Living life by her nose: Yosh Han, destined for greatness

2020 . 06 . 26 | written by Karen Marin

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It's a magical meeting of the minds when two Californians get together to talk fragrance. I caught up with Yosh Han, founder of Eau de Yosh and creator of the hugely successful 2020 Digital Scent Festival to discuss her career in fragrance, how the festival came about and her very personal experience with anosmia.

You were born in Taiwan, lived in Japan as a child then came to California In your youth. How does the West Coast influence your approach to fragrance?
My West Coast roots certainly play a huge role in who I am. I feel completely an Angeleno over being a San Franciscan though my business is headquartered in the City by the Bay. California is very much a part of my DNA – dreams, openness, innovation, wellness, nature, spirituality, community and entrepreneurship. So many people move to California to ‘find themselves’ and ‘live their dreams’ so I feel very lucky to start from this place.

What are your earliest fragrance memories?
My mom burned a lot of incense growing up and also used various herbs for wellness to eat or to apply on any injuries. The food she cooked was very gourmand with lots of spices and aromatics. My father also had something like tiger balm that he used for tension headaches; so my youth was richly fragrant.

I read that the Chinese character for Yosh means “fragrant”. Do you feel you were destined to be involved in this field because of your name?
It’s true – I find that names somehow mark destiny. I feel it has also given me a sense of purpose - living life by my nose and intuition makes sense to me.

Your professional experience is quite extraordinary. You have worked in Flavors and Fragrance, you are a sommelier, Reiki master, clairvoyant and an open water scuba instructor. That’s quite a mix! When did you first realize you loved perfume?
Actually, the first time I really fell down the rabbit hole was in the mid-1990’s when I walked into a perfume shop in Aspen, Colorado. I was mesmerized by the glass bottles on the wall and knew instantly that I wanted to be part of this world. I had been a florist in college so when I learned about perfumery and aromatherapy, I was hooked.

I understand you are a self-taught perfumer. How did you do that? Were you taken under the wing of someone who mentored you through the process?
I trained at the shop in Aspen, The Fragrance Bar, for about 3.5 years with the owner. I ended up becoming the assistant manager and learned so much about different cultures and different preferences. It was the most rewarding part of the experience. The owner had previously run a shop in Boston, Massachusetts where fellow perfumers Sarah Horowitz and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz got their start. We were all young and naïve. What a joy to meet each other years later and realize we had had a similar start!
I did eventually take some weekend classes here and there and then learned more from becoming an entrepreneur and growing my business.

You have strong ties to esoteric and new age thinking between aura reading, combining chakras with scent and reiki, plus you love to travel. From where do you get your inspiration?
I meditate every day and also have a deep connection to Divine Source. So many projects are channeled from that space and I feel guided in my career and personal life. Sentir in French means both to smell and to feel. I smell, therefore I am. The ancient Taoists believed our nose is a portal between heaven and earth, so in essence, when we breathe, we are in communication between the dimensions.
With my business now, I combine all my passions; travel by sea to various destinations, finding artists, farmers, and entrepreneurs who are in flavors and fragrance and creating soul inspiring events that engage the senses. When I travel, I find that diving under the sea gives me a spiritual download of the geography and energy of the place as well.

Is being a perfumer a lonely profession? Do you need other people around you or is it preferable to work in isolation?
Great question. Almost every perfumer I know is somewhat introverted which really works in our favor. Being lost in our own creative space is rather precious. I treasure the fragrance community, especially artisan and independent as we tend to be more expressive creatively and have so much in common! I have enjoyed the many private, social gatherings with perfumers particularly. It’s a special bubble.

I understand you had a bout of anosmia recently. That must have been a scary moment for you as a perfumer and sommelier. Can you tell me what happened?
In 2015, I had a bit of a reaction when I did two really huge complicated consulting projects, one of which involved smelling batches of contaminated products. At the same time, I had had a cooking accident and seriously burned my leg, plus I was ending a relationship. So all of this together triggered an episode of anosmia which went on for a few years. I took a break, travelled full-time and pursued my love of sailing. I only started to regain my sense of smell in the last year after completing a detox and getting rid of my studio and library of materials! More recently, I started to regain my sense of smell but I’m hyper-sensitive now. I have to be careful around intense fragrances. Personally, I prefer softer, sheerer scents.

Let's talk about the Digital Scent Festival now. How did you come up with the idea?
This idea felt channeled to be honest. When I found out that we were going to have a global shelter-in-place, I felt a need to reach out to the Aroma Village community. It’s a Facebook group I founded in 2011 with mostly artisan and independent perfumers. We had a general planning meeting, and then it started unfolding with a rush of energy. I felt guided by Divine Spirit to just GO!

