..When Valia asked me,
'When did you first set foot in the world?',
my laugh, like a rhubarb shoot
pokes its head through the snow of my mouth…
From A Few Lines About My Age by Kurdish poet Abdullah Pashwew
In 2013 it was announced at Hermès that in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena had chosen a scented successor. The news seemed a little shocking despite the rumours of Ellena’s impending retirement that had been drifting carefully around for a while.
|Jean-Claude Ellena & Christine Nagel|
Step forward Christine Nagel, half-French, half-Swiss, an elegant and prolifically stylish perfumer with some fascinating work on her CV including big hits for Maison Dior, John Galliano and Guerlain under her belt. Her most intriguing portfolio perhaps best demonstrating her instinctive nuances and clarity is her work at Jo Malone London under the seemingly relentless PR machine of Estée Lauder. Among the twenty five successful and commercially viable fragrances she has composed for Jo Malone London there are some exceptional perfumes, complex odours I have loved and admired that have at times seemed to look to Hermès and Jean-Claude’s less-is-more approach. Her swan song Wood Sage & Sea Salt in particular was an especially poignant and minimalist adieu, sparse and scoured with subtle details and speckles of observed texture. An abstracted capture of distinctly English windswept beaches, driftwood and bundled cashmere-wrapped wanderings along deserted coastal stretches. It was a bittersweet sign-off to a rather brilliant and I think somewhat underrated body of outstanding work.
|From the Foxy collection|
Jo Malone London: Wood Sage & Sea Salt,
Rose Water & Vanilla and Bitter Orange & Chocolate
Christine’s Rose Water & Vanilla, one of the original Cologne Intense series from 2010 is a scent I have loved since its launch. I was born in Bahrain and this it is nostalgic silvered Middle Eastern rose alchemy in a bottle to me. Sadly, Lauder decided to axe it from the line so I stocked up and have three 100ml dark flacons slumbering in the Foxy study. Christine’s Peony & Blush Suede was one of the brand’s biggest ever hits, a clever subtle riff on niche leather trends, sublimating it with a veil of rosy apple and drifting carnation. Iris & Lady Moore, a nice mix of powder and rubbed geranium was an unexpected delight in 2012, part of the London Bloom collection and I have always really enjoyed Christine’s foray into gourmand territory with offerings such as Ginger Biscuit, Lemon Tart and the divine Bitter Orange & Chocolate that was literally Terry’s chocolate orange in a bottle. I went through three bottles and have two more in storage.
She is capable of immense fun and frivolity but also subtlety, difference and power. She is after all, the nose behind Dior’s game-changing original Miss Dior Cherie, while ostensibly an Angel sibling in spirit, the crystalline control of strawberry, popcorn, violet, rose and jasmine was magnificent.
|John Galliano Eau de Parfum|
For me it is all about her legacy work on the extraordinary forgotten John Galliano scent with Aurelian Guichard, the recreation of aldehydic steam, chalk and patisserie treats in seamstress ateliers, a memory John Galliano had, filtered through the most ravishing and weird transparent bouquet of candied peony, iris and dusty rose. It is a scent I have been obsessed with since I first bought it in Harrods in 2008 and despite the collaboration with Guichard, you can sense the distinctive Nagel signature of complex glassy floral chromatic risk at work. I reviewed it for my blog in August 2014 in a piece called Ateliers and Patisserie Steam. You can still pick up a bottle pretty cheaply if you search around. I urge you to do so, it is a perfume I have to have in the Foxy collection at all times.
|John Galliano Eau de Parfum|
Christine has worked with a rhubarb note before, again with Jo Malone on White Lilac & Rhubarb, another scent in the 2012 London Bloom collection. This was a much muskier, linen style perfume, powdered and brisk in style, shot through with a soft footfall of heliotrope. I didn’t like it to be honest; the lilac note was hard-edged and too artificial. If I want lilac I go to En Passant, Olivia Giacobetti’s quiet masterpiece for Editions Frédéric Malle or Désarmant, the exquisite leathered mauve bloom made by Marc-Antoine Cortichiatto for La Parfumerie Moderne. But the rhubarb note was tart and crisp, a way of suggesting apple and citrus whilst introducing that weird oxalic acid metallic tang that is so very reminiscent of freshly picked rhubarb.
