Beauty

At Hermès, Scents Are Both Personal and Poetic

Perfumer Christine Nagel uses texture, tastes, and her own vivid memories as inspiration for her sublime fragrances.

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TWENTY YEARS IS a long time. But for Hermès’ in-house perfumer Christine Nagel, it’s like no time has passed since she took a trip to Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, from which one vivid memory on the island of Kythira stands out. In her own words, she remembers: “An image of fields of sun-drenched olive trees surrounded by wild grasses, sloping down to a deep-blue sea steeped in history, under the intense blue of a clear sky in the blinding light of a blazing sun.” Two decades of percolating later, and Hermès’ new Jardin à Cythère fragrance capturing olive wood, pistachio, the salty air whipping off the blue sea, and wild grass burned by the blazing sun has been released.

For Nagel, this delayed creation process isn’t unusual. “I need to feel this emotional connection so that this thing will be inscribed in my memory,” she says. She has an internal lockbox of travel-based memories creatively incubating, awaiting the right moment. The Swiss-born, Paris-based fragrancer has been with Hermès since 2016, and in that short time, she has established herself as a perfume individualist, creating scents wholly based on her interests and memories, remaining decidedly indifferent to trends. “At Hermès, I am given complete leeway. I’m free to do what I want,” she says. “I remember that [Hermès CEO] Axel Dumas told me one day, ‘Be audacious, be bold, and it’s with boldness that you will express yourself.’ He also said to me: ‘You are allowed to make mistakes, to be wrong — but please do it boldly, and do not do it while following others,’” she adds. “That’s why I can actually move away from the usual paths and have my own. I’ve never been told what to do, and I’ve had a long life and career as a perfumer, so I will use this freedom given and run with it.”

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Nagel reports relying on “diverse and eclectic” sources of inspiration beyond the olfactory: from listening to Felix Mendelssohn and Bob Marley to following the journeys of French sailor Clarisse Crémer. Some of Nagel’s most meaningful ideas come from textures, whether that be luxurious Hermès fabrics or works of art, especially that of female artists, like the French sculptor Camille Claudel.

Of course, travel is also a vivid source of creativity. “Oftentimes, I travel by the sea. I’m very lucky my husband is a very good skipper,” she says. One recent trip included vibrant tropical scents. “I have fond memories of Polynesia. I was very touched by it, and I think it will remain in me and most likely be materialized in a scent. The Tahitian vanilla, the gardenia, the tamanu tree, mangoes, exotic fruits.”


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Sometimes she tries to recreate scents from an element that has no established scent at all. Take Cythère and the fragrance’s notes of pistachio. “This pistachio note is a pure piece of perfumery work, a poetic task,” she says. “There is no extract of fresh pistachio any more than there are extracts of olive wood or grasses on which I could base my work. Everything is composed from my memory. I needed to bring the composition to life, to flesh it out, and that’s when I discovered fresh pistachio,” she adds. “It was a real revelation, almost a shock. I had always loved pistachio nuts, but I had never tasted fresh pistachio. It has a shell-like pink color and is nothing like the pistachios we are used to eating. Its texture is different: full of water, but a little oily and very gentle. I love its tenderness.”

Scent has always been an anchor in Nagel’s life. Some of her happiest and most distinct memories are linked to olfactory notes from her childhood, so much so that those scents find their way into her fragrances. “We had a baby crib that we used for me, then my sister, and then my young brother,” explains Nagel. “And the mattress was filled with dried grasses, and it was a very specific smell, very soothing, very enveloping, and very reassuring to me.” Elements of this reassuring note of dried grasses can be found in Cythère — proof that her creative percolation period can extend well beyond 20 years.

Fragrance 101 with Hermès’ Christine Nagel

Christine Nagel offers tips on perfume, from storing precious bottles to spritzing for longevity — and even how to pick your signature scent.

  • How do you spray perfume for longevity?

    There is no single or best way. You can wear it on your skin, on your clothes, in your hair. The right way is the way that best suits the person wearing it. And it is also the way that corresponds to what we want to convey by wearing fragrance, whether for oneself or others.

  • What’s the difference between a perfume’s top, heart, and base notes?

    Top, heart, and base — these three words are often heard in the world of perfumery. The olfactory pyramid meets our need to rationalize the invisible, to reassure us, but I think it limits our imagination. A fragrance is much more than that. But in this anatomical metaphor, the word ‘top’ expresses the instant and the immediate; ‘heart’ would be the durable note; and ‘base’ is the memory it leaves.

  • A signature scent is often idealized. How do you recommend finding one that is truly representative of yourself?

    Above all, you must trust your instincts, ignore trends, images and muses that add nothing relevant to the most important thing: the fragrance itself. It also seems that time is a crucial factor. Time, always time, that we often lack. The time needed to wear a fragrance, to experience and smell it. On a more practical level, my advice is very simple. Walk through a perfumery store with an open mind, and follow your nose. Blotters are perfect to get a first impression and to make a first selection. Once your initial choice has been made, trying it on the skin is essential, and wearing it for 1 or 2 days is ideal to ensure that the initial emotional response is still there.

  • How do you store perfume?

    Ideally in a cool, dark place.

  • What is the best way to discover your signature scent?

    Simply by wearing them. It is not easy to talk about yourself and your own signature. I will let you describe what constitutes the soul of my creations, their unique properties, and their edge by analyzing your emotions.

  • How do you spray perfume for longevity?

    There is no single or best way. You can wear it on your skin, on your clothes, in your hair. The right way is the way that best suits the person wearing it. And it is also the way that corresponds to what we want to convey by wearing fragrance, whether for oneself or others.

  • How do you store perfume?

    Ideally in a cool, dark place.

  • What’s the difference between a perfume’s top, heart, and base notes?

    Top, heart, and base — these three words are often heard in the world of perfumery. The olfactory pyramid meets our need to rationalize the invisible, to reassure us, but I think it limits our imagination. A fragrance is much more than that. But in this anatomical metaphor, the word ‘top’ expresses the instant and the immediate; ‘heart’ would be the durable note; and ‘base’ is the memory it leaves.

  • What is the best way to discover your signature scent?

    Simply by wearing them. It is not easy to talk about yourself and your own signature. I will let you describe what constitutes the soul of my creations, their unique properties, and their edge by analyzing your emotions.

  • A signature scent is often idealized. How do you recommend finding one that is truly representative of yourself?

    Above all, you must trust your instincts, ignore trends, images and muses that add nothing relevant to the most important thing: the fragrance itself. It also seems that time is a crucial factor. Time, always time, that we often lack. The time needed to wear a fragrance, to experience and smell it. On a more practical level, my advice is very simple. Walk through a perfumery store with an open mind, and follow your nose. Blotters are perfect to get a first impression and to make a first selection. Once your initial choice has been made, trying it on the skin is essential, and wearing it for 1 or 2 days is ideal to ensure that the initial emotional response is still there.

Our Contributors

Kristin Limoges Writer

Kristin Limoges is a freelance beauty writer based in Manhattan. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Wear Daily, Bustle, Allure, and InStyle. Previously, she was the beauty editor at Domino magazine.

Denis Boulze Photographer

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