Christine Nagel, in-house perfumer at Hermès
Taking over from the revered Jean-Claude Ellena, Christine Nagel embodies the creative freedom so cherished by Hermès , where she joined the team in 2016. She has already ‘signed’ both the playful and uplifting Twilly, along with the salty, shimmering Eau des Merveilles Bleue, in her time there – and we spoke to her at the launch of five brand new (and utterly unforgettable) additions to the Hermessence Collection. (Read about those beguiling scents here.)
My nose is better in the morning. When it is fresh, it’s at its best. Come around 5 pm in the afternoon, I am less productive, because I am tired.
To understand my day, you need to start with how I finish it. After I return to my home in a car, I spray a sample of what I have been working on in my car. I close the door and go back to my room for the night. Then in the morning, when my nose is very fresh and very precise, I open the door to my car. I am alone with the perfume. I smell the scent with my fresh nose, and sometimes I don’t feel anything, but other times, it’s very interesting.
When I arrive in my atelier, I have some blotters on my desk, and I’ll choose three or four samples of a scent that I’ve been working on. I smell again, fresh, and then I select two or three samples. It is then necessary for me to put it on the skin – the sensation I have from it being on the skin is very important. Then I take a long time to decide what’s the best next step. I might like it, but need a modification. I write up the new formula, give it to my lab assistant – and then after the modified formula comes back, I smell again. This is a cycle, a process.
After that, I might do smelling exercises – where I smell ingredients, and I have to identify them by guessing. It’s like training in sport.
All my day, I smell. And not only all my day; all my life, I smell. It’s impossible to cut off your nose, to stop smelling. I find it impossible to close my nose – but it’s possible to close my mind, to shut it off. This only happens when I am truly exhausted, though.
I need inspiration, and my first inspiration is the Hermès house. The history, the leather, the silk, the fashion. The story is so marvellous; I feel like I have an entire playground to play within. Other things I like to be inspired by are exhibitions. It’s necessary to be very receptive to all art.
I work in a city near Paris, called Pantin. When Pierre-Alexis Dumas (Creative Director of Hermès) hired me, he asked: where do you want to work? My response was that I would like to work in Pantin. He replied, ‘are you sure’ Because the city of Pantin is not nice!’ But, for me, in Pantin lives the heart of Hermès. This is where all the artisans work, where all the workshops are, and it’s important for me to be in the middle of the creation/ creative area. We have the leather production labs and the Conservatoire – the archive of all the Hermès creations – and it’s the story of Hermès.
I work on the top floor, with a garden. I am very lucky because Pierre-Alexis Dumas offered me a wonderful place to work, in a building from the 1930s. In my top floor office I work alone with my lab assistant; it’s very tranquil and quiet. I have different rooms – but the little office where I work with my computer was Jean-Louis Dumas’ first office [the man credited with turning Hermès into a global brand]. It has a very special floor, which looks like wood but is made out of leather. It was a prototype that never made it to production, from 20 years ago. It’s very soft to walk on, and very sensual. I have a big room with a large table – and some furniture pieces from Hermès, but not all Hermès. I have many paintings on the walls; it is like my apartment, my sanctuary. Very simple, quality, quiet, and chic – just like Hermès. I could work in the middle of Paris, or by the sea, but for me it is so important to stay within the creative zone.
I love working on different projects at the same time. Some perfumers prefer working on one at a time but I like working on different things – like a painter who might start working on different landscapes. I release myself from a creation, and might find inspiration for another. But with Hermès I have a gift: I have time. And time is a marvellous thing. I may be working on, say, five ideas at the same time, but they’re not always in the same direction. It’s possible I’ll be working on a fresh note at the same time as an Iriental, or Chypre. I like the difference in them. Sometimes it might be two or six ideas, but I am free. I am free and I have time. I am a lucky perfumer!
The first idea for a fragrance comes from the mind and the heart. It’s a question of mind and emotion. After I’ve thought about it, I prepare. The first decision is a name; I chose a working name. It’s very important, like the title of a book; I can’t start a project without a name. After that, I write a formula. I love working on computers, I am half-Swiss and half-Italian and they appeal to my organized (Swiss) side. I love to be very precise with my formulas. After I print my formula, then my lab assistant will weigh the formula out – but if I have an idea to modify it, I may write that by hand. It’s a mix of the artisan and technology.
I don’t have just one source of inspiration. My first inspiration is, of course, the house of Hermès. Hermès is versatile, and excellence shines through in so many areas. The second inspiration is the natural. Nature is very important – but it’s not always a garden; it can be a flower growing in the asphalt, or a nice woman in India, with colour and elegance, or it could be a fruit. Ideas come from everywhere. I am like a sponge.
A big part of my inspiration is art. When I see a fine painting or sculpture, it inspires me. For example; I love Camille Claudel, and Rodin, and when I see a sculpture by them I am impressed by the details. The hands and feet are larger than normal, irregular, but when you see this sculpture in front of you, it looks so natural, like they are living. If I transfer this to the way I work, sometimes I may overdose an ingredient, that shouldn’t be normal, but it smells more natural, more elegant that way. Some painters work with little touches and when you stand afar you see something very sensual, a very clear painting, but when you come up close, you cannot understand it.
