LONDON–Lyn Harris is the only classically trained female nose in the U.K., and the founder of the hugely successful Miller Harris brand (thrust into the spotlight in 2010 when Samantha Cameron, the wife of the then prime minister David Cameron, gave Michelle Obama a selection of Miller Harris candles on a state visit to the White House). Ms. Harris has returned to her roots as a perfumer focusing on natural ingredients, setting up new artisan fragrance brand Perfumer H.
Ms. Harris is one of 10 creators featured in London’s Somerset House exhibition ‘‘Perfume: a sensory journey through contemporary scent,” (until September 23) where visitors can take a newly-educated guess at identifying each scent through a variety of olfactory clues along their journey. Some of the fragrances at the more extreme end of the exhibition include Killian Wells’ “Dark Ride”, described by the exhibition’s curator as “a thrilling scent simulation of a water theme-park”, and Antoine Lie’s infamous “Secretions Magnifique”, which attempts to recreate bodily fluids such as sperm, blood, saliva and sweat in perfume form. By contrast, Ms. Harris’ contribution to the exhibition is the beautifully-structured “Charcoal” – a rich, deep and smoky fragrance, evocative of the tail-end of a bonfire in the woods.
She-files caught up with the Yorkshire-born tea-obsessed perfumer to talk with her about her inspirations, her training and her future fragrance plans.
FINDING— Before you knew what it was to train as a nose, what did perfume, or smell more generally, mean to you as a child?
HARRIS— I think what was at the forefront of my olfactory journey was my grandparents. They lived on a smallholding in Scotland, and were self-sufficient – they grew all their own fruits and vegetables in this great walled garden. It was an idyllic place, and every part of every day I spent with them was filled with scent. From the simple Roger & Gallet lavender cologne my grandmother wore that I could smell in her bedroom, to the scent of her bread-baking early in the morning, fragrance just filled the house. She’d make cakes once a week, so those wonderful sweet smells, and all year round, every evening we’d drink this homemade blackcurrant tisane – honestly I can still smell it now, it was just to die for. It was my first insight into smell, and that’s really at the forefront of everything I do. In fact “Charcoal” is based in part on this time of my life, and in particular the memory of my grandfather’s hands smelling of smoke. He was a carpenter so he had this workspace just outside where he used to make the furniture for the village, and in the evenings, we’d have fires and sit outside.
I see how that must be the root of your focus on naturals–this grow-your-own creativity you found there. But how did you make that leap from the smells around you to fragrance itself?
My mother was never without fragrance; she wore Chanel No. 5, which just worked on her beautifully, and my father wore vetiver-based scent. I felt perfume was my calling fairly early. When I was at school, I used to work in a fragrance shop in my hometown, just sweeping up in there, and at Christmas I used to do all the wrapping. Then once I was of age, I could serve people too, and I just obsessed about the elegance of the fragrances we were selling and these beautiful French couture houses. I completely romanticised France, and longed to be there.
And you found the perfume school you wanted to go to on your own?
Well, of course, as an opinionated teenager, I definitely wanted to be taught by a woman. So I did my research and found someone who had a school of her own by the Eiffel Tower – it’s still there, though she passed away earlier this year – and I knew it was the one for me. I studied with her for nearly three years. Of course not everyone on the course was going to make it as a perfumer, but after two years she did say to me, “you have something, so now you need to think how you are going to progress.” The next stage is that you need a fragrance house, and you need to be taught the materials of that fragrance house. At that time, although I’d evaluated, and could recognize, every classic fragrance up to the early 1990s, I only had an olfactory memory of about two hundred materials. So after the last six months of school, where we were beginning to develop our own styles, working on accords and bases, and making our own compositions, I had to go and find a fragrance house who liked my work. So I took my work and I presented it to Robertet [world-leading fragrance house specializing in raw natural materials based in perfume capital Grasse] and they said, “gosh you’re really interesting, we’ll appoint you to work under one of our masters.” So I worked under one of their masters, and had his undivided attention for two more years, which was amazing. It was only after I’d sold Miller Harris that I really came to realize what it was they’d given me. That master took me out for dinner and said: “You know, you were part of an era where we had time, we wanted our perfumers to be classically trained and to take the time to learn and not rush. The industry is growing too fast to be able to do this now, and it seems everyone wants to be a perfumer. You must pass on what we have given you, because it is very special and very rare.” So I do feel extremely privileged to have had those people around me who taught me and believed in me.
Is that something that you would like to do – to teach, and pass on that knowledge?
Well, that’s what I’m doing with Caroline [Russell – Harris’ assistant and the other face of the Perfumer H store], she’s been with me for 10 years now. All of that knowledge is within her, and she works on her own compositions now. Maybe one day I will do a school or something like that in this country. I don’t know at this stage because I still feel very creative in my work, so to stop and teach is a totally different dynamic.
Speaking of creativity, and thinking again about the exhibition’s focus on ‘experience’ scents, is there an experience or phenomenon you would like to create in scent, perhaps one that has eluded you for a while?
I’ve been obsessed with capturing ice – in particular, the idea of a flower in the winter when the ice drips down the stem. I’ve been completely paralyzed by this creation, and I’ve just finalized it. It was an epic challenge for me, figuring out how to get that ice element, and finally I came to understand that I needed to contrast all the cold notes with warm notes. So I have things like angelica and iris there, but they are complemented with ambrette and carrot. It’s a floral, but it’s also quite woody – beautiful cedar, juniper berries and some herbs, and then a little citrus and musk. It’s called “Snowdrop” and will be coming out in the winter collection.
Dr Deborah Finding holds a PhD on sexual violence narratives in popular culture from LSE’s Gender Institute. She has worked for several NGOs, including the POPPY Project, with women trafficked into the U.K. She has written for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and DIVA Magazine, among others, and also now works with companies on their people development and ethical positioning.
Photo 1: Portrait of Ms. Harris by Tom Sloan 2) Bottles by Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House 3) Taking in the scents at “Perfume” by Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House