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Hitting all the right notes: An interview with H24's Christine Nagel

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 10 min read
Hitting all the right notes: An interview with H24's Christine Nagel
When scientific expertise meets childhood memory, you get H24.
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When scientific expertise meets childhood memory, you get H24, a fragrance by perfumer Christine Nagel that is able to ignite men’s style without being restrictive

Perfumer or painter of scents Christine Nagel has been with Hermès Parfums since 2014. In just two years, she took over the leadership of Hermès’s olfactory creation and heritage from one of the most respected ‘noses’ in the industry, Jean- Claude Ellena.

Hermès is one of the few fashion houses to have its own in-house perfumer. But creating fragrances was not one of Nagel’s things to study, she started out as a chemistry student at Geneva University. Geneva is miles away from Grasse in France, the Holy Grail when it comes to anyone wanting to study the magical world of creating fragrances.

In the course of her organic chemistry course, Nagel was introduced to perfumery when she joined the research department of Firmenich, a Swiss company that has been specialising in fragrances and flavours for more than a century.

At Firmenich, Nagel worked alongside Nobel Prize-winning scientists and she honed her skills on things like how to analyse the raw materials of fragrance by means of chromatography down to molecular level.

Her work and research have paid off well as H24 has dis- tinct botanical notes but with a hint of something that we could not quite identify. A small group of journalists was taken on an olfactory tour of four different booths on the fourth level of the Hermès boutique at Liat Towers.

Each booth had a scent such as clary sage, rosewood, narcissus and sclarene. The final booth was a combination of all and the result is a fresh, zesty and uplifting fragrance. Sclarene is a synthetic scent that Nagel has formulated and this is the scent you smell when you are ironing clothes. It was the smell that Nagel grew up with, her grandmother ironing and the smell permeates the home.

H24 is a fragrance for him, created by her. But as Nagel says: “To create this new Her- mès signature fragrance, I had to open up other, less predictable paths, to move away from the conventional woodiness of men’s scents”.

What makes a fragrance a success and how can one harness synthetic scents such as sclarene? Options asks and Nagel has the answers.

You started as an organic chemistry student in Geneva and here you are with the launch of H24. Could you tell us how this came to be?

I am a Swiss national with an Italian mother, I grew up a long way from Grasse and the world of perfumery. My encounter with perfume came through my studies in organic chemistry and my first professional experience. Alberto Morillas, whom I saw from my office window, was instrumental in my decision. He asked two young women to smell his trial fragrances. I saw their smiles, I felt their emotions, I perceived their pleasures. At that precise moment, I knew. I was sure that this job, that al- lows you to give so much, was for me. It was through the infinitely small that I discovered the richness of perfumery.

Then I couldn’t rest until I had become a perfumer, constantly learning, experimenting and perfecting my knowledge. And some wonderful encounters have marked my life. I wasn’t afraid to take risks. They turned out well for me.

Do you think a woman is a better choice when it comes to creating a fragrance for men?

No, certainly not. It is not a question of sex but of sensitivity, a question of style, a question of signature. As with my creations, there is perhaps something tactile and textured in my perfumery — a special sensitivity to material, feel, the sensuality of the hand. I work with few raw materials. Because I am convinced that what is essential is necessarily simple. Is it feminine? Is it masculine? I will let you be the judge, but I don’t think so.

Can you tell us your process when you begin creating and what type of steps you need to follow? For example, I read somewhere that one should not eat strong-tasting foods like garlic and chilli, is that true?

Creation doesn’t fit into a process. It is, above all, a need, an impulse that manifests itself by giving form to an idea or multiple ideas, originating from something read, a word, an image, a scent. An idea can come from anywhere.

I have been working for Hermès since 2014. It is a house of creation with a wonderfully rich history. It has an abundance of worlds and I see sources of inspiration in it everywhere, every day. I’m inspired and nourished by the house, which offers a bottomless well of inspiring stories for each and every one of us. For me, the difficulty resides in making a choice, even though choosing is part of creation.

Then it’s time to give the fragrance form, to embark on olfactory composition, telling a story with scent by taking it down a personal path. Then we forge convictions through sharing, as Hermès is a house that places great importance on humanity, generosity and sharing. So it’s really rather fascinating.

As for garlic and chillies, it is a matter of common sense and their effect on the sense of smell is temporary.

H24 is suitable for women, too. How does one wear fragrance without it being too powerful?

Yes, certainly, even though these days we find it very difficult to see outside of these codes, as they are frames of reference that help us live in a world that is increasingly complex. You just have to dare, to be bold, trust yourself and try.

