„Fragrance is so potent!“: an interview with U.S. top perfumer Yosh Han

Only a few days ago, San Francisco´s star perfumer Yosh Han visited Berlin. After the launch of her extraordinary fragrance collection at Essenza Nobile some weeks ago, this was already the second good reason for us to ask this top perfumer from the U.S. west coast to come into our editorial confessional for an interview. However, there was not much to „confess“ – but all the more inspiring and amazing to tell: about her days as a pirate´s supplier, olfactory time travels and „transaromation“, about her fragrant memories of her first Halloween at the kindergarten in Los Angeles, the very special magic of her hometown San Francisco – and about the secret global superpower number one: fragrance…

Yosh HanEdle Essenzen:  Is it right that your career as a perfumer started in 1994 in Aspen Colorado? I´ve heard that you were standing in front of a perfumer´s shop there and deeply felt inside that you have to go in and apply for a job, no matter whether they were looking for an employee or not. Sounds crazy! Can you tell us more about that magical moment and how that story continued?

Yosh Han: Yes! One of those „truth is stranger than fiction“ moments. The more I was in the shop, the more emboldened I felt. When that happens, I suppose the Universe works with you. After the Manager turned me away a few times, the Owner came out of the shop and had a good feeling about me and hired me on the spot. I ended up becoming the Assistant Manager right away and worked there for 3 years – creating custom fragrances for people. It was great fun. It made an impression on me because I had been a florist before that so the world of flowers opened up in a deeper way. Divine Inspiration!

Edle Essenzen: When exactly did you realize that the creation of fragrances would be your profession? In 1994, or even before?

Yosh Han: When I worked at the perfume shop in Aspen, I dreamed about having a perfume company of my own – based on moods and personalities. I was young and had wanderlust so I put those dreams aside and moved to the Netherlands and traveled throughout Europe for a while. In 2002, I got an offer to work in San Francisco for a publishing company & Pirate Store

Edle Essenzen: … for a pirate store? How did this happen? Do you have a heart for pirates? And what have pirates actually to do with fragrances?

Yosh Han: In 2002, my friend invited me to work in San Francisco for a publishing company and non-profit literary center for students ages 8-18. The front of the center was a Pirate Store. I directed the retail and events. We hit the scene before all those Johnny Depp movies – that helped us with our sales… I have no idea how many eye patches we sold – tens of thousands. I decided it would be funny to make Pirate Perfumes because of course, Pirates are stinky people! (Buccaneer, Swashbuckler, Cavalier, Damsel, Buxom and Valhalla. They’re unfortunately already sold out). From there, I got many commissions for private & artistic perfumes and that rekindled my passion for fragrance. I had a soft launch of my own perfumes and got lots of press and stores inquiries right away. When that happened, it seemed like the Universe was directing me towards a new career. I soon had enough business to quit my Pirate days and to re-launch my brand with new packaging. The same Pirate Store has a sister store called the Time Travel Mart…

Edle Essenzen: … sounds not less adventurous than the pirate store (laughs)…

Yosh Han: … I created a Time Line of fragrances for them a few years ago. Both artistic projects benefit a children’s literary program founded by the author Dave Eggers.

Yosh Han - Timeline of scents

Edle Essenzen: You were born in Taiwan and lived in Japan for a few years before your family moved to California. Which are your memories of your migration to the USA?

Yosh Han: I remember my first Halloween in Kindergarten in Los Angeles. The teacher was roasting pumpkin seeds. I remember that smell which I learned later was butter. I can’t resist butter now and pumpkins make me feel nostalgic.

Edle Essenzen: Now you´re living in San Francisco. I guess no one can think of San Francisco without remembering Scott McKenzie´s song with the world-renowned line “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”… How did it happen that you settled down in San Francisco, is there a special reason that you are living just there? Perhaps the reverberation of the spirit of the ´flower power´ era?

Yosh Han: San Francisco is a romantic city to be sure. But it’s got a certain energy there that is only understood once you move there. It is a truly livable city with artistic creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. There is an incredible atmosphere of collaboration and support – a breeding ground for ideas and projects to come alive. Everywhere else, it’s kind of every person for themselves. San Francisco is competitive but people truly want you to succeed. Energetically, it’s a great place for me. There’s also no shortage of excellent produce and incredible nature within reach of urban culture. The downside? Fog and a little intellectual snobbery.

