Making scents

How Boulder-based perfume artist Dawn Spencer Hurwitz crafts fragrances

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Dawn Spencer Hurwitz studied painting before she took up perfume design.
Edwin Hurwitz

In ancient Egypt, to anoint a statue of a god with perfume was to bring that statue to life, for the gods were imbued with divine essence and perfume was the sweat of the sun god, Ra. While a stone statue without its fragrance was only a figurative representation of a god, applying the right scent was believed to transform it into the literal god, animated and incarnate.

Hundreds of years later, when Egyptians began applying the sweat of their god to themselves, a similar belief took hold. Perfume was not only an essential part of getting ready, it infused humans with the energy of the gods. It offered them the healing powers of the perfume god, Nefertum. It was what made people, to the fullest extent, alive.

While our enjoyment of scents may have lost some of its holiness somewhere between anointing statues and the department store counter, perfume artist Dawn Spencer Hurwitz believes olfactory pleasure is something for which society is regaining appreciation. As a niche perfume artist and the owner of DSH Perfumes and the Essence Studio, Hurwitz creates innovative concept fragrances for customers around the world. Her workshop and store, located in North Boulder, has been open for 10 years come November.

As rain drizzles outside the perfumery and Ella Fitzgerald croons over the speakers, Hurwitz sprays and dabs different scents onto glistening paper squares.

“This one is moonlight in a bottle,” she says, spraying one of her newest fragrances, Je Suis La Lune.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz
Bespoke oil essence, about to be boxed.

The art of perfume-making requires Hurwitz to effectively bottle imagery and emotion, requiring her to be more than a perfumer. When she makes a scent evocative of a different time period, like a metal and jewelry workshop of the 1700s, she is a historian. When she looks for the harmonies between different scents to make the perfect blend, she acts as a musician. When she creates a line of perfumes to resemble Japanese haikus, she assumes the role of a poet.

And when she designed a series of scents for Denver Art Museum’s 2015 exhibit In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism, she took her position as a painter of aromas, making museum visitors feel as if they were strolling through the spring gardens of Giverny. Motion sensors in the gallery released the perfumes as visitors walked by. The first scent in the exhibit was reminiscent of a garden, with notes of rich soil and fresh grass. Another scent was evocative of an early morning, with spring blooms of lilac and iris, dew still settling onto the petals. The third scent delivered hints of jasmine, peonies and roses, open to the afternoon sun. In organizing the scents for the exhibit, Hurwitz wanted to communicate the passing of time.

Painting with scents seems fitting for Hurwitz, as it was through the visual arts that she first discovered perfume design. While studying painting at Boston University in 1991, Hurwitz landed a part-time job at a small perfumery on bustling Newbury Street. Painting, she says, allowed her to come to perfumery from a classical standpoint, even without any prior experience. She was a quick learner of the practice, discovering that her strong sense of aesthetics from visual art and her good sense of smell made her a natural at crafting the right scent for a customer. Though she says the first perfume she made for a customer was far from complicated, that customer still places orders for the same fragrance almost 30 years later.

“This is her scent,” Hurwitz says. “She feels attached to it. She wouldn’t feel dressed, she wouldn’t feel prepared, she wouldn’t feel like herself without her perfume.”

In perfumery, customers often fall into two categories of how they choose and wear a scent: signature and wardrobe. For the signature customer who purchases the same scent again and again, who associates the scent of the perfume with an aspect of themselves, Hurwitz says perfume can be used as a reminder or a reinforcement of their identity and give them a sense of security. The wardrobe customer, contrastingly, associates different scents with different moods or feelings — a sultry scent for date night, a motivating scent for a busy work day — and can use the moment before they apply their fragrance as a way to bring awareness to their current state.

“It gives you the moment to check in with yourself and ask yourself, ‘How am I feeling today? What do I need?’ It’s a moment of self-care,” Hurwitz says. Designing for wardrobe customers is like building a soundtrack — or, as Hurwitz jokes, a “scent-track” — to a person’s life.

Edwin Hurwitz
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz at Denver Art Museum’s 2015 exhibit In ‘Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism,’ for which she created scents reminiscent of a French garden in springtime.

