HEART OF THE HOMME: Christine Nagel
Text by Jonathan Yee | Photos courtesy of Sylvie Becquet (Portrait), Thomas de Monaco, Christopher Anderson and Quentin Bertoux
Christine Nagel
The aerodynamic linear H24 bottle designed by Philippe Mouquet
“When you see the silhouettes of the Hermès man created by Véronique, there’s always that purity and at the same time there is texture.” Christine Nagel
Clary sage, narcissus, rosewood essence, and sclarene are the main pillars of the H24 scent

There’s a fairly good chance that Swiss-Italian perfumer Christine Nagel formulated your favourite scent. Though her name isn’t on the bottle, her greatest hits for top luxury houses have been regarded as hall of fame-worthy. Now plying her trade exclusively for Hermès as its direction of Olfactory Creation, she has concocted a fresh scent in the H24 that’s specially blended for discerning gents. But according to her, the ladies might want to give it a try too.

MANIFESTO: Can you share with us the road map and work methodology on general scent creations? In regards to the H24 creation, were there exceptions in creating this scent?

CHRISTINE NAGEL: Well, everything starts from an empty white page so to speak. For the H24, I would say that it took about a year to create. But you know, it is difficult for me to talk about time because the specialty of Hermès is having all the time I need. The first thing I had to learn at Hermès was to take time because a perfume only exists when it is ready and it was a real learning curve but also wonderful to be given the gift of time.

M: A year sounds fast for perfume creation. Was it because of your instinct, vision, and experience that helped to expedite the process?

CN: Creation can take a few months or even a year. I work for a house which is a source of enormous inspiration. The fact that I was working on a men’s fragrance was something I really wanted to do. I am not sure if you know but my perfume workshop is on the rooftop of the men’s fashion workshop. Every day I cross paths with people from crafts, bespoke, fabric makers and so forth. (Artistic director of Hermés Men’s Universe) Véronique Nichanian’s work is inspiring to me. I felt comfortable within this element very quickly and saw the parallels between her work and mine and that is where I got my desire to create. I chose the vegetal and botanical as themes of the H24. I chose to work on a botanical note because 80 to 90 per cent of men’s perfumes today are often woody.

M: Do you think men are ready to embrace scents that aren’t woody or musky?

CN: Well, today it’s an idea that’s very refreshing and I think the man of today needs this breath of energy. I think that this fragrance is quite tactile and attractive to young men.

M: What does H24 mean to you?

CN: This is my first big fragrance for men in my time at Hermès. I wanted to express a masculinity which would be more in movement and fluidity and Véronique’s work inspired me a great deal. When you see the silhouettes of the Hermès man created by her, there’s always that purity and at the same time there is texture. I am very proud of H24 because it is daring and when we go into the materials and the construction, you will understand why.

M: Is creating the H24 a breakthrough in your creative journey?

CN: At Hermès, creation is at the heart of everything. And when I propose an idea, this idea is never subjected to market testing. There is a confidence and trust with the creator and so I have an enormous amount of freedom. The first thing that may be surprising is that when I spoke about botanical, we smell clary sage. The backbone of a perfume is a note, which is normally wood, but I have chosen a leaf as a backbone. When you smell the clary sage, I worked with different types of extractions so that the sage is legible in the head, the heart, and the base note. The sage expresses Véronique’s fashion, which is about sensuality and texture.

The next exceptional note is the narcissus. Narcissus for me represents the touch of an electric colour that Véronique often puts into her fashion shows. It is like a question mark, a little electric spike but narcissus in perfume is difficult to use because it’s a very hard raw green. I worked with a special distillation technique with the material that I’m going to keep a secret, which softens the narcissus.

This is followed by the rosewood note. You will be surprised with the woody fragrance as it is fresh, very green and botanical. This is a trick to get freshness not through a citrus but to bring freshness through the rosewood. The work was slightly different because rosewood is not the wood of the rosebush. In Asia, in particular, it was used to make marquetry inlay work. They would cut roses out of it, you know, because it is easy to cut. The story of the rosewood is that it originally came from Brazil, but they completely forbade the use of rosewood for over 20 years because Brazilians would kill the trees to use it and so this was unfortunately contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon forest. And so I looked for very small producers in Peru. When I smelt their rosewood, I wanted to use it. But with Hermès, if the supplier is small and is based in the opposite side of the world we need to check and audit them. After spending 10 hours on the plane and then four hours on the boat and then another four hours of walking, the buyer finally arrived at the location. He travelled with the Hermès team for the audit and came to the conclusion that these suppliers are very respectful and very authentic. We are very lucky to have them as our suppliers.

