The house of Hermes has always moved to its own whimsy. Take its latest fragrance, Un Jardin a Cythere, that’s part of the cult Parfums-Jardins collection. Conceptualised with the theme of “astonishment” in mind (it’s the big idea behind everything that the brand creates this year), this delightfully wild scent combines notes of fresh pistachios, olive trees and sun-toasted grass to evoke in-house perfumer Christine Nagel’s memories of the Greek island Kythira.
Within Hermes’ olfactory universe, the Parfums-Jardins (French for garden perfumes) series was conceived to capture the soul of a chosen location. This year, it welcomed its seventh edition, Un Jardin a Cythere (pictured), which is inspired by Nagel’s memories of her first trip to the sun-soaked Greek island Kythira, evoking visions of a blonde field wedged by the sky and sea.
During a recent visit to Singapore, the soulful and good-humoured Nagel shares more on Un Jardin a Cythere’s unusual beginnings and the unexpected ways in which the French maison dreams up fragrances.
This scent, Un Jardin a Cythere, can be said to be a pandemic baby. Tell us more about how you came up with it.
“When (Hermes artistic director) Pierre-Alexis Dumas said it was time to create a new fragrance for the Parfums-Jardins series, I retrieved this memory that I had of Greece and wanted to recreate through this perfume a garden on the island of Kythira. I started to organise a trip there (for research), but Covid-19 struck and it became impossible to travel. This left me with two possibilities: I could wait for the pandemic to end or I could create this Greek garden from my memories of Kythira. Like a painter who looks at a landscape and then returns to his studio to paint it, the end result might not be perfect, but that’s okay. I just went about creating Un Jardin a Cythere by trusting my nose and my memories.”
What did – and do – you remember so fondly of Kythira?
“I love to visit islands by sea and my first memory of Kythira when working on Un Jardin a Cythere was of seeing its landscape from a boat … Upon arriving, I visited one of its gardens and I remember encountering several different sensations. The first occurred when I was standing under an olive tree: The sun was shining through and there were crickets buzzing. As I walked, the dry grass – blonde in colour – made a crunchy sound. The second sensation came as the wind blew and filled my nose with the smell of dry herbs. This surprised me, as one usually has to bend down to smell the plants in a garden, but on Kythira, the wind brings the scent to you. This very memory is what I’ve tried to bottle in Un Jardin a Cythere.”
Walk us through the perfume’s key notes then.
“Many of the scents that I wanted to include in this fragrance don’t exist. For example, there’s the essence of olive trees, which make for a very interesting perfume ingredient. Their trunks look deformed and hard, but the trees in fact possess a very elegant scent that I recreated using various other ingredients. There’s also the essence of dry grass, which, again, does not exist in perfumery and had to be simulated. Another memory that played a key role in this fragrance was that of me receiving a little box of pistachios from Pierre-Alexis. They were fresh and, to my surprise, pink in colour – not green or brown, as commonly thought … Greece is a very important place to Pierre-Alexis (his mother was born there) and when I presented the finished perfume to him, he said: ‘Christine, I feel at home.’”
The maison roped in the Greek artist Elias Kafouros, whose inky, highly detailed drawings have inspired several Hermes scarves, to illustrate the box that the Un Jardin a Cythere perfume comes in. If you’re wondering, the pink pods represent pistachios – a key accord in the fragrance that, contrary to popular belief, are of a rosy hue when fresh.
How has the pandemic affected the way you work as a nose?
“Scent is often the human sense that we use the least or is often considered not as important as the others. For example, children are taught to draw, play music or taste different things, but rarely are they taught to smell. The sense of smell is, however, the sense of survival and when some people lost it to Covid-19, it was only then when many realised how unhappy it is to not be able to smell. I think this has made people look at perfume very differently and that’s very positive for a perfumer … There’s now a growing appreciation for fragrances with a signature – one that smells different and has audacity – as customers become more selective and don’t want to smell like everyone else. This means that the maison must take chances and come up with different types of fragrances.”
How would you say Hermes takes chances with perfumery?
“At Hermes, I’m totally free … There are probably 500 perfumers in the world. That may seem like a lot, but there are probably more astronauts than perfumers, and there are only six maisons with in-house perfumers: Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Guerlain, Cartier and Hermes. When I arrived here in 2014, I was surprised by how the only instruction that I received was when I had to come up with a new scent. There were no constraints and no budget given. Also, when a perfume is completed at other brands, it usually has to undergo a lot of market testing and the one that gets chosen is the one that’s liked by the most number of people.
This means that anything with a more distinctive character will usually not make it. Here at Hermes, we don’t do market tests. Only three people decide if a perfume gets launched: Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Agnes de Villers (president and CEO of Hermes Perfume and Beauty) and Veronique Nichanian (the artistic director of Hermes menswear).
I remember Axel Dumas (Hermes’s chief executive officer) telling me: ‘Christine, continue to have audacity. When working, you have the right to make mistakes.’ He would prefer that I make a mistake because I’m audacious than make one because I’m following trends. I’m a very lucky perfumer.”
Let’s talk about fragrance in a digital world. The hashtag #perfumetok, for example, has more than three billion views on TikTok. How would you say social media has changed the perfume industry?
“Perhaps I’m an old perfumer, but I’m also a very curious person. I’m interested in many things, such as AI (artificial intelligence), and I’m very open-minded. When you watch a video about perfume on Instagram or TikTok, your interest might be piqued. Social media channels are an important way to excite someone, but what a perfume is really like can only be known when it’s on a person’s skin. I think we can learn a lot about a person through the perfume he or she is wearing – by smelling them instead of judging them from the way they dress.”
Another important element in luxury as well as the world of beauty going forward is sustainability. How are you and Hermes tackling it through the fragrances you create?
“I think it’s very important to be aware of where and how ingredients are sourced. Hermes really looks deeply into finding ethical partners. For example, certain ingredients that I use are grown by female farmers in Madagascar and we ensure that they’re paid fairly …
I also make sure to consider sources that are more sustainable. Take the rosewood oil, a rare ingredient, that I used in H24 (a men’s fragrance launched by Hermes in 2021). The export of Brazilian rosewood was banned by the Brazilian government decades ago because it was contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon forest, but we eventually came across another source for rosewood oil. Some farmers in Peru were growing the trees from which it is derived and cutting them in such a way that the crops regrow, making the practice more sustainable.
In addition, all Hermes fragrances are now refillable and the glass bottles that we use are recyclable … With my background in science (Nagel majored in chemistry), I’m also fascinated by biotechnology because it allows us to recreate the same ingredients found in nature.
This can be 100 times more expensive, but price is not a factor during the creation process at Hermes. The maison prefers that I work with high-quality ingredients that have a secure future and this is very interesting for me, as I believe that biotechnology is the future … Never forget that going natural isn’t always the best – sometimes, you make the earth poorer by doing so.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2023 Graphic Design Edition of FEMALE