A perfumer has to be able to smell their imagination. They have to be able to smell something that doesn’t exist. It’s a rarified craft – so rare in fact, that there are more astronauts in the world than perfumers. While you don’t need a rocket ship to get to Grasse, the two endeavors are more intertwined than it would seem. Both exploration of space and scent demand rigorous training, fearlessness and a willingness to pursue the road less travelled.
In space you don’t breathe, but with scent you don’t think. You feel. Smell and emotion are so connected that, incredibly, odor-evoked memories are more visceral than any other memory-related experience*. It’s part of why we might associate Paris with bread and cigarettes; summer with salt and sticky Gardenia; university with instant coffee and fusty textbooks.
Perfumers then (or noses, as they are affectionately referred) act like gatekeepers of time, freezing moments, places, people and feelings into an olfactive experience. To say they are simply talented would be largely undervaluing the inventiveness and magic that goes into creating scent; creating something that occupies the space between people.
So what is the process? How does a perfumer – a nose – work? For one, it’s anything but linear. It might start with a muse or a raw material, a burning ache to turn reality into redolence. It might start at the end. It might start with one accord and finish with twenty. It might take them to a secret garden in Versailles and back. It might take years! It’s a process that’s fluid and open, one that often goes without rhyme or reason. But who better to tell the story than the authors themselves? Here, GRAZIA speaks to Christine Nagel, in her own words, to explore the narrative behind perfumer and perfume – the greatest beauty biopics ever written.
The Pioneer: Christine Nagel, Hermès Perfume Creator
“For me, scent is a question of emotion. I travel a lot, I’m curious and I love art. I love sculpture and cinema. I’m touched by flowers and by memories. I never necessarily know where a scent will start. Sometimes an idea needs work for three hours, sometimes for three years!
You can’t separate the wearer and the raw materials. Both are as important as the other when crafting scent. I am a very lucky perfumer because at Hermès, all is possible. I can access the best, most rare materials. I can indulge my creativity with no timeframe. The only pressure I feel is my own pressure. I have a responsibility, and that is to bottle all the value, intricacies and wonder of the Hermès brand.
I am fascinated by citrus. When I was creating Hermès Eau de Citron Noir, I cut, smelt and tasted what felt like all the citrus varieties in the world: Finger lime, Buddha’s hand fruit, Eureka lemon. When I smelt the fragrance I thought, ‘it’s good, but it’s missing that signature.’ I was discussing it with a friend of mine, and he said he would send me a popular citrus from his home in Lebanon. I received them and they were small, dry, black limes with a terrible smell. Months passed, but at my friend’s request I finally cut one open. It was smoky, like black black tea – not at all like the skin on the outside. This moment was the turning point, the missing piece of Eau de Citron Noir. All it took was a little inventiveness and some imagination! And help from a friend, of course!
But when I was young, I never actually imagined I would become a perfumer, mostly because I didn’t know such a thing existed. I studied chemistry before going to Geneva to work in research at fragrance and flavour company Firmenich. One day, I looked out my laboratory window and saw a man putting perfume onto the hands of a woman. I will never forget her smile when she smelt it. At that moment, I thought ‘that is my dream’. A lot of passion and patience have gone into my journey that ultimately led me to Hermès as the first female in-house perfumer. But I feel very fortunate to have the roots that I do. It was tough, but now because of it, I am never afraid.
If I cast my mind back, the first fragrance-related memory I have is one of my grandmother. When I kissed her, she smelt of powder. It was like my first souvenir of what it is to smell a beautiful woman. This memory has become an important part of the work I do at Hermès. When you smell a fragrance, it stirs your emotions. It is something I cannot find in any other aspects of life. It is the reason I love fragrance.”
Hermès fragrance is available via hermes.com, selected Hermès stores and retail outlets.