‘I was refused entry to perfumery school because I was a woman’
Hermès perfumer Christine Nagel on breaking into her industry to pursue her passion
Christine Nagel of Hermès: ‘You can tell so much about a person from how they smell’
Christine Nagel is striking. The round frames of her glasses articulate a quietly intellectual confidence before she says anything. You become aware that you are in a room with someone who is just a little bit different. But then perfumers are always unusual in interesting ways.
They are rare among us, people with such a sense of connection to and control of a sense most of us don’t understand, or value enough, that they can manipulate its science to create art. A good nose is common enough, but a good nose with a scientific understanding and a creative spirit? That is uncommon enough to be worth the large sums the best perfumers can command.
Nagel joined Hermès as in-house perfumer in 2016. You might recognise some of her previous fragrances – Narciso Rodriguez for Her, or Jimmy Choo Flash. Her most recent perfume is Hermès’s Un Jardin sur la Lagune, an intoxicating olfactory walk through a hidden Venetian garden.
For a long time I didn’t talk about my background. But now I am so proud of my origins and my technical knowledge of the chemistry of fragrance
Nagel is unusual in an unusual industry: perfumers at the top of their field tend to be male, with a particular background. Nagel had a hard time breaking into the industry because she didn’t fit the mould. “I was born in Switzerland and studied chemistry,” she says, “but I stopped my studies to work in a research department at Firmenich R&D laboratories. I wanted to work there because a Nobel prize winner had worked there, and I thought that was just so impressive. I had a job researching odour molecules.”
It was during this time that Nagel realised creating fragrance could be a legitimate career. “I thought, Wow, that is so interesting; I want to do that. I asked to be integrated into the Firmenich perfumery school, but they said no. Not just ‘Not now, perhaps in future’ but just, firmly, ‘No’, and no because I am a woman. This was horrible for me.
“In the past, perfumery was a mostly male job, but it’s funny, because now perfumery schools are mostly filled with women. Everything has changed. Also, I don’t come from the south of France, specifically Grasse, where most perfumers come from, and I am not the daughter of a perfumer. For many perfumers it’s a family business. I thought my situation was simply unjust.”
After so much success – she also has ebullient Twilly d’Hermès and sparkling Eau des Merveilles Bleue under her belt – she has cast off any discomfort about where she came from. “For a long time I didn’t talk about my background, because I don’t have that story most perfumers have; I didn’t go to perfumery school. But now I am so proud of my origins and my technical knowledge of the chemistry of fragrance. I’m never afraid of a task. My roots are solid, and I know that anything is possible, because I did it. I started with chemistry, but now it’s not a job, it’s a passion.”
The story of how she created Un Jardin sur la Lagune is a testament to her unique process. “I discovered a story online, that of an English lord named Eden, who decided to create a dream garden in Venice. I am half-Italian, and I love Italy. Frederic Eden” – great-uncle of the British prime minister Anthony Eden – “obtained a piece of land on the little island called Giudecca… He created the largest private garden in Venice but had problems. The earth is very poor and very salty. He started to plant, but only one rose would live out of every three he planted.”
The aptly named Eden had a particular passion for roses, but he also planted pine trees, oleanders, cypresses, magnolias, lemon trees, bergamot, tropical plants and verbenas. The garden was a haunt of artists and aristocracy, and was described by Henry James in The Aspern Papers. In 1927 the garden and villa passed to Princess Aspasia of Greece, who lived there until her death, in 1972.
Later the Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser acquired the garden, and ceased to cultivate it, arguing that it should be allowed to grow according to its own nature. It is now the property of the Hundertwasser Foundation, which maintains the garden but does not permit public access to it.
Nagel persuaded the foundation’s president to allow her to visit the garden, so she could create a fragrance inspired by it.
“I first visited the garden on a very cold January day. It was just green – in winter nothing was flowering. The ground was covered by the roots of trees, and the garden was peaceful… I asked to visit again, and returned in April, and discovered a little magnolia forest. The magnolia is a huge flower, and its odour comes from above. I returned again in June, and the garden was filled with pittosporum. It’s a little tree covered in tiny blooms, and they smell a little like jasmine and orange flower. I went again in September, when the muscat grapes were fruiting on pergolas.
“I decided that I would put all of this life of the garden into my fragrance. There is the magnolia, the pittosporum, the greenness, madonna lily, the woody odour. I added a salty note – Venetian air is soft, delicately salty, and the light in Venice is special. That Venetian blond, like Titian’s nudes, is the colour of stone in Venice, that ochre. I wanted that colour for the bottle. The garden is protected by the wall the way the fragrance is protected by the bottle.”
The resulting fragrance is, like all of Nagel’s creations, likely to make you stop and think for a moment. It is redolent of a Venetian garden dappled by sunlight, exotic florals and bright green notes murmuring in the fresh, salty air.
For Nagel, creating fragrance is the utilisation of chemistry to evoke emotion. Without this element of her work, Nagel would not be interested. “If one perfume evokes an emotion, that’s important. For me this is what makes fragrance beautiful. Fragrance is not about trend, the way fashion is. We all follow trends to some extent in what we wear, but with perfume, if you don’t have an emotional response, you are not putting it on your skin, and that’s it. That perfume will stay in your bathroom, unloved, for years. You can tell so much about a person from how they smell. It’s how I get to know people, how I experience the world.”
Un Jardin sur la Lagune costs €72 from selfridges.com