Karl Nessler was the son of a shoemaker from Todtnau, a small town located high in the Black Forest, just beneath the Feldberg. He got the idea for the perm early in his youth. He began an apprenticeship which he dropped. He worked in Basle and Milan in different jobs, learned Italian and French and finally moved to Geneva; there he worked again as a barber and hairdresser and finished his apprenticeship. Adapting to the French-speaking environment, he called himself Charles Nessler, and often spelt it "Nestle". Later, he moved to Paris, where he tested his first perm on a certain Katharina Laible from Ulm.
In 1902, another invention, artificial eyebrows, was patented in the United Kingdom. He moved to London and married Katharina Laible. His attempts to convince his English colleagues to use his invention failed, but his electric permanent wave machine was patented in London in 1909.,. In 1912, some improvements of his apparatus were patented again. In 1914, he patented a last improvement before the outbreak of the war.
When World War I broke out, he was interned and his assets confiscated as alien property. In 1915, he fled to the United States where he learned that counterfeited copies of his invention were already being sold. In April 1919, his improved Hair Curler was filed at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. He was already an American citizen. The holder of the patent was his Nestle Patent Holding Co. Inc. He developed a do-it-yourself kit for perms and opened a chain of hair salons. In 1927, his chain had 500 employees, with branches in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Palm Beach and Philadelphia. The annual advertising budget was $300.000.
He amassed considerable wealth. During the hyperinflation in 1920s Germany, he donated the respectable sum of 20'000 Mark to the impoverished people of his hometown, but lost almost everything on Black Friday, 1929. His attempts to regain his losses were hindered by the breakout of World War II and never really succeeded.
- A New or Improved Method of and Means for the Manufacture of Artificial Eyebrows, Eyelashes and the like. British patent GB000190218723A, submitted August 26, 1902, approved November 6, 1902. US-Patent US000001450259A 1921.
- A New or Improved Process of Waving Natural Hair on the Head. British patent GB000190902931A, submitted February 6, 1909, approved February 2, 1910
- Improvements in Apparatus for use in Waving Natural Hair on the Head. British patent GB000190920597A, submitted February 6, 1909, approved February 3, 1910.
- Improvements in Hair Curlers. British patent GB000191223357A , submitted October 12, 1912, approved June 26, 1913.
- Improvements in or connected with the Waving of Natural Hair on the Head. British patent GB000191408117A , submitted March 31, 1914, approved June 24, 1915.
- US-Patent US000001400370A: Hair-waving apparatus. submitted April 16, 1918, approved December 13, 1921
- "A Revolutionist Dies". LIFE Magazine. Vol. 30 no. 6. Time Inc. Feb 5, 1951. p. 37. ISSN 0024-3019.
- Staff. "NESSLER, INVENTED PERMANENT WAVE; Originator of Process Dies-- Charged Customers $120 in His Own Shop Here", The New York Times, January 24, 1951. Accessed July 29, 2011. "Charles Nessler, originator of the permanent wave process, died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Harrington Park, N.J. His age was 78. He also invented false eyelashes."