Fashion & Beauty / Olfaction

The Scents Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre & Kerouac

In the second instalment of our series that explores literary-inspired luxury, Osman Ahmed sits down with artisan perfumer Timothy Han to discuss distilling iconic books into scent

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Artwork by Kirtland Ash © 2014

Timothy Han describes his foray into the world of olfaction as an accident. Inspired by his friend Paul Tvaroh, a master mixologist who makes drinkable perfumes, in 2013 he created a singular scent and gave it to a friend to try. A week later, she said that she had been stopped by three people in the street who were desperate to know which perfume she was wearing. “It wasn’t like other fragrances because I’m not a trained perfumer,” he modestly explains. “I’m not one of those people that can tell you every single ingredient and ratio in a scent just by smelling it and quite frankly the perfume world doesn’t like what I’m doing,” he laughs. “People either love it or hate it.”

As it turns out, a lot of people – a lot of important people, for that matter – love it. When Han created a scent inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s 1938 novel She Came to Stay (or L’Invitée, as it is known en francais) he interpreted the mood of the semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of Jean-Paul Sartre's and de Beauvoir’s menage à trois. “At the time, I was living in Dalston and it was beginning to change a lot after the financial crash – and London as a whole was beginning to question itself,” he says. “That uncertainty echoed the time in which the book is set, right before the Second World War, and I tried to capture the sentiment of a feeling, rather than directly interpret the text.” The result was a fougère [or 'fern-like'] scent opening with geranium, basil and lemon, with a spicy heart of Indonesian clove and nutmeg layered atop a base that included patchouli, vetiver, oakmoss and cedar. “The perfume on the same person could smell quite different day-to-day – that was the story,” explains Han.

She Came to Stay caught the attention of Caroline Burstein, founder of Molton Brown and creative director of the Browns boutique, who made all of the shop girls try, only to receive unanimous approval. Han was now a fully-fledged perfumer, albeit one without a traditional training, with a stockist and devoted following to boot. He followed his debut success with a much more literal interpretation of literature – an eau de parfum inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). “The perfume is like the road trip, starting in New York and going all the way through America,” says the Montreal-born perfumer. “I wanted to capture the notion of America in the summer and these kids stepping into dive bars and hearing jazz for the first time and getting caught up in this energy.”

Han’s olfactory journey begins with smoky notes of benzoin and birch, reminiscent of the hot asphalt tar laid in New York in the height of summer – “it hits you in the face and people either love it or hate it,” he explains – and punctuated by fleeting clouds of tobacco akin to those described in the novel’s enlightening jazz venues. The scent, like all of Han’s, opens with base notes and becomes lighter with wear (the opposite of traditional scent structures). The middle notes evoke the dusty corn and wheat fields of the American Midwest, leading to a light citrus and cedar that brings to mind the forests of the Pacific Coast. It’s clear that Han has inherited his former employer John Galliano’s knack for storytelling and rich narrative. His next scent is inspired by Yukio Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel (1971) – and who wouldn't want to smell like that?

With special thanks to Timothy Han. 

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