Christine Nagel sees her perfumes in colours. Her latest creations for maison Hermès summon the shades of the desert: sand, ochre, brown, and, “the green of the leaf that manages to grow”. This new palette might explain why we’re in Marrakech then, though not why we’re sitting by an open fire in the dark lobby of a hotel, as rain drenches the paving outside. Plans have gone awry. We should have both woken up this morning in a desert tent, drinking Moroccan mint tea as the sun rose over the dunes, celebrating the poetry of her new works. Instead, we are rained off; marooned even from the farther reaches of this sprawling hotel, for fear of drowning in the overflowing infinity pools.
Nagel, the exclusive perfumer-creator for Hermès parfums, is unfazed. It is evocative for her, there’s no doubt. And we are surrounded by roses. Vast fields of them flank the hotel: blush, fuchsia, blood red, lemon, peach; each heavy with raindrops as the heavens pour. By coincidence, this damp dwelling puts one of the key new Hermessence ingredients centre stage: rose. The perfume does not portray a Moroccan rose however, but eglantine – rosa rubiginosa, or sweet briar as it’s often called in the Home Counties. It’s a wild rose, all hairy apple-scented leaves, loose pink petals and dusty yellow stamens. It falls apart as soon as you pick it and is too fragile even to be distilled. And for one of her first Hermessences – she’s created five on round one – Nagel has synthesised what she calls a “poetic reconstruction”. She has paired her impression of this delicate and free floral note with the unctuous essence of precious myrrh.
Hermès is one of the few fashion houses to have its own in-house nose. Though Nagel joined Hermès in March 2014, and has since created three fragrances for the house, only now does she feel ready to add to her predecessor Jean-Claude Ellena’s premium range, Hermessences. Ellena was a tough act to follow, not least since he did not depart until 2016, easing the transition between perfumers with his trademark lightness of touch. He helmed the Hermès fragrance arm for a decade – but even before then, Ellena’s legacy was assured. In 1990, he helped to establish the Osmothèque, an international scent archive of over 3,000 perfumes based in Versailles. He has also written extensively on the subject. During his ten years at Hermès, he created more than 30 powerfully modern scents. Works like Terre d’Hermès and Voyage d’Hermès were seminal innovations in the industry. It was he who introduced a range of 13 Hermessences, or olfactory poems as they are described by the house. They are odes to their ingredients: Rose Ikebana; Paprika Basil; Iris Ukiyoé, defined by their simplicity and androgyny and sold only in Hermès boutiques.
“Using oils is highly sensuous. I wanted to have people putting it on their finger and applying it – skin-on-skin” – Christine Nagel
In adding five fragrances to this prestigious roster at once, Nagel is making her mark, though she denies any such intention. Instead, she says, “this is about starting with the origins of perfumery and its raw materials”. Which brings us back to the desert. There are three eaux de toilette – Myrrhe Églantine, Agar Abène, and Cèdre Sambac – and two essences de parfum – Cardamusc, and Musc Pallida – and each pools its potency from the spices, woods and petals of ancient perfumery. The two essences are delivered as oils; the first in the collection. They resemble liquid gold and echo the circa 3000BC origins of flower-based perfumes, created by suspending petals in oil.
Rather than focusing on floral oils, Nagel “wanted to go back to an original musk smell, which is very human,” she explains. “We can no longer use it today because it is prohibited.” She is talking about the carnal scent of musk oil which, until 1979, was extracted from the musk deer before the animal was listed as endangered. Nagel synthesised this now-impossible ingredient, and coupled it with naturals: a warm cardamom, and a peppery iris respectively. Referring to her syntheses as poetic and creative reconstructions, there’s something pleasingly oblique – sardonic even – in her ambition to return to raw materials, and the beginning of perfumery, via painstaking chemical reconstruction.
Nagel returns to the essence of application too: “Using oils is highly sensuous,” she says by way of explanation. “I wanted to have people putting it on their finger and applying it – skin-on-skin.” While a perfume or eau de toilette spray occupies a 3D space – the juice in the bottle, the wetness of its spritz – once applied, the scent’s presence is immaterial, found only in the intangible sillage that trails in the wake of its wearer. These oils are textural. They glide onto the skin; we massage them; their iridescence is a mark of their materiality. Fitting really, since it is materials in their purest form on which Nagel focuses.
