On January 4, Hermès perfumer Christine Nagel pushed open the door to the Garden of Eden — but not the one you’re thinking of.
The garden, which is named (rather incredibly) after its English aristocrat owner, Frederic Eden, is located in Venice. Eden designed it in 1884, and luminaries like Proust and Rilke used to spend time there. Henry James described it in The Aspern Papers, calling it a “garden in the middle of the sea.”
Nagel discovered it while doing research for her next fragrance. She became intrigued by its mystery and the struggle of growing plants in Venice’s salty soil, which is not known for being particularly arable. Nettles, magnolia, and Madonna lilies all grew there at some point.
Today, a monk is the only person with regular access to the garden. When Nagel emailed the Venice office of Hermès to ask for help in gaining access, the team wrote back, “It’s exciting, but private. Continue your research.”
But after much pleading, Nagel was able to visit the garden over the course of a year, inspiring her newest creation, Un Jardin Sur La Lagune. Here, she talks to the Cut about the luxury of working without deadlines, perfume mistakes, and why a messy, non-Kondo-ed garden sparks more emotion.
How do you find a secret garden?
I researched gardens online. I wanted a special garden, but wasn’t specifically looking for a secret one. I had heard about this one in Venice from a blogger who said it was very, very secret, so I bought a book about it. It was the story that sparked my curiosity.
When I was little, my mom use to read books to me at bedtime. If it was a monster story, I imagined that I was the monster. If It was a fairy story, I was the fairy. I had the same feeling when I visited this garden. I felt like, I am this garden. The story of this perfume didn’t really start until I pushed open the door. The minute I saw and smelt it, I thought It’s the right garden. Before, it was all just research.
What made it the “right” garden?
I liked that it was not too organized. When it’s too organized, it loses a part of the art. I visited some marvelous English gardens. I liked them. But when I saw them, I didn’t feel the need to create something, even though they were nice.
Perhaps it’s because when a garden is too organized, the aim of humans becomes too important. A garden is natural. Like in life, if a garden is too organized, there’s no imagination. I love when the imagination can travel. For me, I prefer when nature is more powerful and present. It’s more poetic and ignites creation.
What emotions did you feel the first time you saw the garden?
Trouble. Concern. Immediately, I saw what was possible. I smelt the salty smell of the air, which is very special and hard to capture in perfumery – the woodiness of the garden and roots.
Like Mr. Eden, I have a garden – in Paris. I have a bigger one in Normandy. I’m not a gardener. I have the same problem he had. Sometimes the plant grows, sometimes it’s dead because of various reasons. To create a garden is a lifetime accomplishment. I decided to take my time. I wouldn’t put special soil into the garden to try and change the conditions. I decided to let the plants decide, rather, that it was the right place.
You found the inspiration. How did you then translate it into perfume?
I could have used magnolia extract, but the odor is not the same as the flower. I found a champaca [an evergreen magnolia] which comes from India. I used magnolia essence with champaca and recreated the sensation. But what was more difficult to create was the delicious, salty aspect. Normally, in perfume when you work with “salty” notes,” you get something very marine. But I wanted something more delicate.
To create the saltiness was very difficult. In fashion, if New Look was the hourglass silhouette, it’s achieved with the unseen — the petticoats. Saltiness is like those petticoats. You don’t smell saltiness, really. In Italian, we have a word called frizzante. It’s a word to describe that special sparkle, the subtle addition, indicating that something is different. That’s like saltiness in perfume.
My secret is that the saltiness is derived from a complex of things. Among them, I use one molecule called algenone. It’s not too marine, it’s delicate. It’s complex.
What emotion do you hope people feel with the perfume?
I can’t answer that question myself. A perfume lives only if it’s being worn by someone. If your emotion is not the same as mine, that’s okay. I just want this perfume to touch people. A lot of people dream about perfume. I’ll never forget that. It’s often the first object someone buys from Hermès.
I don’t have a recipe for success. If I did, I would use it all the time. But I create perfumes with my heart and with the Hermès values in mind. Among them, high quality with good raw materials.
I’m so lucky because I am totally free at Hermès. As an in-house perfumer, you can work alone. And I love working alone! The perfume is ready when I say it is; I have the absolute luxury of time. All the ingredients in the world are possible to me. I never have the limitation of price. And the decision that a perfume will be made rests on the opinion of four people. They decide whether the perfume is good or not good. In all other companies, they market-test; Hermès does not. It’s a big risk, but it’s the best way. This is what the job of a perfumer is supposed to be.
If you don’t have the pressure of marketing testing or time, then what pressures do you have?
Two years ago, Axel Dumas [CEO of Hermès] said to me, “Christine, continue to have audacity. Without audacity, there is no creation.” He would prefer I make a mistake by being creative than to make one by following a trend. When you hear this from your president, you go.
The only pressure I have is to create a perfume with the Hermès signatures. This is so important to me — that when you have a perfume on your skin, the best compliment you can get is, Oh, you smell so good.