It’s important that you understand that I am totally free. One day is never the same as the other. It depends, if I’m too tired to smell, I use my mind and I might go to an exhibition, to have ideas. I am totally free and I work with my instincts, just this. No routine. There is only one point to remember: I work, I work, I work and I smell, I smell, I smell. It’s just an exercise. It’s like when you see a ballerina dancing, it looks easy, effortless, but actually she has worked for years perfecting her moves. When you see me, you might think, ‘Oh, she smells’, but it’s a lot of work.
I’ll only take a fragrance home if I’m ‘upset’ by a creation. This is usually when I’m finding it hard to achieve my goal. And if I’m upset, when I get home, I’ll spray it on my arm, I’ll put it on my pillow, I’ll smell constantly. It’s an obsession. I try to think about why I can’t understand the construction.
I must be calm to work. I cannot work if I am in pain; it needs to be peaceful.
I’ve worked on many brands, in the past. But I think when you are becoming a perfumer for a specific house, it is important that you have had a life before. When you work for a brand like Hermès, you work alone – but this is fantastic, and I love it. However, with working alone comes a lot of responsibility. I’m free, I have time, I have money, because there’s no limitations, I have the possibility to choose my ingredients from all over the world. And it’s even possible for me to ask them to create a particular special extract, should I need one. Everything is possible.
For Hermès, it’s all about the raw materials and the ingredients. Like the leather they use for their bags, it’s the principle subject and of great importance. The attention to ingredients is number one at Hermès, and it is the same in their perfumery.
We don’t do market research. Hermès never, ever, test a perfume, and this is a marvelous gift. When you test a perfume, a lot of people smell it, and give their feedback, and after you remove any extremes that challenge people. You’ll have a nice perfume – but in the middle ground, for mass market. The decision to choose and produce a perfume at Hermès is made by three people: Agnès de Villers (the General Director of Hermès Parfums), Pierre-Alexis Dumas and the perfumer, me. It’s fantastic, but it’s also a big responsibility. Fingers crossed I don’t make any mistakes.
With each creation, I put my heart into it. I think it’s very important for perfumery that I try to work outside the box, that I don’t stick to the norm and that I’m not afraid to take risks. A lot of perfumes can smell the same, so I have a responsibility to create something different.
When I arrived at Hermès, I didn’t have to learn my job, I knew it already. I worked alongside Jean-Claude Ellena, for a while, who is a marvellous perfumer. When I talk about Hermès, I describe it as a tree – a tree that has its strength with the roots, the history of the house. And all the branches are the different perfumers who have worked with Hermès: Edmond Roudnitska, Jean Claude Ellena, and me. And my role, is to create new ‘leaves’ each year. When I arrived at Hermès, I received another gift: the gift of time. That time was a space in which to understand Hermès, to immerse myself, and that time was also given to Jean Claude to leave the company. It was a very special time, because normally when you change a perfumer in house it is very swift. But we had this special time together.
I didn’t learn my job from Jean-Claude. We are different perfumers and this is why they chose me, for my difference. But when I observed Jean- Claude, I wanted to understand how he captures the essence of Hermès, and how he creates a fragrance with this style – and I observed this. This audacity. When you talk about Hermès, people say: ‘it is classical house, with a lot of serious scents.’ But really Hermès has a lot of audacity, a lot of modernity. I discovered this – the colour, the fantasy, the audacity – when I started to work here. But perhaps Hermès’ most audacious move was to hire me after Jean-Claude, because we are so different. But Pierre-Alexis Dumas, said ‘You are Hermès, just perhaps a different part of Hermès, more tactile. Jean-Claude Ellena was Hermès, Edmond Roudnitska was Hermès.’ Hermès is a rich brand; it is not just one person.
There is no answer to how long it takes to finish a fragrance. It could take three days, three months, three years, or never.
I love music but I am very open with it. I like very different stuff. Sometimes I love to listen to Bach’s violin, or Bob Marley, or Pink Floyd, or Deep Purple, when I’m working. It depends on the moment.
Images can sometimes be helpful when creating a fragrance. Sometimes, I have an obsession. I’ll cut many things out of newspapers or magazines, and I’ll put them in a book, just an image I love. But, really, it’s been about a year since I last touched my books.
Sometimes, I can create a perfume and do 500 modifications. But then I still return to the first formula. It’s complicated, it’s not a question of numbers because sometimes I work, and I go too far, and then I need to return to a simpler scent.
My perfumer’s palette is very special. Because in a perfumer’s normal palette, they have maybe 1200 ingredients. I prefer to have only 300-400. My palette is small – but if I ever need something, anything is possible.
I have the best job in the world. And for this reason, I am so happy.
By Carson Parkin-Fairley