It’s not easy being Christine Nagel, the nose at Hermès. The creator of the House’s iconic scents, like the Twilly d’Hermès, Eau des Merveilles Bleue and Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate, she’s an authority in the fragrance industry, having researched and produced some of the best perfumes known in her 20-year career. Her passion for scents and her enthusiasm for newer ingredients have made her a name to reckon with, and she’s worked alongside Hermès’s artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas and former head perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, before coming into her own as the Creative Director at Hermès Parfums in 2014. With it, she also became the first woman in the fragrance business to ever hold the position. In her recent visit to India, where Nagel met Lifestyle Asia over a wonderful lunch, she gave us an insight into her world where passion meets perfume.
What are your earliest perfume memories?
My earliest memories were not about a perfume, it’s a talc that comes to my mind. In Italy, mothers use a certain talc on babies called Borotalco, and my mother used it on my brother. That’s the smell that is imprinted in my memory. You can trace my love for fragrances from there. The talc is very special – powdery and soft, the odour is special. In Italian perfumeries, you have a trace of this in most of their perfumes.
Are there any special notes you gravitate towards?
My preferences change all the time – my palette is very large when it comes to perfumes. When I decide to work with an ingredient, I work with it, turn it and change it. Then I move onto another ingredient. So it’s fluid at the moment.
Are there any ingredients from India that you love?
There are many – my favourite would be good quality jasmine. It’s a special ingredient in my next perfume, the champaca that comes from the same family as magnolia. My obsession has also been to retrieve a special oil from Kerala that I once found when I was holidaying in the backwaters. A local lady gave me an oil from her Ayurveda collection and I took it to France. Now that it’s finished, am once again looking and researching on finding it again.
What about trends in perfumes?
First, there were classic perfumes, then everyone started doing unisex perfumes. Now, the trend is about sugary, sweet perfumes. Hermès never follows the trend. When I got to work on Twilly, we were looking at a young, feminine fit for Hermès without any sugary components, so I used ginger and tuberose and sandalwood instead. In the past, I usually got a brief as to what to create but at Hermès, they gave me the freedom to go anywhere I wanted to go. I remember this advice from Axel Dumas who told me once, “Christine, continue to have audacity, because without audacity, there is no creation”. And I follow this direction in my work. I don’t have a brief, it’s my imagination that has to be limitless. I’m a lucky perfumer because everything is possible at Hermès.
How does the bottle define the perfume?
The bottle is very important – at Hermès they are a great starting point for a story. I create a perfume and it arrives with the bottle design for approval. In that sense, the fragrance is a source of inspiration for the bottle too. Hermès Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate, my first perfume was in a red bottle, and expressed my pleasure of walking into Hermes and being excited by it. When we created Twilly, the bottle was created alongside the perfume – it’s a harmonious connection. The name of the perfume is also conceived with the bottle in mind.
Do you think of a specific woman when you think about when creating a fragrance?
A perfume is a question of emotion, more than just style or the trend of the moment. The basic idea of a perfume is about loving a certain smell, feeling good about yourself or invoking a certain memory. They are for the “inside”, the emotional part of you.
Tell us a bit about women in the perfume business?
When I started working, there were more men working at a perfumery as compared to women. Only a select few had access to that world – ones who have inherited the perfume business or those who have lived and worked with fragrances in the south of France. But now, I have realised that the best work comes from being an artist – and it’s not about whether you are a man or a woman.
How should one choose a perfume for themselves?
Firstly, you have to read up on the perfumes you are interested in. When you go to a perfume house, how do you choose? Usually, there are too many odours so you can’t smell the fragrance fresh. Ask the lady at the counter, tell her what you like, what you don’t like and what you are looking for clearly. Trust in your saleswoman and your instincts. Try not more than four perfumes – put them on your arm in three places and continue shopping. Take your time for the smell to sink in. If you get a sample of a perfume that’s even better – you can take more time. If you give it time, the notes settle in. My advice: You should sleep with the perfume on your pillow – you wake up and you know.
What makes a perfume stand out?
When a brand has the courage to present a perfume without a trend forecast, without market research, without any limitations – a perfume’s success stays for a long time.