GREEK TO CHIC: Christine Nagel
Text by Jonathan Yee | Photos courtesy of Hermès
Christine Nagel

To many, Greece is about civilisation and history. To others, maybe her picturesque islands and the majestic blue Aegean Sea. An abundance of flora and fauna thrive on her many islands such as Kythira. Thanks to Hermès, transporting there is as easy as a whiff or two of its latest fragrance, Un Jardin à Cythère, scent invoking memories of blue skies and fresh air. We sat down with renowned perfumer, Christine Nagel, to break down her art and the story behind the house's newest eau de toilette. 

MANIFESTO: Share with us your blueprint for Un Jardin à Cythère.

CHRISTINE NAGEL: There are four important ingredients. All three ingredients were inspired by my first trip to Kythira, in the South of the Peloponnese (Kythera is located in the South of the Peloponese). The first one is the scent we developed from olive wood. Olive wood comes from the olive tree wood, and it does not exist as a natural extract, so I had to recreate the sensation with the help of other ingredients. And because we were in a period of lockdown, I was restricted to my lab as we couldn’t travel. But I was very lucky that I have a chalice made of olive wood that was given by a friend. I would smell it so intensely and I think it has the shape of my nose on it now! What is really special about olive tree wood is that the older olive trees have bigger trunks and they’re all twisted and knotty, and I think the wood is very elegant and very fine.

The second ingredient is the dried golden grass under the olive trees. It exudes a scent and the breeze carries it all the way to me. There’s a light elegance to it. But again, the dried grass doesn’t have a natural extract, so it was difficult. So, I worked on this fragrance note in the lab for several weeks purely based on my sensorial memory.

I had the two main elements of my formula, but I wanted the perfume to be pleasant, a scent that would melt into the skin. I remembered that Pierre-Alexis Dumas (artistic director of Hermès) gave me some fresh pistachios. Now, dried pistachios are dry, savoury, and salty but fresh pistachios are special and very rare because it doesn’t travel well. So, Pierre-Alexis came back from Greece with little bags of pistachios, and it was like a little treasure to me. What was special is the texture more than the smell, tender and full of water. It was humid so the pistachios were able to recreate freshness on the skin. But again, pistachios don’t have a natural extract, so I had to use my mind and memory to mix the materials to find the note. The fourth element is the bergamot to recreate this idea of lightness coming from the wind but not the dried flowers. The roasted cereal-like smell is coming from the golden grass.

M: You mentioned that the first trip to Kythira was over 30 years ago. Why does it still linger in your memory? 

CN: I’ve lots and lots of ideas. When something touches me at some point in my life, they will be in my memory for a long time and they will blossom at some point in time. Just as a parenthesis, I travelled to Beijing years ago for one of my fragrance launches and I visited a traditional Hutong (a traditional Chinese alleyway). At the centre courtyard, there was a path paved with stone and planted with grass, it had a special scent, so I went to smell it. I have kept it in my memory and I will use it to create a fragrance one day. When something touches me, the memory of it stays for a very long time.

M: Why is Hermès launching the Un Jardin series now? The last one came out four years ago. It seems this new fragrance wasn’t planned.

CN: It’s indeed spontaneous. Three and-a-half years ago, the maison said that it was time to think of the next creation for the Un Jardin series, but that was all I was told. No Limits. Un Jardin is a garden-inspired fragrance series so immediately the idea came to me, and I said I will create the next Un Jardin scent in Greece. But the pandemic came and it was impossible to travel because of the lockdown. So, I didn’t have any other choice but to work with memory and my nose. When I finished the perfume, I wanted to be sure that memory was right, so the first trip I made was to Greece. Not only did I find the garden, but I also realised that there are many places that resemble my memory in the Peloponnese – the olive trees with the golden grass. Everywhere in Greece is a natural garden. And this perfume is a tribute to these spontaneous states of nature. 

M: How was it like working on Un Jardin à Cythère during the lockdown? 

CN: I had around three-and-a-half years for it to be ready. But that’s the magic of perfumes. Perfumes have a power to tell a story especially the Un Jardin series because it brings us to different gardens around the world. Even if I was working in my lab during the pandemic, the emotions remain intact. Somehow, the lockdown gave me a feeling of freedom because it opened a window to a world I dreamt of, it was a very joyful period for me.

M: Every creation of yours is timeless. How’s it like working for a maison with such historical roots?

