Christine Nagel thinks she has the best job in the world. To hear her talk about it, you might think so too. The in-house perfumer for Hermès has complete creative freedom at the storied house to conceive new perfumes – the latest of which is Terre d’Hermès Eau Givrée. There are no limits on time or price and, importantly, no market tests. 

This is a rare privilege in the fragrance industry. Market tests are generally fundamental to how perfume is made and sold, with perfumers habitually crafting two versions of a scent to be tested on consumers and then modified to be as widely appealing as possible.

 Sylvie Becquet
Christine Nagel. Photography: Sylvie Becquet.

For example, market tests generally reveal that people like feminine perfumes to have gourmand notes and consequently, most feminine perfumes made in the past 15 years have sugary or caramel flavours. The result is a wealth of commercially successful but predictable perfumes. The downside of always giving people what the tests perceive the majority wants is that it removes the opportunity for them to experience new scents. In Nagel’s opinion, market tests are the industry’s ultimate impediment to innovation. 

For Nagel, the success of Terre d’Hermès Eau Givrée is about more than creating an iconic scent for the brand’s fragrance catalogue. It is about proving to the industry at large that there is an appetite for fragrances that challenge popular preferences and ask people to push the boundaries of their preconceived tastes. In short, Nagel is looking to significantly alter our relationship with perfume. 

Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée

So what is so different about Terre d’Hermès Eau Givrée? The project takes an entirely standard objective – to create a ‘fresh’ smelling perfume – and completely subverts it. Smell the new Hermès perfume on your skin and there is no denying that it has that bright uplift of any fragrance described with the word. Yet all the familiar markers – laundered linen, cut grass, or the like – are absent. 

The secret is a heavy dose of juniper berries. Quite sweetly, Nagel was inspired to make juniper the heart of her fragrance when she realised that the large group of boys at family gatherings (Nagel has six children) had a preference for gin cocktails. It is, as she puts it, ‘a pleasurable taste for the young man’. Normally, juniper is used only in traces within perfume, but for the new Terre d’Hermès Eau Givrée, Nagel wanted to make it an ’overdose’. 

 Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée

To heighten that surprising type of freshness, she has added notes of cedrat, a citrus fruit that is like a mix of lemon and bergamot, and punchy hints of Timur pepper. The result is a fragrance that has a sharp, almost metallic freshness alongside warm, mineral notes.

Christine Nagel

Nagel’s signature is to create fragrances with unexpected flavour combinations, like the smoky lemon of Eau de Citron Noir or the musky rhubarb of Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate. It likely has to do with the fact that she came from a very different background than her fellow contemporary perfumers, having studied organic chemistry before becoming a perfumer. 

 Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée

Nagel’s interest in perfumery came relatively late in her career, when she was working as a chemist in a research lab for a fragrance and flavour company. From the window, she could see a perfumer from the lab go down to the building’s receptionist and test his perfumes on her arm. ‘All day I would see the woman smile, discuss the scent with the perfumer and then, when he left, still go on smelling the scent on her arm.’ 

She was inspired by seeing the intrinsic pleasure a simple spray of perfume could bring to a person and realised she wanted to become a perfumer. Her ambition was initially met with resistance. ‘The first reason,’ Nagel explains, ‘is because I’m a woman and perfumery is traditionally a masculine job. On top of that, I am not from the south of France, I am not the daughter of a perfumer and, coming from chemistry, I don’t have the typical background.’

However, while she wasn’t accepted to create scents, Nagel began working to identify the formulations of past fragrances, simply by smelling them (there is now a sophisticated machine used to do this). She was so skilled that she eventually realised her ambition, becoming a perfumer and working her way up to her current position at Hermès

 Terre D’Hermès Eau Givrée

‘For many years I never spoke about my background,’ says Nagel, ‘because it is not the elegant backstory most perfumers have. But since working for Hermès, I have discovered the fabulous respect the brand has for artisans and craft. Now, I am proud to say that I am an artisan. That I have a different approach to perfumery and 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 cross my fingers, because if this type of creation is a success, it is good for the future of perfumery as a whole because it opens a new way.’ §