Skyline of San Francisco

Skyline of San Francisco: “It is a truly livable city with artistic creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. There is an incredible atmosphere of collaboration and support – a breeding ground for ideas and projects to come alive”.

Edle Essenzen: Besides your “Evanescent” perfume collection, you´re well-known for creating signature scents – special custom-tailored fragrances. How does this work, e.g. how do you find out what kind of scent is optimally suitable for a person?

Yosh Han: My process is intuitive. People come to the studio – they smell lots of different ingredients. I ask them to put it into 4 categories – LOVE, Like, X factor and Negative (don’t like it). When a person smells something, it’s clear when there’s a positive or negative reaction. It’s hard to lie with smell. The X factor – this happens when a person smells something and it effects them viscerally rather than rationally. They might normally hate licorice but when they smell fennel or anise, their body might have a positive response.

You see, every person has a unique odor profile – like a thumb print. The X factor is the same – a quirky part of their personality. We work with the LOVE it category and the X factors. Then we compose and edit together using the Reverse Birthday Candle Technique. It’s quite simple – we line everything up according to top, middle and base notes. Then we exhale and then inhale the essences. The opposite of blowing out birthday candles on a cake…no, it’s not a technical term. I made it up. We edit till we get the WOW factor. Voila!

When we work with the LOVE and X factor, it’s already energetically attuned to the creator of the perfume (the client, not me). We can have 3 people in the room and put the fragrance on each person, it always smells best on the person who decided the essences. Many clients love the process so much, they come back for other creations.

Edle Essenzen: There seem to be a considerable number of writers and authors among your customers and clients… do you think there exists a special link between arts like literature or poetry and the art of making perfume?

Yosh Han: I think for people who are creative – they seek that kind of energy or they are used to it so they just want to explore that process in other media whether it’s painting or cooking. Lately, there’s been a food trend so I have many culinary clients now. Their creations are delicious!

Edle Essenzen: Your mother was a trained Ikebana master, your father a herbalist and acupuncturist. In which way has this family background influenced your choice to become a perfumer?

Yosh Han: There’s a funny mis-quote about that. My father is not an herbalist or an acupuncturist but I know it was in print once before and continues to be re-printed. He’s an entrepreneur also. As a family, we visited herbalists and acupuncturists instead of doctors for our ails & cures. The world of flowers, herbs, art and starting your own business – that kind of upbringing definitely has made an impact on me. I didn’t want to be boxed in about a professional career in a subject matter that didn’t interest me.

Yosh Han - Flakons

Edle Essenzen: The Chinese character for Yosh means “fragrant”. So do you believe that it was your destiny by birth to become a perfumer? That your name has influenced your career choice? Would you perhaps have become a musician, for example, if your name had meant “music” in Chinese? Or is this sheer coincidence?

Yosh Han: I went to a party not to long ago and learned that about 50% of people become their name. I think that is why many people are named after Saints – because they want their children to have those attributes. I don’t think I could have become a professional musician even though I played the piano as a youngster. Perhaps the training has influenced the way I think about perfume – notes, chords and compositions. It’s very similar!

Edle Essenzen: Do you actually believe in coincidence, or do you rather think that in the end everything is predetermined in our lives?

Yosh Han: A bit of both actually. Every experience and exchange between two people is an opportunity to create or destroy karma but not everyone has the consciousness in those moments to do so and then the moment passes. So it’s kind of like predetermined that you meet someone and perhaps it’s two ships passing in the night. When there’s no spiritual agreement (karma) to change, then it feels more coincidental. Someone said that we don’t make friends, but we recognize them as kindred spirits.

Edle Essenzen: As Europeans, we are usually very focused on perfumes from Europe – most of the perfumes we know and wear are from countries such as France, Italy, Germany … sometimes from Arabia, too. But only seldom we get in touch with perfumes from Asia, not to mention Australia or South America. So is Europe really the centre of the fragrance universe, or do we only think so?

Yosh Han: Let’s say that Europe has a history of modern perfume and we’re only now experiencing a different kind of trend in the fragrance world – especially in niche. Let’s not forget though all the enriched aromatics and attars from India and the incense from China and Japan. It’s a scented world with no boundaries. When you arrive in China or India especially – the geographic aroma-imprint is indelible. But let’s also agree that modern perfumery has a strong European influence in so far as manufacturing and producing globally branded commercial fragrances.That could be more economic influence because the materials come from all over the world outside of Europe. But in terms of fragrance users – I think there are crazy perfume lovers all over the world. It’s amazing!

