Towards the end of 2017, the current in-house perfumer at Hermès, Christine Nagel - whose past credits include Eau De Cartier, Archives 69 for Etat Libre D’Orange and more than 70 scents for Jo Malone - popped into London for a Fragrance Foundation event at which she talked about her wide-ranging career. In an interview conducted by Harrods’ Annalise Fard, Nagel began by explaining how a young chemistry student from Switzerland became one of the best known perfumers in the world.
Christine Nagel: By chance! I was studying chemistry, but I stopped my studies because I had a dream to work in research. In front of the university there was a company named Firmenich. I started there in a research lab. I discovered a perfumer. And this perfumer put a perfume on the skin of the receptionist. I saw the pleasure and the emotions this gave, and I thought, ‘Okay, I want to go into perfumery.’ The first response was No. Totally no. Forbidden. Because I’m a woman. Because I don’t come from Grasse. I’m from Geneva. I don’t come from a family of perfumers. And I’ve studied chemistry. And in the past, the best background was considered to be literary studies. But I had a dream. So I found another way to become a perfumer. And this way was so special, but I have to explain something about it.
A perfumer imagines an odour and writes a formula and creates a perfume. And the job they proposed to me [as a recruitment test] was that I smell a perfume and I write a formula. It’s very complicated, because it’s not creative, but technically it’s difficult. An example: if you smell a fresh note, it’s probably a hesperidic note, a citrus note. But is it a lemon, an orange, a mandarine, a grapefruit? I could decide it’s an orange, but does it comes from California, Israel, Italy? Each quality is different. In the past, all this was done not with a machine, but with your nose, which made it complicated. Now, I’m quite proud that this is how I learned perfumery, because this technique allowed me a lot of liberty. Like a dancer. A lot of experience, a lot of exercise. I’m never afraid of anything. Because I’m sure of my technique.
What advice would you give to someone starting a career as a perfumer?
CN: No advice. Really, this is the best job in the world. I’m so happy, because my job is fantastic and I work for a fantastic brand. If you have the same dream, follow your dream. And never get tired. Work, work and work. Never give up.
If you hadn’t become a perfumer, what other job would you have done?
CN: Really, when I was young, I wanted to be a midwife. I wanted to give birth to babies. But now I give birth to perfumes. I would have become a midwife because I didn’t know the job of the perfumer.
Which perfumers have influenced you the most?
CN: I prefer talking about perfumes rather than perfumers. Some perfumes have touched me enormously. Like, Bois Des Iles from Chanel. I don’t know why, but when I smell it, I’m so touched. I would give 10 years of my career to create Feminite Du Bois. I just instinctively love it. And Bulgari Black, created by Annick Menardo, is marvellous for me. Many perfumers are important to me, but most important are the perfumes. I love it when I’m jealous of a new perfume that has arrived on the market. But really, Alberto Morillas is very important to me, and also my teacher, Michel Almairac.
Which perfume best represents our time?
CN: That’s difficult, because I can’t choose one perfume. I think Coco Mademoiselle is important. If I talk about a perfume I’ve created, that’s pretentious, but really, I think Narciso Rodriguez For Her is important. And also I think English Pear & Freesia, which I created for Jo Malone, is very important too.
What was your inspiration for Twilly D’Hermès?
CN: The story started 4 years ago when I arrived at Hermès. I discovered the world of Hermès, and my first creation, Eau De Rhubarbe Ecarlate, was very colourful. I think it explains very well my pleasure at starting in this company. And then I made Galop D’Hermès, which came from my encounter with Doblis leather. I was very lucky, because I discovered the leather cellar at Hermès. It’s a very secret place, like Fort Knox. Before I worked for Hermès, I imagined it’s very classic, very serious. And I love this. But when I started working for Hermès, I discovered another important part. Hermès is very audacious. The brand has a lot of fantasy, a lot of colour. And I thought, ‘This is very youthful,’ but young people don’t go inside Hermès boutiques, because it’s a bit intimidating. So I thought perhaps I could make a link with this younger generation. And at the same time, I discovered that young people don’t use the Hermès code in the normal way. For example, they love Hermès scarves, but they use them as a belt, or in some other way, with a twist. And because I’m free - I’m not obliged to work with caramel and sugary notes - I thought perhaps it’s possible that I have another way to make a perfume for young people. If I twist my ingredients, I could find a new point of entry.
Why would you say that you’re a good match with Hermès?
CN: I don’t know if you know this, but in the whole world, there are approximately 500 perfumers. That’s less than astronauts. In France, there are just 6 in-house perfumers, for Dior, Vuitton, Guerlain, Cartier, Chanel and Hermès. And after 20, 25 years of working for a company that makes perfumes for many brands, I began thinking about the future and I had a dream to become an in-house perfumer. There is only one brand that touched me, and that was Hermès. But you don’t go to Hermès and say, ‘Hello, I want to be your in-house perfumer.’ You wait. And you cross your fingers. And when Pierre Alexis Dumas said to me, ‘Would you join us?’ I was very polite and very quiet, but inside me, there was a tsunami! I was so happy. Because at Hermès I’m free. And that’s very important.
Do you get excited when you smell a perfume you’ve made on other people?
CN: Yes! When I walk down the street, and when I go past some people and I smell a perfume, and I think, ‘Oh, that’s my perfume,’ but I’m not sure, I return and I follow them and go in front of them, because I want to see their face, and I smell them again to be sure. But why? Because this touches me so much, because probably this man or woman doesn’t know me, but they don’t know that what they’re putting on their skin is a part of me. I never ask what they’re wearing. I love the uncertainty, that moment of being in doubt.
PS The next episode of Love At First Scent will be broadcast on Friday 11th May at 5:00 pm UK time (12:00 pm New York time) on the Persolaise Facebook page; please try to tune in.