As for the tenacity of a fragrance, everyone can find what they need for a particular time of day or year, or in a personal or professional context.

You managed to bottle a synthetic scent, sclarene, is this a trend for fragrances now, synthetics?

It is not a question of pitting natural against synthetic. The analogy with textiles is interesting in this respect. It can be compared to the work of a dressmaker who only uses silk, wool, linen or cotton — all the most natural of materials. These collections, these clothes would not have the same hold, the same volumes and the same lines. Synthetics bring another rhythm, true modernity, a different drape and feel. Fortunately, new processes for extracting materials, new molecules, and knowledge and analysis tools are disrupting the way we design fragrance and are changing it. And talking about trends is already talking about the past.

Scents have always jogged a memory, besides sclarene, what was your other early recollection of smell that is associated with your childhood?

Scent is my profession and it fills my days, so it makes sense that I have lots of memories of it, most of which are happy ones.

From my childhood, I have often mentioned the smell of borotalco (talcum powder) that all Italian children are familiar with. That’s one of the first scents to have remained etched in my memory. It is linked to specific memories of family.

But the most evocative is still the scent that emanated from my grandmother’s handbag when I opened it. It had a powdery, sweet smell that has remained deeply rooted in my mind. Women all used powder in those days.

When I arrived at Hermès, I discovered that exactly the same story had inspired the creation of the first women’s fragrance by Hermès — the legendary Eau d’Hermès — which is based on the scent of the inside of a woman’s handbag.

What are some valuable lessons you learned from Jean-Claude Ellena?
The greatest thing I learned from Jean-Claude Ellena is to take my time. Taking the time to smell, to choose, the time to reflect, to create, this time that is given to us so generously by Hermès.

Time at Hermès is a very specific kind of time like no other, and it allows me to go where no one else can go. It’s an incredible luxury that I am grateful and happy to have every day.

Your job title reads as Painter of Scents. How does one paint a scent?
A scent alone is just a scent. It needs contrast and nuances, provided by other notes, in order to exist fully. Like an artist choreographing their colours, I stage scents that mutually enrich each other. I firmly believe that each of the fragrances I create paints the picture of a life’s emotions.

But my work is also nourished by painting. I almost think of my perfumer’s organ as a palette on which my materials are no longer materials, but colours. An artist commands colours on his canvas and I command scents in my fragrances.

If not creating fragrances, what do you think you will be doing?
I have a lot of imagination but I certainly can’t imagine myself somewhere I shouldn’t be. I feel so strongly that I’m in the right place in this profession, in this house, and at this time in my life that I cannot imagine being anywhere else.

Have you already started thinking about the next fragrance? Any hints? Such as one ingredient you are looking at?

Of course! To continue with the painting analogy, my laboratory is like an artist’s atelier full of sketches and rough drafts, my fragrances are all there to be worked on later. But I’m not going to give away any clues or leads. It’s like in love, the wait can be so sweet.

Blending nature and technology

In her official biography, Christine Nagel, says that the creation of a perfume resembles the composition of a painting. Inspired by the pointillism of Georges Seurat, captivated by the talent of Sonia Delaunay who exalted art in her textile creations, in her mind artists are secret and intimate companions. She sees each material as a colour, and “the interplay of mixed colours will compose the perfume”.

To create H24, Nagel was inspired by the way Véronique Nichanian, artistic director of the Hermès men’s universe worked; always innovating, inventing and how textures such as the weave of fabric are used. To this end, Nichanian and Nagel share a love of fluidity, the right proportions, and materials. The perfumer, a virtuoso of volumes, has textured her raw materials to create a disruptive, almost tactile impression.

H24 begins with an aromatic, botanical note and with that clary sage was chosen for its inflections of hay and cut grass, alongside a highly distinctive, slightly animal amber base.

A flower was next added into the mix. But for Nagel, it is not just any flower the narcissus absolute is a botanical wildcat that defies its fragility, is one of those untameable scents that need to be handled with care. It has a green, crisp edgy side with a hint of tobacco.

The next ingredient is rosewood essence, it is an extraction from a wild South American tree. According to folklore, this rare ingredient has the ability to make one quite feverish.

Sclarene, the final ingredient is not derived from nature but by a molecule. Initially green and earthy, this aromatic body is reminiscent of a hot iron. It offers the composition its metallic vibration, a rich and intense pleasure, and links with the Hermès men’s ready-to-wear universe, evoking the heady aroma of hot irons on fabric in the workshops.

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