The program was really impressive in terms of the number of events, the variety of subjects and the number of guests you were able to involve.
I have done many perfume events in the past so shifting the focus from In Real Life events to digital seemed like a natural progression given our circumstances brought on by the pandemic. Honestly, the programming is a reflection of my personal interests!
Fortunately, I have a wide network of friends and colleagues, so my little black book helped me curate the festival schedule. I know the ‘backstory’ of each presenter and so I could connect like-minded people, who turned me on to other people. The global Aroma Village is really supportive and everyone rallied around the Scent Festival to make it happen.

What were some of the most popular events?
We knew the Scent + Design, Scent + Manufacturing and Indie to Industry would be well attended but I had no idea that between just three sessions, it was 235 attendees! I was not surprised but felt confirmed that the Scent + Soulness, Scent + Alchemy, Scent + Rituals and the InstaLIVES that focused on naturals, botanicals and sustainability were really popular. Also the Fireside chats were great conversations between perfumers who didn’t really know each other. It was like a blind date!

What kind of feedback did you get from the participants as well as the audience?
For many festival goers, the scent festival was a beacon of hope during a really challenging time. There were some sessions that were entrepreneurial, so it gave many artists some actual practical information which seemed very productive. Many people wanted more masterclass workshops and consumers want to meet more perfumers.

What would you do differently if you were to do the event again? Will you?
Yes! Absolutely – I want to do a Scent Festival 2.0. I would get some corporate sponsors and some production and marketing support. I think the curation was great and could have reached more people with some more time to plan. I’d love to partner for example with larger festivals already in place like SXSW, TEDx, Art Basel, Davos and Esxence to bring about more awareness to Scent Culture.

After driving so much attention to fragrance, what impact do you think social media will have on fragrance?
For sure, we see a move towards more interaction via Zoom, FaceTime, Facebook and InstaLives, livestreams as well as virtual workshops. We see much more space actually for brands to tell their story more thoughtfully instead of customers being bombarded at the department stores. We see a new trend for shopping portals and discovery sets! And for sure, we see a huge sector in scent + technology taking place – it is the wave of the future!

What projects are you working on now?
I have a new natural perfume that I’m developing with aura bath salts and oracle cards to compliment my Eau Fraiche aura fragrance collection. I also do a fair bit of consulting for both flavor and fragrance brands. I’m currently the Creative Director for Scent Trunk, which is a perfume publisher. We curate and manufacture a new Original Edition fragrance each month with a different independent perfumer. One of our recent features is a finalist for an Art and Olfaction award. I also just signed on with a home fragrance brand, with rechargeable diffusers called Arôme d’Art.
In addition to all of that, I will continue with Digital Scent Festival and create workshops around some of our sessions like branding, scaling and writing creative briefs. So many initiatives came about as a result of the event including a study group, a movement for changing the language of olfactive vocabulary and the recognition of the need to build more awareness for Perfumers of Color. Diversity is critical now. So the festival was a starting point of deep conversations that will continue to take place.

How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected your personal fragrance usage?
Wow - that makes me stop to think! I haven’t been wearing fragrance as much though I gravitate towards scents that feel more resonant. For sure I’ve been using more essences for meditation.

What do you think the future of fragrance will be like after the lockdown is lifted?
Since anosmia is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, people are appreciating and noticing their sense of smell now more than ever! I think it’s been a blessing for our industry! It is really important for people to understand how important scent is as an alternative perspective to navigate through life – and not just be ocular-centric.

What do you think the fragrance industry needs to do?
Cross-pollination from various industries is critical. We need to educate engineers, gamers, programmers, industrial designers and artists! We need olfaction to be an active part of STEM (science, technology, engineers and math). Education in general needs a revamp of olfactive language. For example, decolonizing ‘oriental’ as a fragrance family and inventing contemporary classifications using olfactive descriptors is something a coterie of perfumers and I are actively developing.
We absolutely need olfactive education in schools at a much earlier age. This will also encourage diversity. If more young girls and people of color got into the sciences, things would be different.
We really need to advocate for more Perfumers of Color. I am actively pursuing this and am working with some perfumers to create a Diversity Database and also want to encourage The Fragrance Foundation, Fragrance Houses, Retailers, suppliers, vendors and brands to escalate this to top management. It has become so homogenous that we need new voices to express creative innovation to our industry.

Are you optimistic about the future?
Definitely! I feel really inspired especially after the festival because there are so many new companies since I started almost 15 years ago. I really feel that Olfaction is the Last Frontier. In a study put out by Ericsson, It was reported that by 2030, digital scent technology will be the global standard. I feel very excited about that! I come back to the French word Sentir, that if people lived their life more poly-sensorially (rather than being so ocular-centric) and became more olfactive-centric, people would be much more in touch with their emotions and intuition and thus we would become a more integrated civilization.

Visit @scent_festival on IGTV or on YouTube to see recorded videos from the Digital Scent Festival.