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FOR HIRE: Perfume Nose

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

smithsonian.com

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.
 

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