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When Christine Nagel, the new in-house perfumer at Hermès, drives home to her apartment on the right bank in Paris after a day in her laboratory, the first thing she does after parking is spray the inside of her car three or four times with whatever perfume she’s currently creating. She jumps out and quickly shuts the door to seal in the scent. “And in the morning,” she tells me over lunch at Sant Ambroeus in New York, “the first sound I hear outside is the ‘beep, beep’ of the car unlocking and the first smell when I open the car door is the perfume. You see, in the morning, my nose is virginal, fresh, and I’m very happy to enter into that smell.” As she drives to the Cité de Métiers—the nickname for the sprawling compound in Pantin, a suburb northeast of Paris, that is home to her lab and to the artisans who craft and design for the 180-year-old house of Hermès—she asks a series of questions: “Is it ready?” “What does it need?” “Do I love it?”
While the idea of perfuming one’s car may sound terribly romantic to those of us who merely spritz on a scent, to many a professional nose it would be the stuff of ridicule, at best. Until recently, the great perfumers of France were a fairly uniform lot. This is not to disparage them, as many were brilliant. But for the most part they were men from Grasse, the hill town just north of Cannes that has been considered the world’s perfume capital since the late 18th century. Most had been born into a family of perfumers. The sons and nephews of noses, they would study the craft and art with their fathers, attend ISIPCA—Institut Supérieur International du Parfum de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique, founded by Jean-Jacques Guerlain—in Versailles, and carry along the tradition using primarily the fragrant lavender, jasmine, and centifolia rose harvested in the fields surrounding Grasse. In other words, being a nose was as drenched in history as, say, being a vintner in Bordeaux. Quality and craftsmanship were the name of the game, as was a sense of a woman’s femininity being linked inextricably to tender florals. Perfumes were made in test tubes in laboratories and perhaps given to the wives and mistresses of the perfumers to wear, but they were most certainly not sprayed in cars for R&D.
It is precisely these traits, of course, that today make Nagel, 57, such a vibrant voice in fragrance. She may not have been born into the world of perfume, but, unencumbered by tradition, that voice has been a singular and fresh addition to it since 2014, when she took over from the legendary Jean-Claude Ellena. The differences don’t stop here. Nagel is not only a woman in a man’s world, she’s also a Swiss in France. In addition, she’s a chemist in a field that until recently shunned science, even as it made ample use of scientific processes and discoveries. “Maybe we are breaking that tradition,” says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès. “But it was not the motivation. The motivation was the talent of Christine, and I think talent has no borders. We tend to think of artists on one side and craftsmen on the other, but craft is the knowledge of the medium. The craft of Christine is that she’s an incredible chemist. But she’s also an artist—capable of making visible the invisible.”
As a young girl in Geneva, born to a Swiss father and an Italian mother, Nagel dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry. But not long after she landed her first job as a research chemist at Firmenich, the giant fragrance and flavor company, she found herself looking out of the glass wall enclosing her laboratory at a dapper man who was passing a glass vial of something apparently quite glorious to an entourage of hovering, eager women. Nagel watched the women’s faces as they smelled his elixir, and she saw the pleasure that immediately overcame them. Then and there, she decided she wanted to create something in life that would give such pleasure. “A profession that provokes those emotions! That’s a profession I want!” she remembers thinking with a sudden, overwhelming determination. The man was none other than Alberto Morillas, the nose behind Cartier’s Panthère, and he set Nagel on her path.
At Firmenich, she moved into chromatography, analyzing the raw materials of fragrances down to their molecular level. Her time was spent decoding fragrances and precisely identifying their ingredients. Was the lemon she smelled Californian or Turkish? Was the basil Italian or Greek?
“What Christine brings to Hermès is a form of femininity, which is a very sensual language,” Dumas says. “She’s not scared to go into the unknown, to take risks and find her vision, but she always comes back to la matière, the material. La matière, c’est la force d’Hermès.”
The list of fragrances Nagel has created runs long and glamorous and points to her versatility: Eau de Cartier, Fendi Theorema, Giorgio Armani Sì, Narciso Rodriguez for Her, Versace Woman, Dolce & Gabbana The One for Women, and Lagerfeld Femme are but a few of her best known. “Every time I worked for a designer, it was a gift because they would open their imaginations to me,” Nagel says. “I’d try on their dresses and I’d understand. But my dream was to be a house perfumer.”
