Christine Nagel embodies all the quirks and codes that construct the house of Hermès: creativity in spades, eloquence, and an air of sophistication that’s tempered with just a little bit of cheekiness. It’s no wonder then, she was tapped as the brand’s first female in-house perfumer, the now-nose behind many formative fragrances, including Eau des Merveilles Bleue (2017), Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate (2016), Galop d’Hermès (2016), and the newer Twilly d’Hermès family.
It is an interesting concept, creating for one of the highest held luxuriates in the world, but one Nagel handles with grace and humor – even when faced with the onset of a global pandemic. But despite everything, Hermès is set to release its latest scent this July, and the third olfactive instalment of the much-loved Twilly offering: Eau Ginger. Described by Nagel as “a smiling Twilly”, it’s a sweet but complex juice that calls on fresh ginger root and soft white peony to give it a certain weightless, joyous quality. Fresh and playful, it’s made with the brands younger community in mind, but will no doubt appeal to everyone seeking out small pockets of joy after what has been a testing 18 months.
As part of the upcoming launch, Grazia had the immense privilege to speak to Nagel on Zoom from her home in Paris, where we touched on Eau Ginger, creativity, and the wondrous career path of a perfumer.
Keep scrolling for the complete interview.
GRAZIA: First of all, how have you felt over the course of the pandemic?
Christine: Essentially, all the creation that is a part of my job takes place in my mind. And I work mostly alone anyway – it’s just me and my assistant in the lab. So the creative process itself has not really been an issue.
It’s also become apparent to me that the pandemic has revealed we traditionally haven’t tied much importance to our sense of smell. We teach children to listen to music, and how to recognize things by sight and taste, but we never train their nose. But I think scent is the most primitive sense we have. For those who have unfortunately experienced COVID and lost their sense of smell, it’s raised a whole new appreciation for scent. I can’t predict the future of course, but I think perhaps once this is over, we will really savor the beauty of fragrance.
GRAZIA: As a perfumer, are you finding it more difficult to feel inspired or has the way you create shifted?
Christine: I am incredibly grateful to say that the pandemic has not really handicapped my work. There has been some difficulty with sourcing certain raw materials, but when we’re unable to go about things in your usual way, it forces us to get creative and think outside the box. The only problem I’ve faced is that I can’t smell people out in the street anymore, and I used to truly love that. You know, when I cross somebody in the street wearing a fragrance that I made – one that I gave so much of my heart to – that has a huge impact on me. It is such a gift, so I really look forward to experiencing that again.
GRAZIA: What are your thoughts on the relationship the world has with fragrance right now?
Christine: The pleasure of wearing perfume today is perhaps a little more selfish or intimate, in that you’re wearing it for yourself and your inner circle, as opposed to the rest of the world.
GRAZIA: Let’s switch gears to Hermès Twilly Eau Ginger – where did you start when constructing this fragrance?
Christine: At some point I realized that young women today really love Hermès house codes, but the interpretation is different. Say a daughter received a scarf as a hand-me-down gift from her Mother – she wouldn’t wear it in the same fashion around her neck. Instead, she’d turn it into a top or wear it as a bandanna.
It was an interesting observation for me, the way these younger women transform classic codes and twist the rules. So I wanted to adopt that in my approach to fragrance. Perhaps work with traditional raw materials, but play up the portions or percentages. That was my starting point for the very first Twilly scent.
Many women’s fragrances are very sweet and sugary, and I wanted a different baseline, which is how I decided on ginger. There is ginger in all three Twilly scents, but for the latest Twilly Eau Ginger, I wanted to use both the floral facets of ginger and candied ginger. I went with peony as the main floral note as well, which can be complicated as it is what’s referred to as a mute flower. This doesn’t mean it has no scent – the scent or a peony is beautiful – it just means you cannot produce a natural extract. So to recreate, you need to combine other ingredients – it is almost like poetry. And to give the fragrance some backbone, I always add a woody note – in this case, I chose cedar.