Right at the base of the fragrance is the sclarene. This is a molecule of synthesis, totally synthetic. In the beginning, when you smell sclarene you would say it smells fresh. It’s quite refined, but difficult to describe. Keep this blotter in your book because in three days the fragrance will develop and is going to become more metallic which is really the signature of H24. This scent is the one I always smell in the men’s tailoring workshops and when Véronique smelt it she agreed because it’s a scent that is like ironing a woollen fabric. And to keep the fabric from burning you put a damp cloth in the middle. The smell of the steam and wool is the smell of sclarene.

These are the four stories of the four different materials in this fragrance. We pay attention to the environmental impact too. The bottle is recyclable and refillable, the packaging is also recyclable. We were attentive to all the details in the formula of the fragrance. When I should choose to use clary sage, I chose the French sage in order reduce transport and pollution. I could have picked Russian sage as it would have been less expensive. Even when I work with certain molecule synthesis, I look for processes that are the least polluting. But if this synthesis was possible through biotechnology, I would use it even though it can cost hundred times the price for the same molecule.

M: Are you a perfumer who favours raw materials over synthetics? How do you make a choice between the two?

CN: I don’t make a choice between one and the other because I need both. I think in the future there will be other solutions and other proposals. I think I am very curious as I have a very different background from the other perfumers. I started in organic chemistry and I learnt the job through very technical means. And today I’m not scared of anything. The most joy comes out of learning and I’m curious every time new technology arrives. I want to play with it, and from this notion of playing I discover things. It is in my nature, that’s all it is.

M: You have developed the perfect nose.

CN: Perfect nose? Well I would never be pretentious to say that it is perfect. Perfection is boring. I didn’t talk much about my training before because I didn’t have the same training as the other perfumers and perhaps I found it less glorious. Since I’ve been working for Hermès, I am very proud actually because having a lot of techniques give you an incredible amount of freedom today and an artisan has a perfect technique that allows them to make what they want to make. I think I dare to make anything, but the aim is to make a fragrance that smells good, which is the most important.

M: When we talk about perfumes, the name seems to be more important than the perfume itself, as the name can draw on memories and flavour profiles. Can you tell us how the name H24 came about?

CN: The name H24 was proposed by Pierre-Alexis Dumas (artistic director of Hermès) and even though I’m only the nose for it, he asked whether this name suited the perfume. It’s a bit like naming your child, right? H is for homme and H is Hermès; 24 is the iconic 24 Fauborg address and at the same time it is the number of hours in a day. I felt it goes really well with the man that Véronique creates in her style which is about simplicity. In other houses, the marketing department would decide the packaging, the bottle, and the name and then make a story out of it. But in Hermès, the story is the creation and that is a beautiful gift.

M: Although H also stands for homme, there is a growing desire that perfumes shouldn’t be bracketed by gender.

CN: You’re speaking my mind. A perfume should be unisex. It’s more a question of emotions and sensitivity than gender. If women wear it, I’d be delighted. I think that it’s a mistake to actually say a perfume is for men or women. The responsibility I have in creating this perfume is that somebody who likes Hermès will buy it. It might even persuade someone to enter the Hermès store for the first time to buy it. It is my priority to put all the values of Hermès into this. That is probably why Hermès perfumes last over time. It’s like a Kelly or a Birkin bag – even if you have owned it for years, it’s still beautiful. The beauty of the object and the beauty of the creation must always be present. Like Pierre-Alexis said, there is no compromise when it comes to the aesthetics.

M: You have been with the house for six years. How have you evolved as a perfumer or even as an artist?

CN: I had to break away from my old habits when I first arrived. The house values craftsmanship and it has an immense amount of heritage. When I step into any department, there is such a degree of excellence and everything becomes a source of inspiration: the silk, the cashmere, Véronique’s work. I always associate with things that are very personal to me like travelling, eating, or even a visual of a woman coming out of a market in Mumbai. All of these enter my memory and one day it takes shape and the idea grows. I was lucky to learn perfume making and to have a master who taught me the essentials of an olfactory signature. I think today I have the values of Hermès anchored in my genes. Things are done with happiness and simplicity.

M: How would you describe your relationship with perfume?

CN: It’s my whole life, it’s my passion, and I’m very lucky to be able to make my profession my passion. My problem is that I can close my eyes and ears, but I can never close my nose. I’m always seeking and I’m always creating. Today I’m very happy because I think I’m doing the most beautiful profession in the world. And I’m doing it for the most beautiful house in the world.

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