The only other scent I’ve really appreciated rhubarb in is the offbeat Comme des Garçons Series 5 Sherbet: Rhubarb (2003) made by Bertrand Duchaufour. It’s a slight, transient thing but the mingle of rhubarb and fragrant litchi on a creamy camellia/vanilla base is pretty irresistible. I get two hours max from this, but it’s worth it for the intensely tart and crisp rhubarb top note.
So the news that Christine was shifting her skills to Hermès was to many people I think a surprise. Not a shock; that would be disrespectful to her talent and Jean-Claude’s perception of her as a perfumer, but a surprise nonetheless. Her style and olfactive modus operandi is different from Jean-Claude’s, but then perhaps this is entirely the reason. One can envisage the sunlit rooms in Cabris, the lovely settling in period, exploratory conversations, discovering one another slowly, talking, listening, laughing, inhaling and building a rapport of trust and revelation. Courtesy and deference, elegance and respect.
|Jean-Claude & Christine in the studio|
& Hermès PR images for Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate
& Eau de Néroli Doré
Essentially working alongside the normally hermetic Jean-Claude Ellena, it must have seemed a strange space to occupy; a Hermès monologue was evolving into a duologue and conversation with a poignant view to becoming another monologue when Jean-Claude Ellena finally retires. Now, Hermès have been quite cagey and secretive about his actual leaving, rightly protective about their superstar maestro. But more recently the mood seems to have loosened. When I reviewed Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, I was aware of a certain reverie and melancholy in the aquatic treatment of the jasmine. It felt like an olfactory wander in the early morning through dewy grass and soaked trees, alongside misty water contemplating the emotional impact of departure.
|Le Jardin De Monsieur Li|
Much of Ellena’s work is pensive in tone; he is a peerless savant of the skeletal machinations of pure olfactory form. When he joined Hermès this renowned maison de luxe must have had a few niggling worries about the direction of the house’s perfume style; the existing scents such as Hiris, Equipage, Bel Ami, 24 Faubourg, Calèche, Amazone and Eau de Merveilles etc were beloved and cultish but hardly current. A framework and sense of texture was needed to contextualise l’essence of Hermès, the lifeblood leather, the sophistication, supple modernity and conversation with the modern Hermès clientele. This included scent. Jean-Claude Ellena has so completely and compellingly put his stamp on the various sections of the Hermès fragrance family that it is quite hard to imagine anyone else being able to assume this exquisite yet weighty mantle.
|Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate|
(image courtesy of Hermès)
This will fall to Christine Nagel, who must now decide to delicately walk her own learned way or follow even for a while a pathway marked out for her, subtly but deliberately by Ellena and those in the scented know at Hermès. It is impossible to be honest to make any kind of full judgement call on her debut scent Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate, I need to see what comes next; this is after all part of the cologne series and while quite beautiful, technically not quite demanding as say a Jardin entry or something along the lines of Jean-Claude’s magnificent sensual fireball Jour d’Hermès Absolu. The poetic Hermessence perfumes are incontrovertibly an Ellena oeuvre, arguably his olfactory equivalent of Plath’s Ariel, complex, epic, abstract and divisive. The recently launched Muguet Porceleine is the thirteenth of these lucidly assembled essays in effortless beauty. An homage and tribute to Ellena’s great perfume hero Edmound Roudnitska, the creator of Diorella, the benchmark lily of the valley soliflore and one of the greatest aromatic thinkers of all time. I wonder if Christine will continue the Hermessence series? I would like to think not, this is a not a disrespectful comment, I just feel the collection needs a sense of closure if he leaves in the near future and perhaps his muguet is the perfect white, crisp goodbye.
