Perfumer Rewind: Jean-Claude Ellena’s 1988- Maxim’s pour Homme & Balenciaga Rumba

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Some of our greatest niche perfumers have a fascinating history prior to the aesthetic we know them best for. In Perfumer Rewind I am going to look into some of my favorite current perfumer’s past creations and look for interesting moments of their development. The first perfumer to get this treatment is Jean-Claude Ellena and the year I am rewinding to is 1988 when he was responsible for two launches Maxim’s pour Homme and Balenciaga Rumba.

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Jean-Claude Ellena

Ask anyone today to describe a Jean-Claude Ellena fragrance and the words minimalist or luminous will likely be the two most common descriptors used. As the in-house nose at Hermes M. Ellena has perfected a style that speaks volumes with few notes. The “Un Jardin” series and the Hermessences are perfect examples of the style he has evolved into. The earliest complete signpost of that style was 1993’s Bvlgari Eau Parfumee au The Vert. What I find completely fascinating was in 1988, after a five year absence of releases, M. Ellena returns with two huge powerhouse fragrances that are as far from what anyone would describe as an Ellena style fragrance.

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Maxim’s pour Homme was done after Pierre Cardin had bought the rights to the French restaurant Maxim’s, in 1988, with the intention of turning it into a worldwide chain. What was even more interesting was the beginning of building this brand was going to be a men’s fragrance. Pierre Cardin contracted Givaudan to do the fragrance and they assigned M. Ellena. Maxim’s pour Homme begins with classic lavender and clary sage with some bergamot. The heart of Maxim’s pour Homme is where you get the hint of what will become a M. Ellena trademark as he combines geranium, muguet, and rose. Those three notes were often huge sledgehammers of scent in that era but in Maxim’s pour Homme they are so restrained they almost get lost between the top notes and the base notes. As a result the heart only lasts for a few minutes but it is like peering into a crystal ball of what will be as they are perfectly balanced to create an airy beautiful floral character. This character would get refined a lot over the years to become the core of many of M. Ellena’s creations almost twenty years later. The base is leathery musky chypre with patchouli, oakmoss, amber, musk, cedar, and vanilla. The base is classic 1980’s masculine perfume trope. M.Ellena probably didn’t want to rock the boat too much at this point in his career so he played it safe at the top and the base but if you pay attention to the heart you will see the indications of where his true aesthetic lies.

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Balenciaga Rumba was a co-creation of M. Ellena and Ron Winnegrad. Like Maxim’s pour Homme it is one particular phase that gives us the insight into M. Ellena’s evolving style. Rumba starts with a fusillade of fruit as peach, raspberry, and plum roar out of the atomizer. Fruity florals were just coming into style and so to go with all of that fruit a full set of florals including jasmine, magnolia, tagete, gardenia, and most prominently, tuberose. This opening is so heady and narcotic it is off-putting these days but in 1988 with Chrisitan Dior Poison the fragrance du jour it almost seems restrained. Then as if a light switch is thrown Rumba turns into this fantastic dry incense. Labdanum is the main resinous source with styrax playing a supporting role with its leathery quality. Amber and vanilla add a bit of warm sweetness to the arid resinous aspect. For those who love the Hermessence Ambre Narguile you will recognize the base of Rumba as the Neanderthal version of that fragrance. The drydowns of Rumba and Ambre Narguile are very similar with the tobacco of Ambre Narguile being the major difference as well as sixteen years added experience.

M. Ellena would continue with similar styles to Maxim’s pour Homme and Rumba with Hermes Amazone, Rochas Globe, and Jitrois Paris until that inflection point in 1993 with Bvlgari Eau Parfume au The Vert began the style we most commonly associate with M. Ellena.

Maxim’s pour Homme and Balenciaga Rumba are still available through a number of internet resellers and auction sites for pretty reasonable prices.

Disclosure: This review was based on bottles of Maxim’s pour Homme and Balenciaga Rumba I purchased.  

Mark Behnke

Serge Lutens 101- Five To Get You Started

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I’ve been doing this a long time and as new brands come, and go, I tend to be there at the beginning which allows me to grow along with the perfume house. I often wonder how somebody new to the world of niche perfumery deals with some of the larger lines that they hear so much about. When you are faced with trying to figure out a place to start you generally have to rely on your best guess at what will work for you. With this series I am going to take some of the larger perfume houses and suggest five introductory fragrances as a place to start your journey. First to get this treatment is Serge Lutens.

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Serge Lutens (l.) and Christopher Sheldrake (r.)

