Uncommon scents

Lyn Harris, owner of Perfumer H and Britain’s first classically-trained female ‘nose’, talks to the Journal about the power of natural scents, her craving for space and why she can only wear perfume on holiday

Words: Janet Tyler
Images: Orlando Gili

Perfumer H opened its elegant atelier of fragrances on this quiet corner of west Marylebone last summer, with very little fanfare. Perhaps there was no need for fanfare, as Lyn Harris—Perfumer H herself—already has a fan base that ranges from Miranda Richardson to Manolo Blahnik.

But you also get the sense that this gentle quietness is just Lyn’s way and that, with Perfumer H as the creative culmination of an already immensely successful career spent honing her craft, she’s happy just to let people come and discover her work for themselves. And they are coming. “It’s been phenomenal,” Lyn says. “The retail is doing far better than we ever anticipated. We’ve sort of hit a nerve.”

Britain’s first classically-trained female ‘nose’, Lyn is as understatedly sophisticated and decidedly cool as the fragrances she creates. Simply dressed in a chambray blue shirt, military green cargo jacket and skinny trousers, her long straight blonde hair framing her naturally beautiful unmade-up face, she looks like she could have just stepped out of a VIP tent in Glastonbury. There’s a natural beauty to Lyn that is clearly reflected in her internationally-acclaimed work.

She draws inspiration for her fragrances from everywhere—from life, people, the multi-cultural city that is London—but at heart, she’s a Yorkshire girl who yearns for the Dales and it’s clear that her main inspiration comes from nature and the seasons.

“I find it incredible,” Lyn says, “that my tools, my materials, are part of life. They are living. And I love the whole process, from first smelling the herbs or the bark or the flower. The thought of being able to obtain this precious essence from this beautiful living thing really inspires me.”  

Affinity to nature
That strong affinity to nature began in childhood, when she spent a lot of time with her self-sufficient grandparents in the Highlands of Scotland. “That’s when my senses came alive,” she says. She describes a grandfather who was a carpenter, always working with wood, and his garden with the smell of freshly turned-over soil and seasonal organic vegetables. She describes her grandmother’s walled flower garden and love of fruits and berries, and how her grandmother used to make tisanes and bake bread every single day. “The minute we woke up as children, we could smell her making bread and my grandfather putting the fire on.”

So it isn’t surprising to learn that at the centre of Lyn’s fragrances are “the naturals”, which is perhaps what gives them their purity and depth. “The naturals are my main characters, say, as in a book,” Lyn explains. “They are the most important aspect of the formula.” When she first started out in the nineties, the concept of using naturals “was like a naughty word”.

In a highly price-structured market, people would question her: “What are you using that beautiful rose for? You’ll never be able to do that when you work with clients.” That’s when the stubborn streak came out in Lyn—she wasn’t having any of that. She decided if she couldn’t find a way to work with naturals, then she wouldn’t work. Happily, she found a way.

Lyn comes vibrantly alive when talking about the process of creating fragrances—her “craft”, as she calls it. I’m truly astounded by her ability to bring her vision of smell into pictures. “So I have an idea,” she glances around and picks a bottle of one of her fragrances. “Let’s talk about Pink Rose. I know what I want it to smell like. I want it to have the softness of lemon, I want it to have a slight but delicate fruitiness, so the soft undertone of raspberry, and I want it to have the crushed rose petals that we all envisaged as a young child in our hands. So that’s what I bring in as centre stage. 

Warm balsamic notes
“And then I need them to breathe, so I dress around it with ‘accessories’—I bring in green notes, say, or a bit of citrus perhaps. I’ll bring in some warm balsamic notes, a little bit of vanilla, some musk.” She pauses. “That’s how it starts working.”

The power of scent is clearly central to who Lyn is. Smell defines her memories, evokes her moods, provokes her energy. Looking back, making a career in fragrance must seem like it was an obvious path—and yet, just how does a girl from Yorkshire become Britain’s first classically-trained nose and perfumer of choice to those in the know? 

The journey in fact began by chance when, as a teenager struggling at a school that stifled her creativity, Lyn took a job in a fragrance shop in her home town, sweeping the floor and gift-wrapping. “It was the only place where you could buy French fragrance. It was a very small town. We used to get all the farmers and mill owners coming in. I think my love affair with fragrance started there… I loved smelling it on people. And I loved making beautiful boxes with the bows and the paper, and then giving it to someone who was going to gift it to their loved one. I just thought it was such a beautiful thing.”