Jean-Claude Ellena began his tenure at Hermès in 2004; he announced his choice of successor Christine Nagel in late 2013 with her joining him in Spring 2014. This carefully controlled role of apprentice/protégée is tricky to present to the public I think, both sides must seem content to harmonise their ambitions and desires whilst at the same time neither denigrating or eroding their existing independent roles. But it seems to have been an inspired and quite emotional choice. Perfumers like so many artists are generally solitary creatures in temperament and yet despite their obvious differences in creative styles and artistic mettle, Ellena and Nagel seem to have meshed their intuitive and inquisitive personas and settled into a delightful and I think genuinely respectful working relationship.
|Jean-Claude in China during research for |
Le Jardin De Monsieur Li
At the moment the olfactory anthologies chez Hermès are divided into The Novel-Fragrances, scents with heft and echo, linked to the heritage of the House, the olfactory equivalents of Balzac, Diderot and Maupassant. Terre D’Hermès, Voyage, Amazone etc, classic fragrances that act as reference points, to be pulled from imaginary shelves, studied and admired. The Novella-Fragrances include the Jardin series and the Colognes; these are musings on materials, meanderings, geographical sketches, an album if you like of images, words, stubs, articles etc that capture journeys and impressions. The Poem-Fragrances are perhaps the most precious, Ellena’s ambitious assemblage of exquisite métier, the Hermessence series. They initially launched in 2004 with four and Ellena has been adding to them gradually at a rate of roughly of one a year. I find them obsessive, fascinating and haunting. Each one is a profoundly personal variation on materials such as iris, sandalwood, vanilla, rose, amber, spiced aquatic and leather but composed and named in such a way as to provoke unexpected and intriguing responses. Muguet Porceleine is his latest addition to the line, a homage both to the fragility of the lily of the valley and to the legendary Edmound Roudnitska whose capture and recreation of this delicate bloom in Diorissimo is still the benchmark for all muguet de bois compositions.
The notes become contrary and surprising grounds for Ellena’s now ruthlessly aesthetic approach to scent construction. He has been called a minimalist and I guess this is a way of describing his more pared back approach; less is more, a leaner form of scent making. I’m not sure I go with minimalism, it’s a term I generally dislike and it is so overused, applied to anything that seems clean lined, sparse and aloof. Ellena’s work, in particular the Hermessence collection, but also some of his big hits, the Jour D’Hermès Absolu, Voyage D’Hermès Parfum and the Jardin series have intricate odiferous detailing and the impact of Wong Kar Wai cinema. So, controlled, elegant, deliberately intense yes. Minimalist, I’m not so convinced. If you don’t believe me, revisit the moody, stem-strewn Geisha fade of Iris Ukiyoe or the pungent oceanic corrosion of sweat and salted whisky in Epice Marine. I love the lush, creamy banana richness of Vanille Galante and the buttery, nappa oddness of Cuir d’Ange, an homage to the animalic legacy and luxury of Hermès but also to Jean Giono, a Provençal author and favourite of Ellena.
Christine Nagel’s blushing new scent Eau de Rhubarbe Écarlate is a delicious entry into the family of Colognes; obviously her first Hermès scent and I think a gentle first step, not exactly tentative but a gentle way of demonstrating and measuring her skills amid the Ellena-soaked Hermès pantheon. It is has been launched alongside Jean-Claude Elllena’s weird feral take on neroli, Eau de Néroli Doré, suffused with saffron and his deep abiding love for the warm, soul-quenching warmth of Provence. The Cologne Collection thus far has been something I have generally avoided, I admire the balance and dexterity of the form, the use of citrus and desire to freshen the senses, but I inhabit cold climes and while I guess I could create the illusion of sun, orange groves and smashed limes I struggle always with this particular genre. It was really only last year visiting the beautiful Bond Street Hermès flagship store that I really experimented with the much-loved Colognes.
