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Monday, December 22, 2008

DSH Perfumes Part One: A Voyage of Discovery

By Donna

A few months ago I ran across a fascinating Web site called memory & desire, and subtitled poetry, perfume and the artistic imagination. The idea behind it was to meld the language of poetry, the visual impact of art and the sensory experience of perfume. That is the simple explanation. In any case, I loved the idea of perfumers being considered as artists on the same level with painters and poets. Those who truly know perfume may take that as a matter of course, how could it be otherwise? To others this may seem startling, to equate perfumery with the (other) fine arts. Doubters could learn a lot from memory & desire.

One of the projects was asking a number of perfumers to interpret this famous poem in scent:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.

~ Ezra Pound ~

At least fourteen (?) gifted perfumers, including such talents as Yosh Han, Ayala Sender and Andy Tauer were invited to interpret this brief but atmospheric poem. Every one had their own vision, but all were fascinating. I recall being drawn to one in particular because of its unusual composition. The notes were listed as: peach, apple blossom, violet, sweet pea, Bulgarian rose, orris, kukicha tea, Australian sandalwood, benzoin, tabac, Hiba cedarwood, sumi ink, musk (ambrette seed absolute) and civet. Sumi ink? What a strange and wonderful material for perfume – a traditional Japanese material used for brush painting and calligraphy, it is made from ground-up soot. The use of kukicha (green tea & twigs) and Hiba cedar continued the Asian theme, and I adore apple blossom; I wish more perfumers would use it. The creator of this scent poem was perfumer and aromatherapist Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Seven of these perfumers actually made their perfume concept ideas into real perfumes, and Ms. Hurwitz now has hers available on her Web site, DSH Perfumes. It is called Memory & Desire No. 1. As luck would have it, I recently had the opportunity to test of a number of the DSH fragrances and of course I could not wait to try this one.

I put it on as soon as I received the samples in the mail, and it did not disappoint. It is a gentle yet melancholy scent, and the sumi ink does an astonishing interpretation of wet pavement – it is slightly tarry and captures the ozonic aroma of an urban street after the rain. The cedar wood and tobacco enhance this impression. Chilly orris and pale apple blossom creates a mind-picture of water running down a window pane as someone gazes out of it sadly, perhaps waiting for someone, perhaps missing someone who is never coming back. Despite the presence of the rose and sweet pea, this fragrance is not sweet, and though it is watery it is not so in the way most modern mainstream scents are. This is water as tears, a crushed and heartbroken violet whose dreams will never come true. I put it on a second time on a day just like the one I imagined the poem to be about, and it was just perfect. I love this fragrance but I don’t know if I could wear it very often, as it does have a certain sadness to it. I think it might be lovely in warmer weather, perhaps that would bring out a little sweetness in it, but it is wonderful no matter what. It lingers well on the skin with its base of sandalwood and civet, though neither is overly obvious or heavy.

That was the first fragrance by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (who shall be referred to hereafter as DSH) that I had ever read anything about in detail, but I had known that she was well regarded as a niche perfumer who uses as many natural materials as possible, except where they are unavailable. (She must use synthetic animalic accords, as do most perfumers these days. Real ambergris is no longer an option for mere mortals.) I have found that she has a gift for “concept” scents, and by that I do not mean anything gimmicky or trendy, but rather perfumes that pay tribute to a time or place or even a color, and that she does it very well indeed.

For example, DSH has done a series of “Red” perfumes called Les Rouges that capture the brilliance and life of the color red in various intensities. Oeillets Rouges, her homage to red carnations and the color scarlet immediately captivated me. Now, my standards for carnation scents are pretty high; from Caron’s Bellodgia to JAR Golconda, they have to be pretty good to impress me, since the lesser ones are like bad rose scents, they give them all a bad name and generally smell cheap. One whiff of this one and I was convinced. Not only is it deep and rich with the clove-like warmth of the carnation flower, it has another love of mine, nutmeg, to add even more delightful spiciness, as well as the gentle radiance of beeswax. Now I no longer need to pine away over the unobtainable Golconda, I know where to find one I like just as much. Composition: Top notes: Bergamot, Green Peppercorn, Nutmeg Middle notes: Carnation Absolute, French Red Carnation, Honey Beeswax Base notes: Amber, Ambergris, Myrrh Gum, Vanilla.

