Timothy Han creates experimental fragrances inspired by literature
When scent meets storytelling.
Quietly concocting magic in his London studio, Timothy Han approaches perfumery with artistry and a touch of mysticism. Much like the evocative scents he produces, his path into fragrance has been full of unexpected twists and turns.
A former design assistant to John Galliano, Timothy worked in fashion for many years before setting up his perfumery. Finding inspiration from iconic works of literature – from Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ to Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘She Came To Stay’, he brings a unique narrative-driven experience to to the world of scent, regularly collaborating with visual artists and musicians.
Working in small batches primarily with seasonal, natural ingredients and drawn to unexpected notes, Timothy’s scents are never safe. In fact, he somehow manages to make the metallic of blood and the bitterness of tar smell wildly appealing. His latest scent, Heart of Darkness, based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel, is a visceral interpretation of the journey up the Congo river from the story, with green floral notes, alongside burning coal, amber and moss.
We spoke to him about Heart of Darkness and his philosophy on fragrance.
Hi Timothy, what stories do you want to tell with your perfumes?
Each of our fragrances tells a story from the scent, to the name, to the bottle and the artistic collaborations forged that bring each fragrance to life.
But it goes beyond that. For us what is more important is how the fragrance unfolds upon your skin and what story that tells. Like a good novel, a fragrance should take you on a journey from the opening notes released in the first few seconds to the lingering remnants that fade away into memory hours later.
To achieve that we have had to do away with convention and the traditional idea of the scent pyramid and fragrance categories. The established notion of how a perfume should unfold could not do justice to the stories we wanted to tell with fragrance.
And like a literary journey there will be moments that take you through both highs and lows. The reason I call it Timothy Han Editions is because we make small batch productions but also one of the things I find interesting in fragrance, when you’re using a lot of natural ingredients – seasonality plays a huge role in scent. Every scent is based on a book and books are printed in editions.
How did you get started in fragrance?
The way I came into fragrance is by accident. I’m not a trained perfumer in any way.
I used to work in fashion, that’s my background. Many years ago I was an assistant to Galliano and also at Dior. I was trying to do something else and I started a company making candles. About fifteen years ago I was at a trade show and this guy all in black with an entourage came up and said “Really lovely candles”. I said “Thank you!” and he said “Do you make fragrance?” I said “No”. He said “Well you should”. It turned out it was Francis Kurkdijan, so that kind of put the idea in my mind!
Fragrance is a long way from candles. My friend who makes cocktails based around fragrance encouraged me to create my own scents, and I tried it. I lent the first fragrance to my friend who was a chef and pretty knowledgeable about scent and she borrowed it and said three people stopped her in the street. Then I took it to Browns who supported me from the start – and that was it!
Why did you decide to use literature as the basis for your scents?
I’ve always loved reading, I’m a very tactile person who just loves paper – the way words can take you places.
Do you see scent as a narrative journey as well?
Absolutely, scent is so much more perfume. Scent is our most powerful sense, if you take perfume out of it. It is encoded in your mind the same way as memories are encoded. If you’re looking at something while smelling something you are 30% more likely to remember it.
Historically scent was important to tell you whether food was safe to eat or whether there was danger coming. Before everyone started showering everyday, you would smell your mate for compatability and it was a physical thing. If you’re with someone who is compatible to you, their sweat won’t actually smell bad to you!
What do you think happens to someone when they find a scent they love?
I think it has to do with memory – whether it’s personal or perhaps collective memory. A lot of scent is cultural. If I say to you what clean smells like it very much depends on culture – it could be pine, it could be bleach.
It’s also about how you grew up. For me the scents that resonate the strongest are forests and tar. Those comfort me because it’s how I grew up, I spent so much time playing in the forest. Scent is so particular and how people react to it is so individual.
In media there’s much more of a general idea of what is a pretty dress. With scent it’s harder to define.
A lot of the scents I create can be quite polarising and I like that!
Are there any notes you’ve used that have been particularly polarising?
I like the smell of coal, ash and tar a lot, which is a recurring thing. I’ve used the scent of blood. A lot of what you smell is also what you perceive to smell. Your mind is attuned to look for it.
The way that people are using scents in experiences at the moment is quite limited. There are so many ways you can use scent in a creative ways, exploring its highs and lows. It’s about telling stories and evoking emotion good or bad and that’s something I really try to explore.
What drew you to creating this new scent, Heart of Darkness?
First and foremost I have to like the title, it has to be evocative, then I have to like and be drawn to the story. Heart of Darkness is obviously a very bleak story, it has had a big impact on how we view the world.
It’s an interesting story because only two people are named in the book. The Heart of Darkness has two meanings: the unmapped area in Africa in the 1700s but it also has to do with the corrupt nature of man, that kind of darkness.
What I tried to do with this scent is explore the idea of jungle, or damp jungle and wet moss. He spends a lot of time talking about firing the furnaces. You have the warmth of amber in there too.
I worked with Nicola Hicks on creating the packaging for it. She is an amazing artist who does these large scale sculptures.
Thank you Timothy!
Discover Heart of Darkness and the full TIMOTHY HAN / EDITION collection