Pyramid Schemes: The Egyptian Perfumes of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz
As some fragrance fans may know, Colorado artisan perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (the DSH in DSH Perfumes) has been involved in a very special project for the Denver Art Museum for its new King Tut exhibit. Her mission: to re-create perfume oils from ancient Egyptian formulas, hewing as close to the original materials as possible from old texts handed down through the ages. Dawn's advantage was that she is already a master of natural perfumery, so she was a perfect fit to lend her talents to the project. (After all, she already has an outstanding group of historical perfumes under her belt for the DAM, the Perfumed Court series of scents based on the original formulas of court perfumers at the palace of Versailles during the time of Marie Antoinette, Madame du Barry and of course the Sun King, Louis XIV.) To go with the Egyptian perfumes, she designed these to-die-for bottles, and I mean that in the literal sense, since they were made to look like the elaborate bejeweled vessels that were entombed with Egypt's elite rulers. They even come with a “mummy” wrapping!
I have been an admirer of DSH ever since I was privileged to test and review a broad range of her perfumes a couple of years ago, so I was excited to learn that she was participating in another special artistic project, such as the one that resulted in the masterful Memory & Desire No.1. How exciting for any perfumer, to have a chance to delve into history and come up with elixirs with which the Pharaohs of Egypt might have anointed themselves! I feel very fortunate to have received preview samples of these rare perfumes.
The perfumes themselves are of varied styles, though all share a common thread of having resinous materials in their composition after the fashion of the times. I have to state outright that I have no idea of the ingredient list for these perfumes, so I can only give my impressions and maybe a few educated guesses. This is definitely unexplored olfactory territory for me. I will start with Megaleion, a musky scent with a nut-like warmth and a distinctly pungent green aspect. Had I been told that this was a long-lost vintage Chypre scent from the Thirties I would have had no reason to disbelieve it. It has no discernible sweetness and skews a bit toward the masculine side in modern terms, but of course that definition would have been meaningless all those centuries ago. It has a smooth undercurrent of what seems to be a very good quality botanical musk accord.
Antiu (a.k.a. Metopion) is a fascinating study in contrasts, opening with potent, penetrating bitter almond combined with the juicy snap of fresh galbanum – no guessing needed here! I am pretty sure I have never smelled these two things together before, but now that I have, I want more. It's a marriage made in heaven, or should I say the verdant realm of Osiris? Once the almond retreats it becomes a harmonious blend of green herbal aromas with a slightly sweet resinous base. I just want to keep re-applying to get the initial sensation over and over again. These are about the last notes I would ever have thought of pairing up in a fragrance, but that's why DSH is so respected for her artistic approach to perfumery. My only complaint about Antiu is that the bitter almond does not persist long enough into the drydown for me, but that is to be expected of many naturally sourced fragrances.
I don't really have the right words to describe Keni (a.k.a. The Medesian) since it does not smell like anything in the lexicon of modern perfumes. I guess I would say it's perhaps the most rustic in style of this group, in a good way. I’ m pretty sure there is labdanum in this, or a closely related plant resin derivative. It begins with slightly medicinal character, but in a pleasant, aroma-therapeutic kind of way. It has green notes as well, but more subdued, not the splashy overdose that's in Antiu, and maybe some hibiscus too. It is a little strange, but the more it's on my skin the better I like it; it has an odd quality of seeming to cool down and acquire a mineral/leather tone once it has interacted with the skin’s surface, somewhat in the manner of DSH’s Arome d’ Egypt, a perfume I love that’s already in the line. It has a little of the what-the-heck-is-that-anyway mystery that so intrigued me about Memory & Desire No.1. I enjoy giving my nose the occasional puzzle piece to sort out; and I will keep coming back to Keni.
I have saved the best for last, and I am unable to give an unbiased opinion about my favorite of the four, 1,000 Lilies (a.k.a. Susinon). I fell head over heels in love with this fragrance as soon as I opened the vial, and the affair has only escalated as I have been testing it on my skin. It is simply beautiful, and of all of these it's the one I really, really hope that DSH will decide to make for her regular perfume line; I rather like its Egyptian name of Susinon if it does go into production. It's an ethereal green floral that has echoes of existing perfumes in the DSH repertoire that I admire, the lovely Padme Lotus and Madonna Lily, but it's lusher, brighter, greener and more long lasting than either of those. (I wore it to bed one evening, and in the morning the cat that often shares my pillow smelled of it all the next day.) It also reminds me of a long-gone perfume that was a favorite of many; Alpine Lily by Crown Perfumery. (You may recall that this was the house that Clive Christian decided to purchase in 1999 in order to produce perfumes under his own name, and sadly all the wonderful Crown scents were discontinued a few years later.) Alpine Lily was one of my favorites in that line, and when I smelled 1,000 Lilies I was struck not only by its beauty but also its affinity with Alpine Lily. It is certainly not a replica by any means, but it shares the same soft, heartbreaking shimmer of tender lily essence that I so loved in the Crown scent. If you have ever tried Serge Lutens Un Lys and thought it was too chilly or too overwhelming, but you really like the aroma of lilies, this would really hit the spot. I can close my eyes and visualize wearing this while floating up the Nile on a luxurious royal barge, trailing my hand in the water on a luminous Egyptian night under the full moon. If this kind of perfume is what the Pharaohs got to take with them into the afterlife, I am going to start worshiping false idols immediately.
Image: The Great Pyramids of Egypt from Bruno Girin’s Flickr photostream per Creative Commons Share-Alike license, some rights reserved.
Disclaimer: The samples for this review were provided to me by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for testing.