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At an early age, Ellena picked jasmine with his grandmother in Grasse to sell to perfumers. Beginning with menial jobs, he became an apprentice at the factory of the essential oils maker Antoine Chiris in Grasse at the age 16 working on the night shift. He has reminisced, “Among other essential oils, we made a lot of oakmoss, and after I’d put the distiller on, I’d lie down on a bed of it and sleep.”
In 1968, he became the first student at what was at the time the newly formed perfumery school of Givaudan, one of the oldest perfume factories, in Geneva, Switzerland. He left Givaudan in 1976 with two others perfumers for Lautier in Grasse. In 1983, he joined Givaudan Paris as chief perfumer and Roure-Givandan and then he worked at Haarmaan & Reimer in Paris (which merged in 2003 with Dragoco to form Symrise). In 1990, he became one of the founding members of the Osmothèque, an international scent archive based in Versailles.
Since 2004, he has been Hermès's exclusive in-house perfumer, appointed by Jean-Louis Dumas and Véronique Gautier. He has created fragrances for several major perfume houses including The Different Company, which he founded before joining Hermès. His daughter Céline Ellena now creates for The Different Company.
In 2005, Ellena created Un Jardin sur le Nil for Hermès. The story behind the creation of this fragrance was the subject of the book The Perfect Scent: A Year in the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr. In addition, the story in a limited form and accounts of other scents as well as his autobiography has been published in Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent. He is also a writer of "The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur."
- Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (1992)
- Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert Extrême (1996)
For Frédéric MalleEdit
- Angéliques sous la Pluie (2000)
- Cologne Bigarade (2001)
- Bigarade Concentrée (2002)
- L'Eau d'Hiver (2003)
- Rose & Cuir (2019)
- Hermèssence collection (exclusively in Hermès stores)
- Rose Ikebana (2004)
- Osmanthe Yunnan (2005)
- Brin de Réglisse (2007)
- Vétiver Tonka (2004)
- Vanille Galante (2009)
- Paprika Brasil (2006)
- Santal Massoïa (2011)
- Ambre Narguilé (2004)
- Iris Ukiyoé (2010)
- Poivre Samarcande (2006)
- Épice Marine (2013)
- Cuir d`Ange (2014)
- Muguet Porcelaine (2016)
- Rocabar (1998), with Gilles Romey and Bernard Bourgeois
- Un Jardin en Méditerranée (2003)
- Un Jardin sur le Nil (2005)
- Elixir des Merveilles (2006)
- Terre d'Hermès (2006)
- Kelly Calèche (2007)
- Un Jardin après la Mousson (2008)
- Kelly Calèche Parfum (2008)
- Kelly Calèche Eau de Parfum (2009)
- Eau de Gentiane Blanche (2009)
- Eau de Pamplemousse Rose (2009)
- Eau Claire des Merveilles (2010)
- Voyage d'Hermès (2010)
- Un Jardin sur le Toit (2011)
- Voyage d'Hermes Perfume (2012)
- Jour d'Hermes (2012)
- L’Ambre des Merveilles (2012)
- Bel Ami Vetiver (2013)
- Jour d'Hermes Extrait de Parfum (2013)
- Jour d'Hermes Absolue (2014)
- Le Jardin de Monsieur Li (2015)
- Eau de Neroli Dore (2016)
For L'Artisan ParfumeurEdit
- L'Eau d'Ambre (1978)
- La Haie Fleurie du Hameau (1982)
- Ambre Extrême (2001)
- Bois Farine (2003)
For Van Cleef & ArpelsEdit
- First (1976)
- Miss Arpels (1994)
For The Different CompanyEdit
- Bois d’Iris (2000)
- Osmanthus (2001)
- Rose Poivrée (2001)
- Bergamote (formerly Divine Bergamote) (2003)
For Perris Monte CarloEdit
- Rose de Mai (2019)
- Jasmin de Pays (2019)
- Mimosa Tanneron (2020)
- Lavande Romaine (2020)
- Essence Rare (1973 and 2018), for Houbigant
- Eau de Campagne (1974), for Sisley
- Rumba (1988), with Ron Winnegrad, for Balenciaga
- Globe (1990), for Rochas
- Déclaration (1998), for Cartier
- In Love Again (1998), for Yves Saint Laurent
- Aromantic (1999), for Decléor
- Bazar Femme (2002), with Bertrand Duchaufour & Emilie Copperman, for Christian Lacroix
- Blanc (2003), for Paul & Joe
- Colonia Assoluta (2003), with Bertrand Duchaufour, for Acqua di Parma
- Emporio Armani Night for Her (2003), with Lucas Sieuzac, for Giorgio Armani
- Eau de Lalique, with Emilie Copperman, for Lalique
- Amouage Dia pour Femme, for Amouage
Ellena left Hermes in 2016, and Swiss-born chemist and perfumer Christine Nagel re-placed him as Hermes in-house perfumer. Ellena's final fragrances for Hermes were Eau de Néroli Doré and Hermèssence Muguet Porcelaine.
In 2018 Ellena worked with the House of Houbigant, to recreate Essence Rare, a fragrance he had first signed in 1973, his first assignment as a young perfumer in New York. 
Ellena returned to creating for Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle, his latest work, "Rose & Cuir," debuting in September 2019. He also became the olfactive director of the brand Le Couvent des Minimes.
In 2019 Ellena also started an ongoing collaboration with Perris Monte Carlo, for whom he has created the Collection de Grasse, an exclusive fragrance collection paying tribute to the history and unique craftmanship of the art of perfumery in Pays de Grasse.
Ellena's father, brother, and daughter Celine are also perfumers. Known for his signature white shirts, Ellena himself never wears perfume or cologne. His daughter Celine designed the Hermès Home Fragrance Collection.
- Alexandra Marshall, “A Hermes Perfumer.” The Wall Street Journal, 5 March 2009.
- Ellena, Jean-Claude. “Classification et Osmothèque – Séance Société Française des Parfumeurs (17 December 1990)”. Osmothèque: La mémoire vivante des parfums. Paris: Comité Français du Parfum. 1990. Print.
- Jean-Claude Ellena, Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent. New York: Arcade, 2011. ISBN 1-61145-330-5 (English translation of Parfum. Collection: Que sais-je? Paris: Presses Universitaires de France - PUF, 2007. ISBN 978-2-13-056082-1)
- Weil, Jennifer (13 December 2013). "Perfumer Christine Nagel to Join Hermès". WWD. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
- Chandler Burr, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2008. ISBN 0-8050-8037-6
- Hou, Kathleen. "Hermès's 1st Female Perfumer on Breaking Into the Male-Dominated Perfume World". The Cut. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
- "Houbigant Essence Rare, created by Master Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena 2018".
- "Rose & Cuir | New Perfume | Frédéric Malle Online". Frederic Malle. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
- "Le Couvent des Minimes Les Parfums Singulieres ~ new fragrances :: Now Smell This". nstperfume.com. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
- "Voyage de Grasse à Tahiti avec Perris Monte Carlo".