Have you been languishing? Does quiet quitting seem too strenuous? Do you suffer from burnout, boredom, malaise? It’s not you; it’s your work.
Imagine a job that takes you to the Greek islands, where it’s your duty to stand in an olive grove waiting for the wind to sift through the grasses. Take your time; you’re on the clock. Maybe you’d prefer to leave behind the Excel sheets, Google Docs, and Slack threads to wander through a private garden in Venice, breathing in the co-mingling of jasmine, salt air, and wet stone. Someone’s got to do it. Picture yourself, colorful scarf tossed around your neck, traveling up the Nile, searching for an under-ripe mango or a whiff of cardamom to increase your productivity.
This is the life of an Hermès perfumer.
You have no deadlines. There are no focus groups or marketing briefs to clip your wings. And, while you recline in your felucca or water taxi, you snuggle next to a leather satchel of buttery softness. No one else has anything like it, because it was custom-made for your particular needs. And your needs are nothing if not particular. It has outer pockets and inner pouches and hidden compartments just for you, your bottles of perfume samples, and the paper test strips you carry everywhere. This is an Hermès Birkin that even Drake—owner of hundreds of Birkins, displayed coldly on mirrored shelves like so much duty-free haul—can’t get his hands on.
But you can, because you are a perfumer at Hermès, where job satisfaction is 10 out of 10.
Christine Nagel became the in-house perfumer for Hermès in 2016, and life is sweet and sometimes woody, and often floral. Over her 43-year career, she’s created 141 fragrances in total, 23 of them for Hermès. Some are memorable—Giorgio Armani Sı́ (which she concocted with Julie Massé), Narciso Rodriguez for Her (with Francis Kurkdjian)—and some make no impression at all. Just a puff of Jill Stuart Crystal Bloom floating away on a breeze.
“Astonishment!” That was the concept from the artistic director of Hermès, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. Each year, he comes up with a theme to inspire the new handbags, silk scarves, enameled bracelets, fragrances, window displays—the whole shebang. Sometimes it’s a phrase, Vive la Légèreté, or Long Live Lightness (2022), An Odyssey (2021), Let’s Play (2018). Sometimes it’s a word. And sometimes it feels like a dare: Go ahead, astonish me!
When Dumas presented the theme to Nagel, he also asked her to think of a garden. And by that he meant Un Jardin, the fragrance collection that Hermès introduced in 2003, in part to give some coherence to their disparate scents. The Jardin fragrances are all unisex and come in identical tall bottles with rounded shoulders and domed caps, designed to resemble a carriage lantern. These scents don’t draw on your typical rose gardens in predictable rose-gardeny places. They’re unexpected: a garden on the Nile, by the Mediterranean Sea, in Venice, after a monsoon, on a rooftop in Paris. One belongs to a fictional character named Monsieur Li, who apparently likes kumquats.
There’s a well-bred politeness to the Hermès fragrances, which can sometimes seem out of step with current trends. And that’s by design. There’s no blast of Flowerbomb, no marshmallowy Angel, no dark and moody Oud Wood or Black Opium here. Hermès is a house that lives in the daylight. Its astonishments are gentle.
A memory popped into Nagel’s head and she was off. Except that she wasn’t really off, because the coronavirus pandemic was in full force and her travels were strictly imaginary.
“Normally, the perfumer needs to capture the spirit of the garden,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Just trust your memory, just trust your nose.’ And I started creating this garden all alone in my lab. Which was lovely because I really felt that I was outside. I never felt confined or isolated.”
Her imagination took her away. “For me, astonishment was about a garden that was without flowers and without greenery,” she says. Twenty years ago, Nagel made her first visit to Greece, where she found what she calls a “dry garden” of tall grasses in an olive grove in Kythira. “It was very hot, but under the trees it was quiet and almost cool,” she says. “As I walked through these tall, dry grasses, they were crackling under my feet. The wind picked up and the grasses started moving, and the smell arrived at my nose. It was kind of a regressive smell, a toasted-cereal smell. I would have never felt like leaning into the grasses to smell them. Except if you’re a horse, you don’t lean down in the grass. So this smell arrived in my nose, and I thought it was delicious.”
There’s a well-bred politeness to the Hermès fragrances, which can sometimes seem out of step with current trends. And that’s by design.
These grasses also brought to mind a deeper memory from early childhood, of sleeping in a crib on a mattress stuffed with what she calls “cereal,” which may have been wheat. Her younger siblings also slept on the mattress, and she recalls watching over them. “The smell stayed with me. It was a little toasted and something milky. It’s difficult to describe,” she says. “It’s a comforting scent for me.”
While the rest of us are trying to remember the name of the guy in that movie—what was it called?—who’s married to the woman who was in that show … you know the one, Nagel’s memories are vivid and fragrant. She describes herself as “an athlete in training. Every morning when I wake up, I check scents blindly. I work on my scent library.” And that seems essential to the art of perfumery as well. “I have 40 years of ideas in my head,” she says. “If they move me, they are stored somewhere and I can bring them back to the present.” Don’t you wish you could do that?
The result of all this remembering and dreaming is Un Jardin à Cythère, a fragrance that gives the feeling of bright sunlight. It combines a spritz of citrus with nutty toasted wheat wrapped in a creamy softness. I’ve never thought about the smell of dry grasses before, but I recognize it now, perhaps because Nagel told me her story.
When Nagel submitted the fragrance to Dumas, “I felt a bit shy with my little scent paper,” she says. It turns out Greece has a special meaning for Dumas, whose mother was born there. “When he smelled the perfume, he said, ‘Wow, I feel at home,’” Nagel recalls. “It was the best gift he could ever have given me.” Ah, but let’s not forget about that Birkin.
Linda Wells is the Editor of Air Mail Look