Finding her way to fragrance through the art of painting, natural perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is a leading light in the niche fragrance world with a devoted following of fragrance fans. From working at Boston’s renowned ESSENSE Perfumery, Dawn developed a particular talent for creating perfumes based on her fine art principles, and took the plunge to launch her own label, DSH Perfumes.
Anyone who has smelled Dawn’s scents can attest to the fact that they’re taking natural perfumery to another level – a subject we explore in-depth in the latest edition of The Scented Letter Magazine: Flower Power – now available online for International Subscriptions and in glorious print for those of you who prefer to be hands-on…
From the first time we got to smell DSH Perfumes for ourselves – and to meet the very engaging Dawn – during the Art & Olfaction gathering earlier this year, we have been haunted by their other-worldliness, the way that Dawn somehow transforms notoriously tricky (and often ‘muddy’ smelling) materials into something truly artful. But we wanted to catch up with Dawn to find out exactly how she crafts her fragrances so beautifully, and the challenges she faces when working with all-natural ingredients…
– Why do you love natural fragrance materials so much, and when did this love really begin?
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz: ‘I have loved natural materials from the very first; from the moment that I began working with perfumery materials (both natural and synthetic) I was immediately attracted to the incredible beauty/strangeness, depth, complexity, and intrinsic ‘quality’ of the naturals. You can feel the energy of the place that the materials were grown in and with each distillation method, some new facets come out from the plant itself. It’s almost like they speak to you if you want to listen. Of course, I love the beautiful things like Bulgarian rose, or jasmine sambac, neroli, santalum album, and so many others but I really love the strange, hard to use, and exotic naturals like choya nahk, cumin, seaweed absolute, or hyraceum, too.’
– Do you have a favourite natural fragrance material, or something you’re particularly enjoying using at the moment?
DSH: ‘That is a very, very difficult question to answer… kind of like choosing a favorite child. Oakmoss absolute was one of my absolute favorites from the very beginning and I’ve become a connoisseur of various oakmoss absolute materials over the years. There’s a surprising amount of variation with oakmoss. Natural sandalwood is also a long time favorite material but you know there are so many WONDERFUL naturals coming out on the market these days that it’s hard to choose a current favorite. The fact that natural ambergris tincture is now widely available is like a miracle to my younger self just starting out in perfumery, and it’s a truly lovely material to work with. OK, perhaps if I had to chose, in this very moment, I would have to say that tomato leaf absolute is rocking my world. I get a buzz each and every time I get a whiff of the stuff.’
– Do you think the public perception of natural fragrances is changing… have preconceptions and snobbery disappeared?
DSH: ‘I think that interest in natural perfumery is growing; for many reasons. Some people are more concerned with the materials used in their fragrances than the overall aesthetic or design of the perfume. Others actually find natural perfumes much more appealing, in a general way, than commercial perfume designs, which they find overwhelming. For the perfume lovers or aficionados, who are well versed in traditional perfume styles, many natural perfumes seem too dense, opaque, or muddy in comparison to the transparency that synthetics can provide in a design. The design challenges that working in an all natural palette presents is either in making very streamlined perfumes with perfect transitions from one note to another that is done using unusual materials choices or by interweaving a very intricate structure to make perfumes that feel complete and complex, but not opaque. Either way, the challenges are great and (fascinatingly) difficult, which is part of why I love the all natural palette.
Pictured above is the divine Mata Hari fragrance – one whiff of which and we were transported to a shimmering golden world of seduction by Chypre. The list of ingredients is huge, but it still retains the lightness of touch and a certain luminesence rarely seen without the use of synthetics, and which will surely turn natural naysayers into true believers at first sniff… Continues Dawn, ‘Having said all of that, there are many natural perfumes and perfumers who are creating clever, interesting, and unique fragrances that have the structural integrity and completeness to change many minds. I don’t think that preconceptions have disappeared but I do think that the plethora of new materials available to the natural perfumer should open many doors to encourage the ‘naysayers’ to come and try the genre again. They might be pleasantly surprised..’
Written by Suzy Nightingale