First Person: 'I can identify 1,000 different scents'

Lynn Harris, professional perfumer, 41

Interview,Rob Sharp@robbiesharp
Saturday 07 November 2009 01:00

I am a professional perfumer for Miller Harris. Like many in my field, I can honestly say the foundations of my craft were laid down in childhood. One of my pivotal influences was my grandparents, whose house in Scotland I used to stay in from time to time. They really instilled in me an appreciation for life's interesting smells. They were into organic food, and grew everything themselves. They had a flower garden, too. My grandmother made her own jam and bread; my grandfather was a carpenter. It was all so pure. I yearned for that kind of lifestyle. That's how my journey began. I worked in my school holidays in a fragrance shop in my home town, Halifax; it was one of those beautiful places where all these grand old ladies would come in and sample some of the fragrances. It's very different today – now you can buy these things anywhere.

I moved to London and didn't go to university like all of my friends. Instead, I went to Paris and enrolled on a specialist perfumer course in my early twenties.

After that I went to Grasse, in Provence, to the fragrance house of Robertet; they took me in and made me part of their family. I learnt from a second-generation perfumer: what more can you want from life?

Now, 15 years later, I am here with my own brand – it has become my way of life. Not everyone makes it to do what I do but I always knew I would. It is weird, I woke up one day and I knew I had talent. I set up my own lab while I was at the school in Paris and when I got home I set up a lab in my bedroom. I just immersed myself in the creativity of it and developed my own style quite early on.

To be a good perfumer you need patience and an understanding of the natural world; you need to be able to draw inspiration from raw materials and have sympathy towards the natural, as well as have sensitivity towards people and life. When I was at school I trained my olfactory senses – I smelt a different raw material day in and day out. You get sick and you have migraines but you train your brain, so that when you smell the material again you engage with it. It's interesting. Subconsciously you retain the information.

I have trained my nose to smell 1,000 different raw materials. It gets to the stage where you can smell a complicated fragrance or formula and you can dissect the components.

I used to go off every night to a fragrance store after school. It's a lot of hard work and patience. I have made perfumes, for example, about a little garden in Regent's Park – it was this whole thing about the perfect English garden. I developed the theme then added a hint of birch – I decided to give it a twist.

I am only at peace when I am in my lab. It is a very odd profession for someone in this country. In France it is culturally more acceptable, people are more likely to be drawn to it.

If I smelt a bottle of perfume I could tell you what it contains, I could tell you what all the major notes are and what the theme is. When I walk down the street I can smell everything – the bread wafting out of the streets, the wet earth. I can smell bad drains around Mayfair; I can smell people's breath and people's skin. It can be too much sometimes: I can't cook with garlic because the smell retains on my skin. I used to like Indian food but I can't eat it any more because the smell lingers. Such sensitivity is useful in my work: you can tell from someone's skin type and hair colouring what would suit them.

I do lots of other things apart from perfume – I recently released a brand of tea and I'm working on some china, too. I want to add a new dimension to making fragrance. I am trying to move the whole industry forward.

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