Serge Lutens was established in 1992 and for over twenty years Creative Director Serge Lutens and perfumer Christopher Sheldrake have been creating some of the best perfumes in the niche perfume space. With over 40 perfumes released under the Serge Lutens label it is a formidable task to figure out where to start. With Serge Lutens the best place to start is truly at the beginning.

Feminite du Bois was originally created under the Shiseido label but now is under the Serge Lutens imprint. I remember smelling Feminite du Bois for the first time and being absolutely fascinated that a fragrance with Feminite in the name had such a pronounced cedar heart. The real genius here is the pairing of violet with that cedar note. The core accord is bracketed by orange and a trio of spicy notes to create a vibrancy one rarely finds and it is a hallmark of Serge Lutens fragrances that will appear time and again. Feminite du Bois underwent a re-formulation when Serge Lutens acquired it from Shiseido but this is one of those which manage to keep the spirit of the original alive.   

In 2000 with the release of Ambre Sultan this style would become more refined with another inspired pairing of herbal notes with a warm amber. Bay leaves, coriander, oregano, and angelica root provide a feisty contrast to the languorous warmth of amber made even warmer with the additional resins of benzoin, styrax and a full suite of balsamic notes. This is often the fragrance which turns many into amber fanatics.

sa majeste la rose bottle

Also in 2000 Sa Majeste La Rose shows M. Sheldrake’s adeptness with a simple rose soliflore. By using an opulent Moroccan Rose as his nucleus he then sends into orbit around it lychee, clove, and honey to impart a mobility to the rose which elevates it to something much more than just a soliflore. Sa Majeste La Rose is one of the most versatile entries in the entire Serge Lutens line perfect for a wide variety of uses.

One of the hallmarks of the Serge Lutens style is a “stewed fruit” accord which pops up frequently. In 2004’s Daim Blond it shows up swathed in cardamom, orris, and suede leather. You will swear there are dried apricots in the note list, they aren’t listed but they are there, and this is a good place to see if you like “stewed fruit” in your fragrance.

Five O’clock au Gingembre is my last choice as it shows the skill of M. Sheldrake with a gourmand in the Serge Lutens style. An exquisite tea accord leads to a mix of gingerbread, ginger, and cinnamon which have an unusual warmth that will make you think a tray of gingerbread cookies are cooling somewhere nearby. It slowly settles into a honeyed cacao and vanilla finish that manages to keep from turning into treacle and always stays terrific.

Serge Lutens is one of the perfume houses that really produces quality fragrances year in and year out and if you’ve been needing a place to dive in the five above make for a good place to introduce yourself to Uncle Serge.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of these fragrances which I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Olfactory Chemistry: Ethyl Maltol- Angelic Candy Floss

I have always been fascinated with the synthetic molecules that go into my favorite fragrances. Very often the first use of these molecules form an inflection point from which many other fragrances spring from once it has been used successfully.

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The first molecule I want to talk about is Ethyl Maltol. It’s most famous use is in 1992’s Thierry Mugler Angel. Perfumer Olivier Cresp combined it with other synthetics, Hedione and Coumarin, to create an indelible piece of day-glo olfactory art. Angel is a love it/hate it fragrance for its exuberant nature and at the heart of that exuberance is Ethyl Maltol.

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Maltol (l.) and Ethyl Maltol (r.)

Ethyl Maltol by itself smells like a cotton candy machine running at full throttle at the state fair. It almost feels like the fumes are vaporized sugar floating in the air right on the verge or crystallizing. Prior to Ethyl Maltol’s synthesis perfumers used the natural form Maltol. As you can see from the two structures above there is only one small difference between Maltol and Ethyl Maltol. The addition of one more carbon and two more hydrogens leads to a significant difference. Maltol is a naturally occurring material which is used to add a note of coffee, caramel, or cocoa depending on the dilution. Ethyl Maltol does not occur in nature and is synthesized in a lab. The simple addition of one more carbon and its attending hydrogens increases the effect of Maltol by a tremendous amount and turns it into a powerhouse source of sweetness in a perfume. You have to dilute Ethyl Maltol many times more than Maltol to achieve a similar intensity.

It is exactly these kind of small molecular changes which lead to dramatic olfactory differentials which make this so intriguing to me. It also points up the difference in natural and synthetic sources of perfume materials as the synthetic conterparts to natural molecules generally carry a a bigger impact and intensity. This can be a reason for a perfumer to choose it especially for that over the top quality.

When you smell that intense cotton candy smell the next time you are trying a new fragrance, or revisiting Angel, now you know where it comes from.

Mark Behnke