|Les Eaux de Colognes d'Hermès...|
You can read about my experiences in the Monsieur Li review, but I was really surprised how much I liked the Eau de Narcisse Bleu and Eau de Gentiane Blanche in particular. Along with Eau de Pamplemousse Rose, Eau d’Orange Verte and the Eau de Mandarine Ambrée these eaux from a very intriguing and vital series of aromas in the Hermès collection. If you spend time with them, sensing and identifying Ellena’s key olfactory blocks, pantones and motifs and then smell them alongside his key works in the Novel, Novella and Poem series you realise in many ways these are his failsafe blueprints, the odours that ripple like tides throughout the Hermès DNA. Once inhaled and pinned down, you detect the elements radiating throughout the olfactory processes. The Hermessence Collection is more of an artist’s atelier, where the processes are more abstract, but the Colognes are far more important than perhaps I had previously realised.
Rhubarb (Rhuem rhabarbarum) itself is an odd plant, the tart celery-like petioles or stems are usually cooked down with sugar or other sweetening agents and eaten as a tart or pie fillings or a compote with yoghurt. The taste is beautiful, a unique mix of aromatic unripe pears, apples and leafy orchard greens. The trace elements of oxalic acid in the stems (higher doses render the leaves potentially toxic) add an offbeat ferrous whiff sometimes, depending on the variety of rhubarb. It works well with oily fish too, I make a sweet/salted sauce for fresh mackerel, the rhubarb cuts through the oiliness of the fish with verve and zing. Part of its appeal for me is the satisfying way the emerald jewels of rhubarb stem blush over the cooking process into soft sunken piles of vivid pink shimmering pulp.
|Admiring a bouquet of cranberry |
coloured rhubarb by candlelight
We take rhubarb very seriously in the UK; there is an acknowledged rhubarb triangle of Leeds, Morley and Wakefield in Yorkshire. Here the first sweet rhubarb of the year is traditionally produced in blacked out forcing sheds; the ghostly crops tended by eerie candlelight after an initial two years outside to photosynthesise. It seems almost ritualistic, but is an established practice dating back decades, often growing so quickly it squeaks in the flickering light. The associated blush/red colour of rhubarb stalks is due to anthocyanins, vacuolar pigments and these can vary from variety to variety; the ones I have in my shared garden are speckled jade green and blood red, turning macaroon pink when cooked.
Christine Nagel’s work at Jo Malone London was always executed with clarity and sophisticated discipline. Whether she was working on annual big brand launches, the charismatic Cologne Intense Series or smaller limited edition collections like Sugar & Spice (2013), London Blooms (2012) and the beautiful Tea Collection from 2011. In a more mainstream and intensely commercial way, her working within collections, olfactory storylines and brand specific briefs echoes Ellena’s more paced and luxurious approach at Hermès. Arguably the role at Jo Malone London is bloody hard work, creating bestselling hit after hit for mother ship Estée Lauder who desire the original home-grown quirkiness of the original long-since departed Jo Malone with hugely marketable fragrances they can sell globally. From the outside it seems Ellena has the luxury of creating when his muse strikes. This may or may not be true, but whatever the case, Christine Nagel arrives chez Hermès to study and apprentice alongside one of the world’s most important perfumers more than capable of creating great scent and with curiosity, a varied and tenacious work ethic.
The Hermès press notes accompanying the release of the two new eaux de colognes has an intriguing quote from Christine Nagel in regards to her olfactory work..
‘Touching the impalpable in an intimate act, leaving traces that cannot lie’.
It is a beautiful and thought-provoking idea; idealised and a tad abstracted perhaps, but the concept of perfumed truth, creating odours that imprint on our bodies and minds, conjuring emotions, new memories and unlocking old ones is a powerful and seductive one.
Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate is a rubicund and juicy take on the normally pithy, impressionistic Hermès cologne style. Ecarlate translates literally as scarlet, but to the French ear has a more immediate meaning of blushing, skin suffused with emotional blood. Nagel has conjured up a crisp, hyper-realistic note that seems at once food-porn real and also somehow glassily abstract at the same time. In keeping with the Ellena-esque pared down aesthetic I find myself imagining the intense scent of a single chosen exquisitely cut stem, coloured claret, sage, vermillion, carmine and grass. Arranged on a transparent glass platter, glowing in a bath of garnet luminescence. I don’t smell a clutch of garden fruit, fresh earth shaking from rude stalks. Nagel’s handling of the rhubarb theme is über clean, refined and luxurious, the blushing tint of fruit haloed by the zing and brio of the soothing Hermès musks.
One of the things I like about the settling of this composition is its citrus-bright leaning rather than an overtly musky floral tone. The rhubarb note smells sharp, cut and just on the right side of acidic with the perfect balance of red suffused fruitiness. As ever with Ellena & Hermès, actual notes are scarce. I don’t mind this per se; it allows the mind and chemical imagination to wander. The rhubarb could be created using a number of amazing things- rhubarb undecane, rhubarfuran, styrallyl acetate, rhubarb pyran and rhubarb oxirane. The Hermès Ellena signature methyl pamplemousse radiates through the formula, lending that pithy, pale ochre grapefruit twist on the cologne softness that elevates the Hermès eaux de colognes above so many others. Large doses of hedione are common too in Ellena’s perfumes, Le Jardin de Monsieur Li was awash with it, laying down a dazzling gauze of dew over his contemplative aquatic jasmine accord. Christine Nagel has utilised the skills she honed at Jo Malone in creating deceptively transparent yet vibrantly bodied aromas and married them to the Ellena/Hermès austere aesthetic to produce a intriguingly pitched Polaroid capture of a juicy palatable rhubarb note that retains enough character to be off piste whilst still fitting beautifully (if a little brashly..) into Monsieur Ellena’s long standing cologne series.
Longevity? I’m not sure I care all that much to be honest; the beauty of Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate is Nagel’s rhubarb note and her ability for a delicious hanging moment to flood the air and expectant senses with fruity nostalgia and glorious comfort. Rhubarb is not a note we expect to be sophisticated, cheapened over the years by candy and artificially scented body washes. But when it is given due reverence and elevated as a greener, sharper note, the more piquant elements explored alongside the more traditional blush and sugared bleed, rhubarb becomes something immensely elegant, porcelain fresh and clear.
|Galop d'Hermès by Christine Nagel|
Much is expected of her big feminine launch Galop d’Hermès, a rose, leather, saffron and quince scent launching in Autumn this year (the bottle is a gorgeous interpretation of a stirrup) and despite all the general positivity surrounding her careful arrival at the House and the lovely reception of this debut rhubarb scent, there will be a lot of nerves in the esteemed maison de luxe as the official launch time approaches. The scent of Hermès has been associated with Jean-Claude Ellena for so long it will be difficult and emotional to move on. The launch will be a test of Nagel’s nerve and I think it will be very interesting to see how much if any of Ellena’s olfactive DNA has distilled itself into her practices or whether she will choose to carefully emboss her elegantly wrought innovations on the le style Hermès.
|Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate |
& Eau de Néroli Dorée
(image courtesy of Hermès)
For Eau de Néroli Doré, his fifth cologne creation for Hermès, launched alongside Nagel’s Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate, Jean-Claude Ellena has allowed himself an indulgent plunge in the heady burnt sugar aromas of distilled orange blossom, one of the most sublime, complex and generous notes in perfumery. The blossom, depending on extraction processes donates bitter hypnotic neroli and the jasmine kissed tones of orange blossom absolute; the twigs and leaves and occasionally the tiny unripe fruits produce petitgrain and the peel of the fruit yields bitter orange oil. It is quite the luscious, sun-drenched show. Neroli is a show stopping material; in its raw form, the scent is dazzlingly bright and reeks of marmalade, shattered fruit and honeyed blossom. It takes its name from the Spanish Princess Marie-Anne de la Trémoille of Nerola (1642-1722), who is credited with popularising the scent of orange blossom by soaking her leather gloves in the oil and starting a fashion for the perfume at court.
