am in search of beauty, yet I still don't know where it is to be found. (57)

These intimate insights continue for about forty pages, at which point Elléna puts his lab coat back on and finishes his Que sais-je? volume on perfume, describing such matters as the process that perfumes must go through in order to be placed on the market.

What makes this book so valuable to me is not just the middle forty pages, which are beautiful to read, but also the first and the last third of the book, from which I learned an enormous amount. In fact, I'd say that I probably learned something from every single sentence in this book! The dry sections are filled with interesting facts about the world of perfumery, and the reflections on art and the creative process are thought provoking and sometimes even aphoristic.

All in all, Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent is worthy of any perfumista's time. I checked this book out from a library, but I'm going to buy a copy. I'm also planning to track down a copy of  Elléna's Journal d'un parfumeur, now that I know about his secret life as a philosopher!


  1. Wow! Thanks for letting us know about this, Sherapop. He obviously is brilliant at his work, but I had no idea he was a philosophe aussi. I'd never heard of the "Que sais-je?" series, but "What do I know?" does sound so much more intriguing & elegant than "______ for Dummies." I'll have to look into this when my summer work rush is through.

    1. You are most welcome, pitbull friend!

      I think that you would enjoy this book. It reveals interesting facets of both the industry and the perfumer...

  2. My local libraries don't have this long-awaited livre yet but I am so glad to hear that it will be such a great read--almost as enjoyable as donning some of scented works of Ellena? I will look for a volume from the "Que sais-je" series too, as I truly would rather read "Que sais-je de Fauvism?" than "Fauvism for Dummies/Idiots"....I intended to work more on my Spanish than my French this summer but the only was to polyglotism is nourishing multiple languages at a time, n'est-ce pas?

    Ellena is truly an inspiration though, managing to be so charming at the same that he holds such a grand throne of haute perfumery and is given so much power. He proves to deserve it and use it well, and that is always fascinating in and of itself!

    1. Hello, Kastehelmi!

      Yes, I agree with you about Elléna: he both deserves his throne and has managed not to be corrupted or coopted by it. A rarity.

      Hurray also for polyglots, which are rather rare around these parts... I think that you'll like the Que sais-je? series. It is in fact a great way to review (or learn something about) a subject while practicing one's French. (-;

  3. I have The Alchemy of Scent. Wonderful read. Looking forward to more by Ellena.

    1. Yes, Bryan Ross, I agree!

      I love how the work metaphorically displays the dual nature of the perfumer's vocation. He must at once be serious and scientific, but also open-minded and reflective in order to create something beautiful and new.

  4. In the midst of reading this book, and very much enjoying it. I have learned much so far also. I especially am interested in his stricture about isolating perfume experiences, at least by one hour, because of the heavy influence a prior scent has on the next. Not that he eschews layering either, and experimenting with that pleasure, but I can see it makes sense as to testing a new perfume that it is most like itself alone, and free of the influences of other perfumes.

    1. Hi Lucy!

      Yes, isn't it wonderful? I am planning to get his latest book as well...

      I agree that the point about needing fresh nose space, so to speak, is really fascinating. So often our perfume also seems to be mingling with other scents in the environment...

      I also think that humidity and temperature play an important role, amplifying some notes and suppressing others.

      Anyway, I was needless to say delighted to discover what a thinker Elléna is, and I am glad that you are enjoying his writing, too!


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