I think of the Twilly family as three daughters, and Eau Ginger is the youngest. She’s irreverent and can get away with anything. She’s joyous, and that was my vantage point.
GRAZIA: Ginger seems like a very unique note in scent because it’s so punchy. How do you go about using it in a nuanced way?
Christine: Ginger is often used to add a tiny hint of freshness, and is most commonly found in men’s fragrance. For the Twilly family, I used fresh root because there’s much more juice and it means I was able to increase the quantity, which is why it has such a unique signature.
GRAZIA: What three words would you use to describe Twilly Eau Ginger?
Christine: I would say boldness, joy and freedom. Categorically, it’s a woody, spicy floral! I actually like to think of Eau Ginger as a smiling Twilly.
GRAZIA: Are there any other little rituals or routines that you follow when you’re in the creative process of putting together a brand new fragrance?
Christine: I always ensure that when I arrive at work, my nose is relaxed. I actually have a secret. Sometimes when I’m working on a perfume, I will spray the fragrance in my car when I arrive home and quickly close the doors. When I come back to the car in the morning, and my nose is relaxed, I’ll analyse the notes and spend the drive making mental notes of potential changes.
GRAZIA: Do you ever have off days, where you’re just not feeling passionate or creative?
Christine: I’d say yes and no. If I had a cold for example, I can’t smell as well and that would hold me back. But the process continues. I am always writing things down and recording ideas.
GRAZIA: Last time we spoke, you mentioned your role as the in-house perfumer at Hermès allows you to work without any constraints, from timelines to budgets. How then, do you decide a fragrance is complete, or the best it can be?
Christine: Yes, I understand what you’re saying. Basically, I think it’s just like a painter and his painting, or a writer and their writing. At some point, you just have to say, ‘okay, it is right’. At Hermès, we actually do not conduct market testing – there is no focus group to influence the final decision. While there is nothing wrong with this and I understand why it is necessary, for us, market testing can mean losing out on edginess.
Instead, it is up to the creatives to decide, meaning myself, Artistic Director Pierre-Alexis Dumas and Agnès de Villers.
Of course, I feel a huge responsibility, but it is also an incredible gift and I am so proud to do the work that I do. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I arrive at certain decisions, but on instinct I know when something is complete. Hopefully this instinct is good! I like to think after all my years working as a perfumer, it is pretty finely tuned.
GRAZIA: What’s your personal process when it comes to selecting your own fragrance?
Christine: You’re really asking me two questions! Firstly, my skin is an important tool and I use it for work, so I never wear perfume on days when I am in the lab. Instead I smell perfumes on pieces of paper. Often I am covered in stickers and post-its covered in fragrance. Sometimes I forget, and I catch them floating in the bath when I take one of an evening.
I only really wear perfume myself on the weekend. I don’t believe in perfume for day or evening or seasons. Perfume is incredibly personal – you need to wear a scent that you love; a scent that speaks to you. I feel it is instinctual.
GRAZIA: Finally Christine, if you could sit down with one perfumer (living or dead) and ask them a question, who would it be and what would you ask?
Christine: I love this question! I converse with other perfumers all the time, and really enjoy speaking to my peers. When other perfumers design something I like, I’ll absolutely discuss it with them!
I admire perfumers from the past who were bold, like Germaine Cellier who created Vent Vert; that for me, was an extraordinary fragrance. I would also love to ask Christian Dior’s Edmond Roudnitska about synthetic raw materials – he was the first to use them. And of course, François Coty! He was, after all, the father of the Chypre family which I love. I would ask him just how he went from working in a pharmacy, to creating the beautiful things that he did, like Emeraude.
These audacious perfumers paved the road so the rest of us could walk. I would love nothing more than to sit with them for hours.
Hermès Twilly Eau Ginger (launching soon).
Hermès fragrance is available via hermes.com, selected Hermès stores and retail outlets.