Inside Hermès’s Quest For the Garden of Eden
Hermès Parfums chemist Christine Nagel pursued a secret garden for her latest creation.
Every perfume maker knows that scents evoke stories, but some require more embellishment than others. The story of Fantasy by Britney Spears, for example, went something like, “Once upon a time there was a goddess … she was beautiful and he couldn’t help himself.” By contrast, the story of Hermès Parfums’ new Un Jardin Sur La Lagune is fairytale-esque but true, centering on a modern-day Garden of Eden and the in-house perfumer at Hermès’s scrappy crusade to gain entry to it.
Our story begins with Christine Nagel, official Hermès Parfums chemist since 2014. “It’s a real story; It’s not a marketing story,” says Nagel. In fact, while Sur La Lagune, like past Un Jardin iterations, stems from a real-life garden-scape, Nagel’s inspiration was one her superiors never had in mind. “Hermès wanted [a perfume based on] an English garden,” she says. “But to create a perfume, I have to feel an emotion. And I didn’t feel any at English gardens.”
Instead, Nagel was piqued by online accounts of the Garden of Eden, a private three-acre green-space in Venice. “There were blogs debating, ‘Where is this place?’ ‘Are you sure it’s impossible to visit?’ This was as exciting as anything,” Nagel recalls. Upon further research, she learned that the garden in fact had roots in British horticulture: Built in the 1880s by Lord Eden, a great-uncle of P.M. Anthony Eden and brother-in-law of famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, it had since been handed down between several notable green thumbs, from multiple Greek princesses to eccentric Austrian painters—lending a mythical air that’s further pronounced by a strict no-visitor policy.
Undeterred, Nagel pursued its current owner, the estate of radical Austrian architect and painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser. After requests by Hermès HQ came up short, Nagel began sending weekly letters herself, explaining her role at the luxury house and her desire to see the garden. To her surprise, she heard back. “The president of the [estate] told me that he receives hundreds of letters each week, and he never responds,” she says. “But he was touched by my letters, and asked me to come to Vienna.”
Three weeks later, Nagel pushed open the Garden of Eden’s gate. “It was very cold, a winter day. No flowers,” she says. “But so green. I said, ‘There’s nothing in this garden… But I love it.’” Nagel would return several times that year, mentally concocting a potion to represent not only the various seasons, but the garden’s past lives as well. “A garden is a lifetime of work, and every one has multiple lives,” she says. “Mr. Eden’s garden helped me feel that.”
That ephemeral nature is reflected in the scent itself, with floral notes past and present like Madonna lily, a flower that grew there in Eden’s time. But Nagel emphasizes one unexpected note in particular: air. “When I smelled the magnolia in the garden, it arrived with the air, a little bit salty,” she says. “So I wanted the magnolia notes [in the fragrance] to smell like they came from the sky.” Indeed the story of Sur La Legune needs no embellishment. And yet, given the Hermès mascot—winged god of winds, after all—it’s not so hard to imagine the gods somehow playing a role.
Un Jardin Sur La Lagune, launched in March, is available now.