Smelling stories

Socksy Perfume

A concise definition of the sense of smell, or olfaction, is that it is the “faculty of perceiving odours” (Oxford English Dictionary). Odours are vaporised chemical compounds that can be objectively identified and classified. If they are perceived to be pleasant they may be called aromas or fragrances, if unpleasant a stench or a stink.

Perception, though, is a complex neurophysiological process that draws from a personal library of memories and associations, sentiments and emotions, cultural influences and innate reactions that gives deeply textured meaning to such abstract stimuli through multiple layers of highly-personalised context. Smelling something then is a subjective experience that can weave introversive narratives, hallucinatory, or epiphanic in its effect.

In humans smell and taste are separate sensory systems, though they are closely linked and often perceived in tandem. The taste (and nose) of a fine wine is a harmony of flavours (and aromas) from various grape varieties, each characterised through contemporaneous climatic and topographic factors called terroir. So drinking or sniffing, if you know what you’re seeking, can be a journey through time and space – a wine’s minerality can transport you to the flinty banks of the Loire, its fruitiness to a particularly warm year somewhile ago when the vines produced vibrant fruit bursting with sugar, or even back centuries to when the ancient pedigrees of grape were first being carefully cultivated.

Perfumes are influenced by terroir in the same way as wines, and Timothy Han is one perfumer celebrating these subtle variations through his small-batch Edition Perfumes. Like a vintage, each perfume is created in a limited run and numbered to enable easy identification of the batch each bottle came from. Contemplating the terroir of each of the purest natural ingredients Han sources, though, is only the start of the olfactory journey he crafts.

Each fragrance features a specially commissioned work of art that is beautifully printed on its box, and each new edition of that fragrance is to feature a new work by that same artist. Each fragrance is further contextualised through taking its name and inspiration from a great work of literature.

“I don’t want you to experience my fragrances in the traditional manner, with the sense of smell isolated. I want all your senses to work together”

proclaims Han, echoing artists such as the aesthete Oscar Wilde, who perfumed the theatres in which his plays were performed to synaesthetically arouse audiences, or Richard Wagner, whose operas were so mighty they were called Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed, Han himself traces this virtuous ambition’s inspiration to his experience working for another such total artist: John Galliano.

Timothy Han

“His ateliers off the Rue de la Roquette were an exciting place to work in the early nineties – filled with a plethora of larger-than-life characters who would go on to define the era. The fashion world was on the edge of change and he was one of the new designers pushing its creative boundaries. The period saw the rise of les createurs – designers like Galliano and Gaultier who wanted to free their imaginations and those of their customers.

“It was also a period where art and fashion began to merge. Fashion photographers such as Corinne Day and Ellen von Unwerth weren’t just taking glamorous photos, they were making bold artistic statements.

“Galliano was all about theatre. His shows were decadent and wild. He didn’t just present a dress, he would present a performance. Models would fight to work for free.”

And it was amongst this milieu that Han’s own olfactory adventure began.

“John was always burning scented candles that filled his atelier with fragrance. I loved it and, inspired, started my own small candle company. It went on to be a critical success, but sadly not a commercial one.

“Sometime later, having left Galliano for Givenchy, and then the fashion world entirely (to study architecture), I was with my friend the mixologist Paul Tvaroh and commented how difficult the drinkable perfumes he is famed for create must be to make. “Why?” he replied, “It’s easy. What’s a cocktail but alcohol and flavours? What’s a perfume but alcohol and fragrance? Are flavours not fragrance?”

Inspired, Han set out to create his first fragrance. “I had just finished reading She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir and my starting point had been decided: I wanted to create a fragrance that reflected both the novel itself and my own experience of it.”

she came to stay 1

The magnificent result, She Came to Stay, is a fresh and woody concoction of geranium, basil, lemon, Indonesian clove, nutmeg, patchouli, vetiver, labdanum, oakmoss and cedarwood that was completed with artwork from the achingly cool American artist Kirtland Ash and was subsequently crowned the most seductive perfume at the Tatler Beauty Awards.

The faces depicted in Ash’s work emerge through layers of collage, giving them a Cubist multidimensionality. “The book talks about our relationship with ourself and with those around us”, observes the artist. “I wanted to reflect this in my work – interpreting perceptions of identity; of ourselves and of the other. Of how we find fragments of the familiar within the unknown. It is very much about knowing who we are.”

In such a way, Han and Ash continue and extend de Beauvoir’s semi-autobiographical work as well as the writings of its chief protagonist, the great existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. They have become pieces in a much larger collage, as do all those who choose to wear this perfume, this essence, this identity. It is little wonder that She Came to Stay became a bestseller at luxury London boutique Browns as quickly as it did.

Timothy Han

Identity, then, is central to olfaction, and so it is a vital theme to be further explored and more deeply examined in Edition Perfumes’ second fragrance, On The Road. Jack Kerouac’s great novel from which it takes its name and inspiration is, like de Beauvoir’s, largely autobiographical. Its road trips are journeys of self-discovery that are a search for identity as well as an affirmation of it – for the book’s protagonists as well as for the Beats as a whole as they stepped forth from the Lost Generation that preceded them.

on the road

This fragrance, airily augmented by Cedric Christie’s snapshot landscapes, draws us on that same journey “with smoky notes of benzoin and birch reminiscent of the hot asphalt and grittiness of New York, with forays into tobacco-filled jazz dens where a new era in music was being defined, through the open dusty cornfields of the Mid-West and on to the cedar forests of the Pacific Coast. The restlessness of the journey finally gives way to the optimism left by the fresh green fragrance of galbanum, citrus and bergamot.”

We have luxuriated in such psychotropic trips for millennia. The ancient practice of burning Oud – still popular in many cultures around the world, despite depleting resources – is said to trigger intimate, inward journeys through one’s own memories, bringing nostalgia, comfort and self-reflection. As the suppleness of the senses gently diminish with age, perhaps smell alone can claim to be enriched through the passing of time as it yields yet more complex and evocative experiences.

It is interesting to consider that in an age more driven and informed by science and technology than ever – in an age that can, for instance, identify chemical compounds that trigger the release of sex hormones in women, or send space probes through the solar system to sniff our signs of life in far away worlds – we do not place greater importance on such an intriguing, influential and pleasurable sensory faculty.

Linguistic and anthropologic studies suggest that it was the great thinkers of the Enlightenment who chose to place greater importance on what can been seen and heard – to such an extent that in the modern Western world we, as a consequence, lack the fundamental vocabulary to properly describe most smells – being limited to saying strawberries smell of strawberries or limes of limes. At the same time, we can say they are red and sweet or green and sour.

Some cultures that have developed outside the sphere of Western thought show a far deeper capacity for olfactory perception, such as the Ongee tribe, for whom “smell is the primary sensory medium through which the categories of space, time and the person are conceptualised” (Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition).

Unsurprisingly, in the West, it is a community of people for whom the aural faculties are of little or no importance who treat olfaction with the sophistication it deserves. The deaf community have been dancing amongst specially curated and dissipated wafts of scent, created by “aroma DJs”, for some time now while the rest of us have been revelling amongst the funk that remained once the smokers moved outside.

Surely now it’s time for us all to reawaken our sense of smell. With artisanal perfumers like Timothy Han leading the way, it could be truly, and wholly, sensational.

Links:

Timothy Han Edition Perfumes

Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition

Written by Dominic Dowbekin.

Photography by Nathalie Thery

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