Hermès is a company that uses its history and standing as a springboard. There was no need for Hermès to prove itself with yet another Frenchman from Grasse. Perhaps Dumas knew better than to try to mirror or replace Ellena, who retired last year after 12 years. Ellena chose Nagel as his successor. With Terre d’Hermès, his best seller, and his personal and rather exclusive line, Hermessence, Ellena leaves an enduring legacy at Hermès. The passing of the proverbial torch was roundly seen as a tender, if long, process. “There was no rupture,” Dumas tells me.
Ellena invited Nagel to his studio, drawing her into the fold of Hermès, and for nearly two years they worked at long tables facing each other, laughing, smelling, creating, comparing, and ultimately surprising each other with two fragrances that reflect a happy time as experienced by two very different minds. Ellena’s last perfume for the house, Eau de Néroli Doré, is a confident, joyous expression, the parting gesture of a master. And Nagel’s first, Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate, released in 2016, simmers with youthful energy, clarity, and verve. “I was so happy to be at Hermès, and this first cologne is very joyful, very colorful,” Nagel muses. “But I wanted to show a bit of insolence. Instead of a citrus, I used the green of rhubarb to give the cologne a fresh note. I wanted to say, ‘Voilà, I’m happy to be here, but I am different too.’”
Ellena worked in near solitude in a minimalist studio on a hilltop in Cabris, just outside Grasse, his hometown. His creations are abstract meditations, illusive, mysterious, poetic. Nagel, on the other hand, is urban, vivacious, chic, and gregarious. The mother of three and married to a perfumer (Benoit Lapouza, who works for Drom Fragrances), Nagel tells me that family life nourishes her, as does the creative energy that infuses the Cité de Métiers.
“When I arrive at work, I immediately turn to the women who work in the building: ‘Lend me your skin,’ I ask, and I spray them,” she says. “I’m always smelling on skin. On a workday, I’ll have stickers all over me with things like Test 10, Test 21, Test 30 written on them. I smell them all day.” This tactile, immediate, intuitive way of working is familiar to those who know Nagel well. “Christine’s a little like a New Yorker even though she’s Swiss,” says Celine Roux, vice president of global fragrance development at Jo Malone. “She’s reactive in a creative way.” Nagel created over 25 scents for Jo Malone, including the best-selling Peony & Blush Suede. “Christine has very short formulas,” Roux continues. “She doesn’t use a lot of ingredients. Some perfumers will put 115 ingredients in a fragrance, making it opaque, but Christine, sometimes she’ll use ten. What she creates has a clarity.”
Immediately upon starting at Hermès, Nagel asked to explore all the different departments, the scarves, the saddles, the handbags, the ties—she wanted to know and see everything. “It was like being in one candy shop after another,” she recalls, bright-eyed. And then she heard about the leather vaults. “A little Fort Knox,” she calls it. And in fact, the secret address is nearly as well guarded as the vault itself. Inside, Hermès keeps its leathers, including its priceless crocodile skins, in a climate-controlled environment. “I started touching the leathers, smelling every one of them,” she says. “And then I touched one—the Doblis, which was as soft as a woman’s skin.” Nagel pauses to dig in her purse and retrieves a square of dusty rose suede, the inspiration for Galop, which followed Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate. “I found the femininity of Hermès in this leather. Femininity at Hermès is force and softness, and, above all, elegance. The leather needed a rider, and I chose rose. Turkish rose because it is strong. In Galop, you smell the dance between the rose and the leather, but neither overpowers the other.” She grins. “That’s technique!”
Eau des Merveilles Bleue followed Galop in April. It’s an effervescent marine scent, a bit woody, a bit mineral, and washed, Nagel says, by the spray of the ocean and warmed by the heat of patchouli. She won’t tell me more, but it’s clear from her smile that she likes it—and at Hermès, it seems, that’s all that matters. The company is a rarity in that it refuses to conduct marketing or consumer tests. “The audacity!” Nagel exclaims with a laugh. Hermès also doesn’t detail how its fragrances perform in the $37 billion global perfume market, but the company does say that fragrance made up 9 percent of its total sales in 2016.
“That’s a big responsibility,” Nagel acknowledges. “But I relish the challenge.”