From this small Yorkshire town, Lyn moved to Paris where she studied perfumery for two and a half years under the personal tutelage of Monique Schlienger, “an amazing female nose”, who herself had been taught by the famed Jean Carles (who created Ma Griffe and Miss Dior). After Paris came the Riviera town of Grasse, the world’s capital of perfume, and three more years of intense training under the strict eye (or, perhaps more appropriately, nose) of a formidable perfumer in the fragrance house Robertet.

Experience and knowledge
Lyn credits these years of training under perfumers with renowned “pedigree” for her success and ability to develop her unique style. She is of the firm belief that beauty can only truly be created out of experience and knowledge.

On her return to England, Lyn—by then “a hot head” for naturals at a time when naturals were yet to come into vogue—launched (with her husband Christophe) her signature line Miller Harris, building it up over 15 years into an iconic British brand. In 2010 it was Samantha Cameron’s brand of choice to gift Michelle Obama during a presidential visit.

Come 2012 and with the Miller Harris brand flying, Lyn felt it was time to move on. Not only did she want to spend more time with her young son, but “something clicked within me”. She had a craving for space; a craving to do things differently. She felt like a different person and wanted to reflect that difference in her work.

Over the next three years, Lyn found that space, reconnected with nature and family, and explored the eclectic and spontaneous essence of Britishness. The idea for Perfumer H began to form. She worked with architects and designers to capture her highly personal vision in every detail of the atelier: from the furniture, to the packaging, to the open laboratory where Lyn’s long-time assistant Caroline can usually be found carefully weighing out ingredients, as she works up Lyn’s formulas. “We’re constantly working on formulations,” Lyn says, “and I feel that brings an excitement to the store. It’s what’s important about Perfumer H—that you feel the craft of the perfumer.” 

Lyn Harris

Dusky-coloured bottles
Lyn’s is a truly artisanal approach. It took two years of collaboration with a Dulwich glass-blower, experimenting with colour and shape, to create Perfumer H’s exquisite dusky-coloured bottles. When that wasn’t enough, she devised a unique way for the bottles to be personalised (on site and in 20 minutes) with the giftee’s name etched on the glass and gilded in gold. “It’s about having this beautiful object that you never throw away.”

Beneath the oversized grey lightshade and down the stairs is where Lyn continues to work the perfumer’s mysterious craft: “Away from the intense smells, because I need a pure palate.” For the same reason, there are certain foods she has to avoid and infuriatingly, she can only wear her own scent on holiday because it distracts her nose. Lyn’s deprivation, happily, is our gain.

Perfumer H has a three-tiered system. First, in beautiful hand-blown bottles, are the Seasonal Editions, which are released twice-yearly. This season’s collection includes Velvet (back by popular demand), Rain Cloud, Musk, and new fragrances Patchouli H and Orange Leaf. And when you’ve sprayed your last droplet from your beautiful bottle, there’s no need to fret: you can return for more—Perfumer H sells refills, too.

The Laboratory Editions, which Lyn describes as her “creative playground”, showcase 25 formulas, past and present. Finally, there’s the bespoke service where Lyn will collaborate with a client in the design of their own unique fragrance. 

Sophisticated olfactory powers
As we finish, I confess that I turned up to the interview scentless, far too worried about wearing a scent that might distress Lyn’s meticulously trained and famously sophisticated olfactory powers. She smiles, a little bemused. She asks me what I usually wear. I mutter a useless response because the truth is, as much as I love fragrance, I very rarely wear one.

Lyn immediately calls her assistant Caroline out from the laboratory to come to her aid and together they agree that Rain Cloud might be the perfume for me. “I love that there’s vanilla in there,” Lyn says, “but it’s not sweet because of this wet note going all the way through.” I’m thinking again about the beautifully poetic way Lyn describes her fragrances when, before I know it, she and Caroline have reached for my hand and sprayed a mist of perfection on my wrist.

Off I go then, back into the pouring rain of London, but this time wafting elegant scents of vanilla and fresh rainforest through the air and feeling unusually happy under my very own Rain Cloud.