There’s no nose like Christine Nagel’s nose. The in-house perfumer for Hermès has been tasked with distilling the ethos of the storied luxury house into scent since 2016 and she takes the job seriously. Drawing on both the history and legacy of Hermès, Nagel’s job is to create fragrances that are both timeless and modern—much like the clothing and accessories Hermès is known for. It’s no easy task, but it’s a job Nagel is uniquely positioned to fulfill.
Coming from a background in organic chemistry, Nagel utilizes a broad range of tools, including groundbreaking synthetic molecules, to achieve her vision. That vision always starts, she says, with an emotion. After all, fragrance isn’t just chemistry—it is art and it is storytelling. Anyone could mix up a concoction of essential oils, but it takes a highly refined and specially trained nose to come up with a perfume. Not to mention, it takes a visionary to know exactly what people are going to want to smell like.
Case in point: the newest addition to the Hermès H24 collection, H24 Herbes Vives Eau de Parfum ($155 for 3.38 mL), a surprising, modern take on a botanical fragrance. Inspired by a specific moment in time, Nagel set out to create something entirely new that fit into the existing H24 botanical framework. To achieve this, she drew upon seldom-used herbs, a smooth-sweet pear granita note, and a futuristic synthetic molecule that must be felt to be believed. The result is a dreamy, layered take on a fresh, aromatic scent that is somehow both familiar and unlike anything else in your collection. That is the true genius of Nagel: an ability to take our expectation of what a fragrance can be and twist it on its head to show us something we never anticipated.
Esquire sat down with Nagel to find out what inspired her to create H24 Herbes Vives, what makes it so different and how she feels when she encounters people wearing her creations.
Esquire: Without talking notes yet, how would you describe this H24 Herbes Vives?
Nagel: It’s a botanical fragrance, just like the entire H24 family. The idea [of the collection] is to have a botanical as a backbone. It’s a fragrance which for me is fresh, structured, but really signature as well. What makes it signature is I wanted to reproduce a moment that dazzles me every time, that fills me with wonder. Every time it rains, whether it’s in a forest, a field, in a city, wherever it may be, an hour of rain has the power to transform smells.
What inspired you to create it?
About two years ago, I was in a kitchen garden when it started to rain. And just after the rain I realized that the most simple herbs, things such as sorrel, savory, hemp, everything in that garden had taken on a real power, something quite tremendous. Those fresh herbs were full of water and they became really signature in that way.
I found it really interesting to work on these notes, which are very rarely used in perfume design, but to really give them a sense of majesty, to really highlight them. In other words, when you smell this perfume, you are in a known territory, but the transformation that the perfumer brings to them gets an entirely different texture.
To achieve that, did you use any new or unique notes that you hadn’t used before?
There is a pear granita note, which works very well with those fresh, aromatic herbs. I also have a passion for synthetic materials. In the first two H24 versions, I used sclarene. [Ed note: sclarene is a warm metallic note that Nagel says reminds her of the steam coming off hot irons.]
I wanted to seek out something else and as it happens, a few years ago I worked for a house which released a captive material known as Physcool. Physcool is a synthetic material obtained by a technology, yet it is natural and its scent is slightly minty. It also has a specific property, which is that when it comes in contact with water, it provides a real feeling of freshness on the skin.
Is that water on your skin specifically or water in the formula that you use to bring out that effect?
The water in the formula allows that to happen, but I tested it with wet skin on one arm and dry skin on the other and the feeling of freshness is sharper on damp or wet skin. You get a little shiver when you put it on.
What draws you to synthetic molecules?
I started out working in organic chemistry, so synthetic molecules do not frighten me. I worked in labs that were seeking out olfactory molecules for perfume designers. So it’s really part of who I am. As it happens, in some of the companies that I worked for in the past, there was the relationship between the perfume designer and research, which is something I love.
So I’m very familiar, very comfortable with synthetic molecules, and I like to give them the nobility that they have. I hate people saying that synthetic is bad, and that natural is wonderful. I think one needs the other. I often draw parallel with clothing design. If a clothes designer only had linen and wild silk and cotton to make his clothes, he couldn’t give them the life and the volume that he can by using other materials. I think that synthetics allow us to give more precision to transform things. So, I am a perfume designer who’s not afraid of the materials of the synthesis. In fact, I do seek it out.
It’s a real pleasure for me to discover new things. Also, I’m lucky enough because I work for a very prestigious house, Hermès. Perfumery companies like Symrise, Firmenich, and others design very innovative molecules, which we call captive molecules. Normally they keep them to themselves, but these companies offer them to me. The range of creation that I have is tremendous and I love to use it.
Would you consider this scent a petrichor?
[Ed note: in fragrance language, petrichor is the specific scent of rain on dry soil.]
Well, yes and no. A scent that arises after the rain is very different depending on where you are—in the countryside, in the city, in the forest. But it’s the idea of highlighting those fresh herbs that normally go completely unnoticed. So here, the rain gave true power to these fresh herbs and allowed me to really focus on them. So I would say that petrichor itself enabled me to discover some new things as a phenomena.
A lot of the imagery around this scent is microscopic. How does that reflect the idea of the fragrance?
As a perfumer, I love working either macro or micro. I love exaggerating things, diminishing them, reducing them to get new feelings, new textures, new sensations. And there was another image I really liked, which is that when you have a tiny drop of water on a leaf, it’s a little bit like a magnifying glass. So if you look closely, you can see all of the texture of the leaf even better. Huge. That drop, that macro or micro lens enables me to be an alchemist of perfumery to come up with new sensations and new textures with existing materials.
A photographer is a good example because when a photographer shoots someone from the front, you see the face of the subject. But when you shoot from the side with shadow and light, that face might say something completely different. And I think that the perfume designer needs to take a different position as well, using the same elements that they have available, but they can do completely different things using them.
Who do you envision wearing this?
I don’t design fragrances for a specific person—unless I’m designing a fragrance for a friend, of course. I design a scent and it always comes from a moment that provokes a specific emotion in me. If I felt an emotion, then I think that I could trigger that same emotion in someone else.
You only wear something you like on your own skin. You could wear an item of clothing just because it’s fashionable, sure, but the fragrances you wear regularly are those that make you comfortable, that you feel at ease with. And I love that intimacy and the fact that it’s something very personal.
What moves me the most is when I come across somebody in the street wearing the fragrance I have designed because I’ve poured a lot of emotion, a lot of personal stuff in there. That person is not aware that they’re wearing a piece of me on their own skin.
Do you ever stop someone and say, you’re wearing one of my fragrances?
No, I don’t dare to do that. But I do follow them. Sometimes I turn around and I follow them for a few steps, and sometimes I walk in front of them just so I can see what they look like. That’s a good excuse to follow men in the streets, for professional reasons.
How does H24 Herbes Vives fit in with the overall Hermès fragrance collection?
In the H24 collection, the starting point is botanicals, because botanics and nature are huge. The field of what is possible is tremendous. So the starting point was the strength of plant and botanical, a small shoot that just shoots through the ground. So when this tiny shoot grows and becomes woody, it becomes stronger.
Right now the idea is the idea of fresh herbs that might be very noble, very elegant. And of course, it’s not the last time that I would work with botanical because it’s an endless realm and it’s all about encounters. And if I don’t have the right encounter with the right material, I won’t get there. The idea is not just to come up with something tomorrow, but if I have the right encounter, the right image, if I get the right emotion in the realm of botanicals, then there could be a new expression of H24.
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