|It's all about the bitter orange...|
This profoundly aurous saffron-suffused take on neroli is quite a surprise to me actually, disliking the note as I do, wary of its role in my life as a migraine trigger in heavy doses. It smells weird, metallic and basmati-like to my nose. Since his alliance with Hermès in 2004, Ellena’s role has seemed essentially quite free spirited, creating when the muse came a-knocking as it were, producing an aesthetic body of work rare in contemporary perfumery. Access to the highest quality materials allows him to create work of exceptional quality from seeming breathtaking simplicity. In the Hermès press info for these two colognes launches Ellena says:
‘When I started out in the profession of perfumer, I learned to distil raw materials, including orange blossom. When you enter the world of stills, you are also immersed in a scent, impregnated with it, you become it. My entire being was fragranced with orange blossom. To reproduce this sensation, where normally one uses very little neroli in fragrances, I used it abundantly, with abandon, as never before.’
This intense memory of saturation and impregnation is so beautifully rendered in Eau de Néroli Doré, the orange blossom enhanced instinctively and luxuriously with the honeyed-metal note of saffron, one of my favourite notes in perfumery. It’s a shape-shifter, sometimes grassy and late night tobacco-like or a drift of Persian cuisine, rice steaming, infused with golden threads. It is this molten spiced mantling that pulls me toward what is essentially a bright, warm Mediterranean citrus. The Ellena magic is to create a sense of phantom difference, a classic structure, just twisted ever so carefully out of synch. The saffron imbues the neroli with golden body, vigour and a sense of expanse; it opens up on the neroli like a dawn sun. I do forget sometimes how spicy and piquant high quality neroli can be and this gilded interpretation has a joyful abrasiveness of peppery verdancy sitting under the initial citrus laughter.
|Eau de Neroli Doré|
It is a pampered citrus, soft and easy living, caressed and loved by Ellena’s halo of methyl-pamplemousse raiment and radiant immaculate musks. After years of wearing and writing about Hermès fragrances and factoring in Ellena’s evolving style and olfactory provenance I can see why he has made this golden citric variant on themes he has explored before. This is not to denigrate it in any way at all; it is another beautiful exploration of his and Hermès’ olfactive heritage that he has been examining in a ferociously clinical manner since his arrival at the house.
The collection of Hermès eaux de colognes is an important library of effects and consultation for those wanting to understand how a perfumer approaches the cologne genre; deconstructs it, inhales the pieces, re-imagines the parts with themes used in other more dense complex works and then re-builds with brio and transparent sleight of hand. The assured philosophical signature of Jean-Claude Ellena is writ large across the highly successful collections chez Hermès, a translucent, careful identification, one with weight and import but one that allows the inscription of a new name, that of Christine Nagel upon the Hermès vellum.
For perfume lovers and more importantly Hermès lovers, this transitional period is fascinating; it will be inevitable that new work by Nagel will, for a while at least, retain a certain house style with echoes of Ellena and her own unique embellishments. This is to be expected and I think applauded. One does not abandon the imprint of a master so lightly. This delightful duet of Eau de Rhubarbe Ecarlate and Eau de Néroli Dorée are jubilant and effervescent additions to the range and in the case of the highly addictive rhubarb a chic and understated calling card for Christine Nagel, which is just as it should be when you call upon Maison Hermès.
For more information on Hermès & Hermès perfumes, please click on the link below:
Disclosure : Samples & PR material very kindly received from Hermès, merci Marie, Ax.
Opinions my own.