(Note: I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it when a perfumer actually lists the composition of each and every fragrance on their Web site, it is so helpful when deciding which ones you want to try. Also, DSH has samples of most of her scents available.)

Another in the Les Rouges series is Poivre, based on the idea of a deep ruby red. It is a concoction of rose, incense, resins and spices and oh my, does it last! This delicious perfume clings to the skin for hours and gets better by the hour. As the name implies, it opens with a bracing blast of black pepper, which I love, and then mellows down to a smooth and feminine spicy simmer. Composition: Top notes: Black Pepper, Spice Notes Middle notes: Bergamot, Bulgarian Rose Absolute, French Red Carnation, Pimento Berry, Sultry Rose Base notes: Incense Notes, Labdanum, Moss, Olibanum (Frankincense), Patchouli.

Piment et Chocolat is based on chili red, and it is a unique blend of hot chile pepper, other spices and dark chocolate. The chocolate note worried me, as it is a difficult note to get right in perfume, but I need not have been concerned, as it is not a dry, dusty cocoa but a rich melting mouthful much like that in my beloved Sali Oguri Persephone New York. The piquant chile pepper is a novel counterpoint. I found this to be so festive and unusual that I chose it over all the scents I own to wear to my company’s big annual Christmas party, where I would be hobnobbing with the movers and shakers. It lasted all day without becoming too sweet but it was still a definite presence. I would recommend it to anyone with a sense of fun and a party to attend. Composition: Top notes: Black Pepper, Paprika, Pimento Berry, Red Chili Middle notes: Cinnamon Bark, Clove Bud, Nutmeg Base notes: Cocoa Beans, Dark Chocolate.

Last but certainly not least in the Les Rouges series is Fleurs d’Oranger, which evokes a warm orange-red. I really caved on this one, it is superb. Only a hint of orange blossom’s usual soapiness is present when this is first applied, and it quickly deepens to a wonderfully sensual interpretation of this commonly used flower, but there is nothing common about this version. It is rich, complex and even indolic, though it’s not a “dirty” scent, and it is embellished with beeswax and deepened with vetiver. It lasted on my skin for over twenty-four hours, and I hated to shower it off. This one goes on my wish list. It is warm and honeyed and frankly sexy and I can’t get enough of it. Composition: Top notes: Bitter Orange, Sweet Orange Middle notes: Egyptian Neroli, Orange Flower Absolute - France, Tunisian Neroli Base notes: Ambergris, Brazilian Vetiver, French Beeswax.

DSH occasionally comes out with Limited Edition perfumes, and one such is a Holiday scent called Tamarind Paprika. Once I smelled this I thought it would easily fit in with the Les Rouges group. It is just plain delicious. I don’t know how many people have ever tasted Tamarind fruit, but I find it hard to describe, though I have had the pleasure of eating it. It is sweet yet a bit astringent and I can’t compare it to any familiar fruit, except maybe a little bit like a very ripe persimmon. Pairing it with the warmth of Paprika and Red Wine makes for an ideal perfume for cooler weather, and it is rich and fruity but with a distinctly tangy quality to it. I guess you could call the style a “fruity-fruit,” but it’s nothing to be afraid of if you don’t normally like fruit scents. Composition: Top notes: Black Pomegranate (accord), Paprika, Tamarind Middle notes: Bulgarian Rose Otto, Orris, Osmanthus Base notes: Oppapanax, Red Wine notes, Tobacco Absolute, Vanilla Absolute. (Did I mention how yummy this is!?)

Another series is the Perfection Connoisseurs group, which are more of a time-and-place idea. Café Noir is meant to re-create the vibe of a Paris night at a club during the Jazz Age. It has a very vintage feel, with a bit of Habanita’s decadent soul in it, and it is definitely one of those “handle with care” scents that are better suited for a hot date than a job interview. It has Black Pepper, Coffee Absolute, Tolu Balsam and Vanilla Absolute, among other things. Its “sister scent” is Parfum de Luxe and I am pretty sure she is the older sister. Café Noir is the intriguing gamine with the short dark hair, but Parfum de Luxe is a Cool Blonde with lots of money and spends her summers on the Riviera. It is meant to bring to mind the Art Deco movement, and it smells very French indeed, with notes of Bergamot, Bulgarian Rose, Geranium, Honey, Orris Centifolia Rose, Tuberose, Ylang-Ylang, Amber, Benzoin, Oakmoss, Vanilla and Tobacco Absolute.

