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What Is A ‘Nose’? The Art of Perfume Explained

January 1 | 4 minute read

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Words by Genevieve Phelan

Originally published on | April 23

What is a nose? Before you say, ‘The thing you dust bronzer on’, let’s give you some context.

A ‘nose’ is another word for a master perfumer – the expert who turns a scent concept into a reality, blending a new fragrance from a vault of ingredients. It seems like a frivolous name for a very rare profession, but the knowledge and skill these artisans possess is almost an olfactory superpower.

Recently, we were lucky enough to spend some time with Jean-Claude Ellena, a nose for one of the world’s most acclaimed maisons – Editions de Parfums by Frédéric Malle. His creations include the legendary Cologne Bigarade and the ‘if you know, you know’ favourite of fragrance lovers, L’Eau d’ Hiver, as well as the newly released Heaven Can Wait.

The discerning Frenchman – he hails from the world’s ‘perfume capital’, Grasse, in Provence – kindly loaned us some expertise on the topic of fragrance creation, decoding his special role in the complex world of perfume…

What does a nose do, exactly?

Like an architect of scent, a fragrance nose conceptualises a perfume based on a brief from someone else – like drawing up a blueprint. Ellena seeks to “give [someone] a smile or a dream” when he hands over a fully formed fragrance; the best ones, in his view, are subtle yet noticeable enough that “people come to you and smell close to you, and ask what you wear.”

Portrait of a Lady EDP – one of the most renowned Editions de Parfums by Frédéric Malle creations – has this quality, aptly described as “magnetic”.

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How does a nose create a fragrance?

Ellena compares perfume design to being a writer or a musician: “You have the idea in your head first, and then you put it on paper,” he says. “You smell it, and you say, ‘Too much of this’ or ‘Too much of that.’ Then you try again, and progress.”

Some noses use up to 1,200 ingredients to make a perfume, whereas Ellena has a smaller palette of ‘just’ 200. He recalls making one perfume in three days, and another over 10 years. Sometimes, there is clarity for a nose and a clear vision of what they hope to create; other times, it takes copious trial and error.

It’s also a misconception that a nose is the best person to offer personal perfume recommendations, according to Ellena: “People ask me, ‘Do you think this perfume is good for me?’ I say, ‘I don't know – it’s your choice, I’m not in your brain.’”

A unique way of working

As a nose, Ellena is precise – and concise: “I want to know exactly what I am doing,” he explains, adding, “My way of writing perfume is I use only 200 ingredients. In the end, the contrast is stronger – when you limit your palette, the contrast between each ingredient is very strong.”

The idea of contrasting ingredients is distinctive to Ellena’s body of work, and it allows the team at Frédéric Malle to know “straight away” whether they like a prototype fragrance from him or not.

The analogy of a writer keeps coming up in our conversation, with Ellena drawing parallels between the careful process of choosing “necessary” words “for what you want to say” and how this is mirrored in compiling a scent’s profile.

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The makings of a singular fragrance

As a fragrance ‘author’, a nose starts with an idea rather than a specific set of ingredients. In the instance of Ellena’s 2023 creation for Frédéric Malle, Heaven Can Wait EDP, it was about borrowing from relics in perfume’s long history.

Ellena explains how this “souvenir of the past” reminds him of old Guerlain creations – a “bouquet of spicy flowers, like carnations.”

Then, meticulously layering ideas, he envisioned something that balanced that heat with a “delicate” softness. “I like contrast,” he reminds us.

It’s also interesting to note that Ellena doesn’t think about gender binaries in his work, as “you close your mind” when you do. Instead, he honours the very human contradiction of embodying multiple qualities and feelings, all at once.

Somehow, balancing hot and spicy with soft and gentle results in a melodic harmony of confidence in the final bottle – one that anyone could wear, any day.

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