Ingredients form the basis of Nagel’s initial relationship with perfume. Unlike many of her peers, with literary tendencies and childhoods spent frolicking in the fields of Grasse, Swiss-Italian Nagel started out as a chemist with a small role in a perfume lab. “So, I would smell a perfume, and then write down the formula, only based on the smell,” she says. “It was not creative at all, but it was highly technical. So, for example, when you smell a fresh citrusy perfume, you must then determine, is it bergamot? Is it mandarin? Is it orange? Once you decide it is an orange, does it come from Israel? From California? From Morocco?” There are few lauded perfumers with such technical ability and to this, she says, she owes her freedom: “I know no fear.”
“Its attention to detail, its rigour, its love of materials – a specific touch of elegance and purity … I could work for 20 years at Hermès and I will always find a new source of inspiration” – Christine Nagel
This mastery of ingredients has allowed Nagel great flexibility – and commercial success. Her litany of perfumes number the bestselling Narciso Rodriguez for Her (conceived with perfumer Francis Kurkdjian), Giorgio Armani Si, Miss Dior Chérie, numerous formulas for Jo Malone. She refers to herself as a sponge, taking in everything she touches on her travels. Now settled in at Hermès, she’s drinking in her surroundings at the maison: “its attention to detail, its rigour, its love of materials – a specific touch of elegance and purity … I could work for 20 years at Hermès and I will always find a new source of inspiration.”
It may sound like marketing spiel but it can’t be. Unlike her peers, Nagel eschewed Grasse and planted her studio in Paris, as close as possible to Hermès’ cave de cuir – the leather vault. It inspired her first solo scent, Galop. Twilly d’Hermès – a peppery, powdery scent – channels the bubbling femininity of the label’s ubiquitous silk scarves. Her first cologne, Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate, made together with Ellena, is a bright red juice, effusing with the joy of her new role. For Hermessence though, she’s returned to the savoir faire of perfumery itself.
Beside Myrrhe Églantine – a European rose mingled with myrrh, a tree resin native to the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia – Nagel’s other eaux de toilette also borrow from traditional perfume ingredients. Agar Ébène is a play on two naturals: agarwood, a dark resinous wood used in ouds and incenses; and fir balsam, a tree from far colder, Canadian climes. The result is warm and of course, woody: a dusty tome heaved from the shelves of a gloomy library. It feels aged, resplendent with millenia-old ingredients. Cèdre Sambac combines cedar (a poetic reconstruction) with sambac jasmine, or Arabian jasmine, to sultry effect. Of this creation, Nagel writes that “cedars know history better than history itself. The Greeks made statues of them, the Romans sculpted their gods from them.” Unlike musk, this is not a prohibited ingredient, so it is intriguing that again she has reconstructed this age-old material.
Synthetic ingredients often get a bad rap, buried in the press releases of new perfumes. However most artisan perfumers today agree that chemical ingredients are the basis of modern perfumery: they offer nuance, the difference between a light or dark shade of blue; consistency; long-wear. Synthetic naturals are often superior to the temperamental raw ingredients they imitate. Nagel is at once cryptic and open about her poetic reconstructions, though she is deeply secretive about the geographical sources of her ingredients, even when drawing inspiration from the power of raw materials. “Would you ask a painter where his ingredients come from?” she asks.
This slippage between synthesis and nature, between chemistry and history, is Nagel’s art. It sums up her contemporary approach to working with such a timeless, heritage brand. As Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his Religio Medici: “Art is the perfection of nature ... Nature hath made one world, and art another. In brief, all things are artificial; for nature is the art of God.”
Clockwise from top left: Agar Ébène, Myrrhe Églantine, Cardamusc, Musc Pallida and Cèdre Sambac eaux de toilette and essences de parfum from Hermessence by Hermès.
This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale now.