August 5, 2017 / Luxury Lifestyle

Stories in Scent: Artisan Perfumer Timothy Han

Timothy Han’s boutique fragrances, based on culturally significant books and with artwork to match, tell a story while shying away from conformity


Timothy Han makes perfumes the wrong way up. Unlike most fragrances, the base notes come through first, with the floral, spicy middle aromas coming second, and, finally, the zestier top notes revealing themselves. Although “inverting the scent triangle” wasn’t the goal, Han’s perfumes have shot to fame. Each based on a culturally significant literary work, they are a must for those who want to stand out from the crowd. One of several perfumers to take up residency at London’s Somerset House as part of the exhibition Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent (now through September 17, 2017), Han spoke to Luxury Defined about his artisan fragrances.

I got into perfume making by accident. 
A couple of years ago I had just closed my last company making scented candles and didn’t really know what to do next. I made something at my kitchen table and showed it to a chef friend who liked it and wanted to try wearing it. She came back to me a week later to say that she’d had three people come up to her asking what perfume she was wearing. She said maybe I should try producing it, and the rest is history.

Visitors to <i>Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent</i> will explore a series of rooms that reflect the inspiration behind fragrances made by “perfume pioneers.” The exhibition also highlights ten trailblazing scents, beginning with L’Origan de Coty (1905) and ending with ck one (1994). Photograph: Peter MacDiarmid. Banner image: Han's fragrances are associated with limited-edition numbered art prints inspired by the perfume. Most people say the base notes in my perfumes come through first.
I’ve been criticized by other perfumers for inverting the scent triangle, but I didn’t plan it that way. So long as people like it, I’m happy. This whole format that has been created around how fragrance is created is just pretentious, in my opinion.

Workshops, panel discussions, and perfume lab residencies complement the exhibition at the neoclassical Somerset House, located on the north bank of the Thames in London. Photograph: Peter MacDiarmidMy perfumes are based on books.
A lot of the time, people create perfumes around memories that are specific to them, whereas I wanted to create something that everyone can access and debate. There’s common ground between myself and the wearer, because they can agree with me or challenge me after reading the book on which the scent is based.   

<i>She Came to Stay</i> first reveals deep, woody notes. Cedarwood and vetiver open into a lightness edged with touches of basil and lemon.I chose books that are culturally significant.
I was living in an area of London called De Beauvoir in 2014—when I created She Came to Stay. I felt that the turmoil that existed in East London at the time was in some way parallel to that of 1930s Paris, which is where the book by Simone de Beauvoir is based. That book is also significant because it was seen as one of the first feminist novels.

Beginning with smoky notes, <i>On The Road</i> is punctuated by amyris, cedarwood, and patchouli before giving way to fresh green fragrances of galbanum, citrus, and bergamot.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac defined a whole era through the 1950s and was the start of the Beat Generation, a culture that I find fascinating. It was the opening up of jazz music to a non-black audience.

Han’s first two fragrances were 100% natural. For the subtly heady <i>The Decay of the Angel</i>, he used two nature-identical ingredients: musk, for ethical reasons, and hedione, which is extremely costly to extract from nature.The Decay of the Angel was a bit more of a push for me. It was the fourth book in a tetralogy called “Sea of Fertility” written in the late 1960s and early 1970s by a Japanese writer called Yukio Mishima. It’s a beautiful read and had huge cultural significance in Japan at the time. It’s a bit dark, and that comes through in the fragrance. The book was published posthumously. After Mishima wrote the book, he sent it to his publisher and tried to launch a coup at a military headquarters, knowing of course that he wouldn’t be able to succeed. Then, quite publicly, he committed seppuku (a form of ritual suicide using a sword).

I wanted to create perfumes that everyone can access and debate

We work with different artists to design the packaging.
Quite often with each edition of a book, the cover art will change, and that was why I wanted to get an artist to create their interpretation of the story for each edition of the perfume.

Gosia Sobczak's artwork for <i>The Decay of the Angel</i> reflects the five stages of a falling angel—in this case “decay.”Part of the reason I called the company EDITION was because each time you make a perfume, it is subtly different. Just like wine, you can make it with the same grape, from the same vineyard, from the same vintner, and yet every year it will be slightly different because of changes in the weather and so on. These nuances affect fragrance, too.

I’ve been criticized by other perfumers for inverting the scent triangle, but I didn’t plan it that way

Perfume is constantly changing with age.
There’s an entire sub-culture of people who are looking for perfumes from a different era because they want to smell different. You could spray a 20-year-old bottle of perfume, and whether or not it smells like it did when it was created is a different story, but it’s still wearable. Of course, perfume can go off if stored badly, but perfume that is sealed and stored in a cool, dark place can last.

“While you want to create a perfume that is as natural as possible, you also want a fragrance that is telling a story,” Han says. Photograph: ©2015 Andrew HarveyI don’t wear any fragrance at all.
In fact, you’ll find that most perfumers don’t wear fragrance, because if you’re wearing one it makes it very difficult to smell anything else.

Don’t choose a perfume after smelling it just once.
You have to live with it before you can really make an informed choice. It can change from day to day depending on what you’ve eaten, how dry your skin is, and what’s in the air, so you’ve got to go with your emotions and what strikes you.

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Emilee Tombs
is Associate Editor of Luxury Defined