Edle Essenzen: You were born in Taiwan and lived in Japan as a small child, you travelled across Europe, you´re living in America: one could say that you´ve seen the world! Do you think there is a noticeable difference between typical perfumes and fragrance preferences in Asia, America and Europe? Do they usually prefer other kinds of scents in Taiwan than in Europe or in the USA, for example? Or are fragrances a „universal language“, such as music?

Yosh Han: I’ve grown up in America since I was 4 years old and have actually only lived in Japan for a year in University so I actually lived in Europe for longer than Asia! Anyway – I do think from professional experience with clients and market research that there are huge global differences. I coined a world called Aromascape – to define a person’s inner landscape of aromas. I have a global fusion palette – my ethnic culture defines my aromatic world – the spices and herbs and yet I supposed I’m just as clean obsessed as the next American (though I think that has more to do with my Virgo moon).

As far as geographic preference – it’s certainly true that Europeans have a fascination for the darker robust scents while the Asian counterpart prefers lighter fruity scents. Even though rumor has it that Asian people don’t usually wear perfume, they are serious about their car scents! It’s wild! Americans tend to be clean obsessed – they’re leading an anti-perfume movement. Ack! Let’s not forget our Latin, Arabic and Russian friends who LOVE fragrance and wear it proudly. This is kind of an interesting marketing or psychological question because I think like color or music, perfumes mean different things in different cultures.

China - India

Sunset in Yangshuo, China – spices at the Mapusa Market in Goa, India: “When you arrive in China or India especially – the geographic aroma-imprint is indelible. It’s a scented world with no boundaries”…

Edle Essenzen: You seem to create not only new fragrances, but you´ve also invented a new word: „transaromation”. Can you tell us more about it? Has it something to do with aromatherapy or aromachology?

Yosh Han: Aromatherapy is the therapeutic and healing benefits of natural aromas whereas aromachology has to do with the psychological aspect of aromas – it was originally coined by The Fragrance Foundation. Transaromation has more to do with being transported by smell – more like a déjà vu – like when you walk by jasmine vines – you feel as though you’re some place else. I’ve met many men who have told me that they’ve chased women walking down the street because they swore it was the scent of an old lover. They’re being transported through time and emotions. Fragrance is so potent.

Edle Essenzen: It is noticeable that each name of your fragrances contains three numbers, describing the fragrance family, the chakra and the numerological character of the scent. Well, sounds a bit… esoteric! Extraordinary, in any case. Is that “magic of the numbers” an expression of your personal spiritual philosophy or belief?

Yosh Han: It’s a system – sure. Each perfume has a 3 digit numerical frequency as well as a literal name. The first number represents the fragrance family, the second number refers to the chakras and the third number is derived using numerology. It usually doesn’t matter because the fragrance they pick usually has something to do with their lucky number or whatever chakra they’re working on. It’s usually kismet. Recently, I’ve been reading auras and matching their energy/personality to a suitable perfume.

Edle Essenzen: In Walt Disney´s Duck Universe, there exists the so-called Number One Dime – the first coin that Scrooge McDuck ever earned. That coin is very precious to Scrooge McDuck, and he really worships it as a talisman and keeps it like a treasure. Now I heared something about you that reminded me a bit of that Duckburg legend: It is said that you once bought your first perfume bottle in Hawaii – and that this bottle was nowadays exhibited in your entryway. Is that perfume bottle perhaps something like your personal ´Number One Dime´?

Yosh Han: That’s very funny. One would think that since I’m somewhat superstitious that I would have a Number One Dime but I don’t yet. I’ll think abou it!

Edle Essenzen: Would you finally tell us something about your future plans?

Yosh Han: You can expect a duo at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. I’m also working on a collaboration with an emerging fashion sportswear designer to launch next spring though it won’t be under my brand name. I hope to begin teaching vibrational perfumery workshops in Europe in the next year too.

Edle Essenzen: Yosh Han, thank you very much for this interview. Best regards from Germany to the Bay Area!

Yosh Han: Well I’m in Berlin right this second so from Germany to Germany! I’m leaving for NY tomorrow – so ciao ciao! Thanks for the very in depth interview. I really appreciate it.


The interview with Yosh Han was conducted by Erik Vogel in November 2010. To read the translated German version, just klick here.

Yosh - Flakons