Inside the Life of a French Fragrance "Nose"

Faith Xue

Like Kim and Kanye, opposites attract—and a smart perfumer knows that fragrance notes are no different. Hermès's newest scent, Galop d'Hermès Pure ($210), is a heady yet surprisingly light blend of leather and rose, two seemingly opposing notes—one traditionally masculine, the other softer and more delicate—that mark a slightly daring foray into female fragrances for the esteemed fashion house. (But it makes sense; Hermès was originally established as a purveyor of equestrian equipment, after all.)

The woman behind the scent? Famed French "nose" Christine Nagel, who previously created iconic scents such as Narcisco Rodriguez for Her, as well as a slew of much-loved perfumes for Jo Malone, Dior, and more. So what does it take to become an in-house perfumer for a fashion house like Hermès? Where does one find inspiration? And what really goes down in those secretive leather vaults? We spoke with Nagel herself to find out. Keep scrolling to see what she revealed.

On what being a perfumer actually means:

"In the whole word, there are about 500 perfumers, which is less than there are astronauts. And out of those, there are only six in-house perfumers. One does not become a house perfumer without a long previous experience as a perfumer. That's because when one is a house perfumer, one has a lot of responsibility for the choice of the perfume."

On her career trajectory:

"My first job was a researcher in Switzerland with a background in chemistry. After I graduated, I met with this perfumer named Alberto Morillas. As he was going around having people try perfume, I saw the pleasure and sensation of perfume evoked in people. That gave me the spark that I wanted to become a perfumer. I moved to Italy and started working on perfume opportunities there. And I've never regretted it since."

On the creation process:

"Every perfume is different. Every perfume has a story and is different. For me, it always goes back to something really deep and profound. The story of Hermès perfume started in the leather vaults of the house. It's a very secretive place. There's one particular type of leather that’s called doblis; when I felt it, it started everything. I thought that this particular leather was elegant and soft, like a woman's skin. It's just incredible."

On training her nose:

"Now that I am trained, I don't have to pause between smelling notes. The first time I was at a place that made perfumes, I thought I could never stay here; it’s so strong. But now I'm very trained—I can be smelling the entire day. Except when it's really, really hot. When it's really hot, all the smells get mixed up together and it gets more difficult.

"For me, to clean up your nose or cleanse it between scents, you should smell your own body and your own scent. That's my way of restarting."

On the non-existence of an aha! moment:

"If I had the formula to create a successful perfume, I'd be the queen! I wouldn't turn my back on any of the perfumes I've created. But sometimes there are ones where you think There could be something more there."

On creating for Hermès:

"Only Hermès is capable of giving two things: the time to create (it may seem very simple but it's very impressive) and trust. This house absolutely trusts its creators. I've worked for almost all the houses there are in the world, and this is very unique. All the other houses do market testing—Hermès does not. No focus groups!" 

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