Christine Nagel on the creation of the new Hermès perfume

The latest Hermès fragrance offers a radically new approach to perfume

Hermès in-house perfumer Christine Nagel discusses the subversive innovation behind the house’s new fragrance, Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée

Christine Nagel thinks she has the best job in the world. Hearing him talk about it, you might think so too. The in-house perfumer of Hermès has full creative freedom in the historic house to design new fragrances, the latest of which is Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée. There are no time or price limits and, most importantly, no market tests.

It’s a rare privilege in the perfume industry. Market testing is usually fundamental to making and selling a perfume, with perfumers usually making two versions of a perfume to test on consumers and then tweak to be as appealing as possible.

Christine Nagel. Photography: Sylvie Becquet.

For example, market tests generally reveal that people like women’s perfumes to have gourmand notes and therefore most women’s perfumes made in the last 15 years have sweet or caramel flavors. The result is a slew of commercially successful yet predictable scents. The downside of always giving people what the tests perceive as the majority wants is that it takes away the opportunity to experience new flavors. In Nagel’s view, market testing is the biggest barrier to industry innovation.

For Nagel, the success of Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée is not just about creating an iconic fragrance for the brand’s perfume catalogue. It’s about proving to the industry as a whole that there’s an appetite for fragrances that challenge popular preferences and ask people to push the boundaries of their preconceived tastes. In short, Nagel seeks to significantly modify our relationship to perfume.

Terre D’Hermès Frosted Water

What is so different about Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée? The project takes a very standard goal – to create a “fresh” smelling perfume – and completely subverts it. Smell the new Hermès perfume on your skin and it’s undeniable that it has that luminous elevation of any perfume described with the word. Yet all the familiar markers – bleached laundry, citrus, grass clippings – are absent.

The secret is a heavy dose of juniper berries. Very sweetly, Nagel was inspired to make juniper the heart of her perfume when she realized that the large group of boys at family gatherings (Nagel has six children) had a preference for gin cocktails. It is, as she says, “a pleasant taste for the young man.” Normally, juniper is only used in trace amounts in perfume, but for the new Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée, Nagel wanted to make an “overdose” of it.

To enhance this surprising freshness, she added notes of citron, a citrus fruit that resembles a mixture of lemon and bergamot, and punchy notes of Timur pepper. The result is a scent that has a sharp, almost metallic freshness alongside warm, mineral notes.

Christine Nagel

Nagel’s signature is to create fragrances with unexpected combinations of flavors, such as the smoky lemon of Eau de Citron Noir or the musky rhubarb of Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate. This probably has to do with the fact that she comes from a very different background to her contemporary perfumer colleagues, having studied organic chemistry before becoming a perfumer.

Nagel’s interest in perfumery came relatively late in her career, when she worked as a chemist in a research laboratory for a fragrance and flavor company. From the window, she could see a perfumer from the lab come down to the building’s receptionist and test his perfumes on his arm. “All day, I saw the woman smiling, discussing the scent with the perfumer and then, when he was leaving, continuing to smell the scent on her arm.

She was inspired by seeing the intrinsic pleasure that a simple perfume spray could bring to a person and realized that she wanted to become a perfumer. His ambition initially met with resistance. “The first reason, explains Nagel, is that I am a woman and perfumery is traditionally a male profession. Plus, I’m not from the south of France, I’m not the daughter of a perfumer and, coming from a chemical background, I don’t have the typical background.

However, despite not being accepted to create perfumes, Nagel began working to identify formulations of past perfumes, simply by smelling them (there is now a sophisticated machine used to do this). She was so gifted that she eventually fulfilled her ambition by becoming a perfumer and working her way up to her current position at Hermès.

“For many years, I never talked about my background,” says Nagel, “because it’s not the elegant story that most perfumers have. But since I started working for Hermès, I have discovered the fabulous respect the brand has for artisans and craftsmanship. Now I am proud to say that I am an artisan. That I have a different approach to perfumery and that I take risks.

“I think my responsibility is to create another way of creating perfume,” she continues. ‘It’s very important to me for the future of Hermès perfumery and, I’m crossing my fingers, because if this type of creation is successful, it’s good for the future of perfumery as a whole because it opens a new way.’ §

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