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FOR HIRE: Perfume Nose

A third-generation fragrance expert tells us how to smell a winner

Perfume runs through the blood of Celiné Ellena, a third-generation nose, or perfumer, and one of a vanguard of women who have broken into the traditionally male-dominated industry in recent years. A resident perfumer at Charabot, based in the ancient perfume capital of Grasse, France, and one of the oldest fragrance companies in the world, she is also the chief creator for The Different Company, a boutique perfumery in Paris. This month Ellena tells Smithsonian.com what it's like to smell good all the time.

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How did you get into this line of work?

My grandfather was a perfumer. My father, Jean Claude Ellena, and my uncle are also perfumers. My grandfather told me about his job, and he taught me to smell the flowers in the garden. He taught me a lot about nature. He died when I was 14 and never knew that I wanted to become a perfumer.
 

Did you have formal training?

Today, young perfumers must study chemistry. I've been creating fragrances for about 14 years. I have a diploma in psychology. It's helpful. Fragrances are very sensuous, sensual. When you talk about fragrance, you talk about the intimate. It's very deep, very personal.
 

What inspires you?

Sometimes, it's the people I meet and see. I live in Paris, and I love to walk in the city as a tourist and take coffee at a bistro on the terrace. Just looking at people and how they live, hearing what they are talking about, seeing what kind of clothes they are wearing. I love summertime because the women are almost naked, and all the men are looking at the women. Sometimes, I will put on my headphones while I walk through the city, and I'll listen to very strong hard rock, or perhaps music that is very rich, such as [Claude] Debussy or [Gabriel] Fauré.
 

What's an average day?

I think of different fragrances for different customers. When I think of a fragrance, it is like an image that I have in my mind. I have the image of the smell of the fragrance. And then writing the formula is like drawing the image. It's like I'm trying to build a puzzle. In the same day, I could imagine a flower fragrance, a woody, masculine fragrance, something very feminine, while also thinking about scents for shampoos and cosmetics.
 

Some are easy. An apple shower gel: a few drops of apple. Sometimes I have to take my time, close my door and think about it. I write my formula on the computer, and my assistant mixes it for me in the lab. The smell of the lab is too strong for me to work there.
 

Does your nose ever get fatigued?

When I was younger it did. Now I know how to clean my nose. [Laughs.] There is something you can do, something very easy. I just smell my own skin. It's something very familiar. And then I feel well, and my nose is clean.
 

Do you talk shop with your father?

We don't talk so much about what we are creating, but we do talk about perfumery in general—the philosophy of perfumery. It's funny, though. I've noticed that at the same moment we imagine a fragrance from the same flower and the same idea, but we do it in different ways. The fragrances smell different.
 

My father has always wanted me to be very independent, to do on my own, with my own perceptions and feelings. He told me always to be honest to my self and the formula. He said, if you want to put some rose oil in the perfume, do it because it's necessary to the fragrance, not because you love rose.
 

What's the most difficult aspect of your job?

There is a lot of competition in this business, and there is so much money involved. I have such pressure on my shoulders. When I am trying to create a fragrance, sometimes I have no answer, but I have to find one in perhaps one hour. At these moments, I feel as if I am near a black hole, and I feel really alone. It's funny because I just have to go outside and have a walk. Coming back, I'm OK. I have the answer.

What's the biggest misconception about your work?

People think I am disturbed by the fragrances of other people. They think I need to be like a monk and live far away from everything. They think I don't smoke, don't drink, don't make love—but yes, I do everything.
 

What do you most love about your work?

That it's an abstraction. You can't catch it, a fragrance. I'm very independent; I feel free. And creating fragrances, you feel free. You are creating something that exists for one moment, and then it disappears. I love that. And each time I create a fragrance, there is a story.
 

Evidence of humans creating scents goes back thousands of years. Why do you think we feel the urge to use perfume?

At the beginning, I think, we created fragrances to talk with God. Fragrance is mysterious. Now when you wear fragrance, you want to send a mysterious message. You want people to smell you, to be listening.
 

How do perfume tastes differ among Americans and the French?

American people are more romantic than French people. French people love a lot, but they love and forget. American people are very romantic. They love, and it's for life.

Americans like the romantic flower fragrances. In France, those are less in fashion than the sensual, sexy, amber, chypre types. And for young people, very fruity fragrances.
 

What's your favorite fragrance?

I love Bois Des Iles of Chanel. It was created in 1926 by the same perfumer who did Chanel No. 5. For me, it captures what perfumery and creating fragrances means: to use materials and to balance all the materials and create music. And that's what I am still learning.
 

Any advice for aspiring perfumers?

You've got to have a very strong and bad character. [Laughs.] The other point is to have an open door in your mind. It's a never-ending story. When you're creating fragrances, you never know the end. If you say, "I am arriving, I know everything," you are finished.
 

Siobhan Roth is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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