Another DSH scent that I had read about some time ago, that I did not connect with the maker of Memory & Desire No. 1 right away is Jitterbug. Once I realized that this was hers too, I had to try it. This could be considered the “third sister” to Café Noir and Parfum de Luxe, as it meant to interpret the style of the Forties “Swing Era.” Okay, hold on to your hats, gents, this one is a predatory vixen, the kind who enters the room one hip at a time and slays her admirers with one flick of her cigarette holder. Musky, ambery, and sultry as all get-out, it lasts forever on my skin and should be avoided by anyone who does not want to be the center of attention. Since it is meant to be in the style of that bygone era, it is pretty heavily animalic and very sweet. I love a sweet perfume as long as it is done right, and this one is just luscious, a real “Bombshell” fragrance. Check out the Composition: Top notes: Bergamot, Blackberry, Lemon, Pimento Berry Middle notes: Benzoin, Bulgarian Rose Absolute, Clove Bud, Egyptian Jasmine Absolute Base notes: Amber, Frankincense (Olibanum), Labdanum, Musk, Patchouli. (There is a men’s version of this too, I will talk about that in a future installment.)

Jitterbug is the polar opposite of Memory & Desire No. 1, and I would never have believed that the same person made both of them if I had tried them separately in a blind sampling. What they do have in common is that they are both very well made. While one is meant to somehow capture a fleeting moment and the other a whole decade, for me they both pass the real test: Would I actually enjoy wearing them? Oh, yes.

Coming up in the next installment: DSH takes on the color Green – and everybody wins.

Image credits: Rain-pattern glass from Chile peppers from

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Blogger Gail S said...

Oh thanks for this post about DSH! I'm quite a fan of many of her fragrances, but that's really the problem. She has soooo many that I get lost sometimes and end up without anything :( So recommendations are tremendously helpful to have when wading into her site. Jitterbug sounds like it's worth a try. My favorite of hers is Minuit, which feels very vintage to me.

9:52 AM EST  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

It is so good to hear your thoughts on DSH. I have not yet had an opportunity to try any of her scents, but have read commentary and reviews with interest for a while now.

It's especially nice that you are taking time for both breadth and depth...though, if I understand correctly, the DSH line has more breadth than you can shake a stick at. :)

I must admit, I am particularly intrigued by your teaser..."green"? always, I'll be back!

11:23 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review! I wish we in Europe had better access to these, I'd love to smell a few. Now I've got one more reason to make a trip to Boulder soon!

11:48 AM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Gail, there are a LOT, and I have nowhere near all of them to sample, but Minuit is among them. I have what I think is a good cross-section of styles, and so far I am impressed by their diversity and quality.

8:47 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

ScentSelf, this is also my first actual experience with this line beyond reading about a couple of them. For every one I have a sample of there is another that intrigues me! And yes, I will be featuring a few of her Green scents next time. I wish it was summer right now so I did not have to put those refreshing green perfumes on my winter skin, but I will suffer through somehow... ;-)

8:50 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thanks Marla! A number of stores carry the line including an online store in Germany, here is the link:

They don't carry samples, but they have a few each of the perfumes and her Essense Studio aromatherapy oils. Maybe they can order something for you? It's all in German though so I can't tell!

9:03 PM EST  
Blogger Alyssa said...

I'm glad to see Memory and Desire getting some props. The full result is definitely stunning, and very much worth thinking about in terms of the possibilities for collaboration. I did a little mini-blurb on the project as it was happening, and wrote about how it made me want to put my faith in the future of perfumery rather than lamenting the losses of the past.

10:02 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Alyssa, I like the way you think! With so many creative niche perfumers on the scene now, I am feeling very hopeful myself. If the big houses all sell out and ruin or discontinue their iconic scents, as some have already done, we have many fine new perfumes to fill the void.

11:20 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very detailed post--it is very informative. DSH is new for me and I'm now very interested to try some of the perfumes. Can't wait to read about "green" next. ---Jen

10:13 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Thanks Jen, it's new for me too. Every time I think I know what I like something comes along to throw me off balance - and that's a good thing!

10:22 PM EST  

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