CN: I think it’s the magic of Hermès. It’s the freedom that Hermès gives to its creators and designers. I often recall what Axel Dumas (CEO of Hermès) said to me: “Christine, continue to be daring because without being daring there is no creation.” He also told me I have right to make a mistake. I rather you make a mistake by being daring. And it’s fine to make mistakes rather than just follow everybody else. I appreciate this freedom to explore because no other perfumer in the world has this freedom. And I do take the chance to explore, trying to elevate every scent creation. For example, when I created the Twilly perfume, I decided to add ginger to express a kind of contagious happiness. If I wanted to follow others, then I would have just created a sweet caramel-like perfume with cedar and peony. When I created H24, I wanted an oriental direction and an extra layer of fresh wood, so I decided to work on a vegetal note. If I wanted a straightforward hit, I would have worked on a woody scent. And for Un Jardin à Cythère, I imagine something not flowery or green. But choosing a dry garden is like a sidestep. I think this little sidestep is not just Christine’s but it’s Hermès allowing me to do it.

M: Do you love a good challenge? 

CN: I love to challenge myself. Actually the more difficult the better it is. Because I learn, you see? In the world of perfume, you still have something that you’ve not thought of yet. Every time I mix two different materials, I’m surprised by the results. 

M: You mentioned that your favourite perfume is always the next one. However, is there anything you've created even close to that ideal? 

CN: It’s true that the next creation touches my heart more. My creations are like my babies and it’s difficult to say which one I prefer more. There are perfumes that represent turning points in my career. My first scent creation with Hermès – Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate – is very important to my career because I just arrived to the house not long but it became one of my signature scents. In my past career, when I created Narciso Rodriguez for Her in 2003, that was important too because it was considered a niche scent during that time as it provoked a different kind of allure. It was well-received in the market, and the scent was awarded the women’s fragrance of the year.

M: How do you rate yourself as a perfumer? 

CN: Today, I think maybe I’m the only perfumer in the world who is totally free. Totally. There are six houses that develop their exclusive scents. These big houses have a lot of freedom as well but not as much as I have. The main difference is, at Hermès when I finish a fragrance, we have four people to smell it – Pierre-Alexis Dumas who is the artistic director, Agnès de Villers who is the CEO of Hermès Parfums, Véronique Nichanian who is the men’s universe artistic director, and myself – that’s all. The fragrance would be ready if all of us say yes. Honestly, other big houses are still doing consumer testing. It’s the only freedom that Hermès gives me but the trust they have in me is amazing. So today, I continue to strive for the best in my creativity and that’s my motto to be a perfumer. In the 1920s, the perfumers did what they wanted.

M: How do you take care of your sense of smell? 

CN: To be frank, I don’t take care of it. (Laughs) Every morning, my assistant prepares blotters and I do blind smell tests to discover raw materials. I try not to catch a cold, but even if I have a cold, I could work with my mind and I work with my head so I can write the formula. I smell them later when I don’t have a cold, but I can continue to create even if I have a cold. And when I smell a lot of things and get tired, the best way for me to clean my nose is to smell myself – smell my own scent. When you smell yourself, your senses will neutralise. So when you go to a perfume store and try on too many perfumes, you can just smell your own odour. It’s hard to let our nose take a rest because unlike our eyes, we cannot close our nose and stop smelling. But this is probably a gift because it becomes an essential survival tool. For instance, you might not see a fire at first but you can smell the smoke.

M: Unlike your previous launches, this new fragrance is like your travel diary to Kythira. Is there a reason for this?

CN: The Un Jardin series is always about travel. Véronique Nichanian was the inspiration for me to work on H24. So I can be inspired by a lot of different things – by history of perfume-making, raw materials, or even the twists and turns of a house code. As for Un Jardin à Cythère, it’s a real story – not an invention for marketing purposes. That’s why I mentioned that I walked on the dry grass under the olive trees and felt the breeze on my skin. I try to describe the moment as best as possible so you will have all the dimensions needed when you smell the perfume. 

M: It’s such a blessing that Hermès entrusts their creative heads to develop the design all the way to its final production.

CN: This applies to all the metiers and ateliers at Hermès, whether it is our leather or jewellery metiers, there is a respect of the artist.

M: Can you give us a hint on what you’re working on next?

CN: I work very much ahead of time. I just finished three creations that will be coming out in due time, and one feminine scent will be out this summer. They have very different stories behind them, and you will be astonished.

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