Hurwitz, a self-described wardrobe person, carries around six or seven vials of different scents in her pockets. Walking through the park or going grocery shopping, she will often take out and smell one of her pocket perfumes, thinking of what she can tweak to get the scent to what she wants it to be.

After running a boutique on Newbury Street, Hurwitz had no plans to open a similar shop after moving to Boulder in 1995. The niche perfume industry was rarely heard of then, and when Hurwitz told acquaintances what she did, she was usually met with blank stares. (“They assumed it was my side-hustle,” she says.)

But as Boulder clientele seemed eager for Hurwitz to open a boutique, she found her location in North Boulder, a small storefront with space for a workshop and studio in the back. The space was previously run as a television repair shop, so it took significant decorating to turn it into the oasis of scent Hurwitz envisioned.

“I feel that we’re still this hidden gem,” Hurwitz says. “The people who know about us love us, and our clientele is always growing. We’ve been here 10 years, but we still get people who think this is a new business.”

While niche perfumery may be just taking off in Boulder, Hurwitz says the industry as a whole has grown in popularity through the last 15 years, especially in Italy, Ukraine and England. Now, when she tells people about her career, they seem more familiar with the niche perfume industry than ever before. Hurwitz’s work has caught the attention of perfume aficionados around the world, with her largest market outside of the U.S. in Japan. She says that men have also recently embraced scent culture, making up almost 45 percent of her customers.

Some ideas for perfumes come to Hurwitz as fast, middle-of-the-night flames of inspiration, but others start as sparks, simmering over the years as she thinks about the themes she wants to explore. For her recently-released scent Onycha, she began looking for materials in 1993. She had found many scents with the label of Onycha, named for a fragrance mentioned in Middle Eastern texts, Calvinistic texts and the Bible. Through her research, she narrowed down the dominant fragrance to benzoin resin, ladanum or, oddly enough, what was described in the Bible as a mollusk scent. It was this last possibility — the idea that there could be an ancient aromatic from a shellfish that people applied as perfume — that initially grabbed Hurwitz’s attention and convinced her it was a perfume she had to figure out.

So she set off in search for the perfect mix that balanced ancient aromas of musk, smoky smells of incense and oceanic odors of a pleasant-smelling shellfish. After years of formulating the perfume in her head, she finally released the scent in 2015, more than 20 years after the idea first came to her.

When she designs perfumes, she brings out all of the individual smells in front of her and raises small strips of paper to smell. “I start seeing the harmonies,” she says. “It’s almost like it resonates; this one yes, this one doesn’t work, this one is even better than I thought. I narrow it down and I can streamline really what I want.”

Hurwitz has created a perfume museum in the back of the Essence Studio. Inspired by the Osmothèque in Versailles, the world’s largest scent archive, Hurwitz rotates through the thousands of artifacts she has collected over the years, gathering them in small “exhibits” to adorn glass cases. While at the Osmothèque one could smell a recreated version of Francois Coty’s famous Chypre, an iconic scent with top notes of bergamot and base notes of moss and musk; included in Hurwitz’s collection is a 1930s’ bottle of Chypre which she says in many ways set a new standard for perfume design. For many niche perfume fanatics, smelling the famous fragrance is a dream, and Hurwitz is happy to pop off the top for customers who call ahead.

“I’m really sort of an amateur perfume historian,” Hurwitz says. “I love to see not only the progression of materials and ways of going about it but also the cultural influences that perfume reflects, like what perfumes were popular when and why and where.”

Hurwitz began collaborating with the Denver Art Museum in 2007 for their Artisans and Kings exhibit, which featured various pieces of art from the Louvre. Wanting to give visitors a full image of the royalty of Versailles, they organized presentations to illustrate the different senses of the era. Cheesemakers and wine producers gave lectures, carpenters explained furniture. For the olfactory aspect, the museum asked Hurwitz to create scents of the time period. Since then, she has collaborated with the museum on numerous exhibits, including Color as Field, King Tut, and Passport to Paris. Her artwork with perfumes has also led to collaborations with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) and the Dairy Arts Center.

While art shows allow Hurwitz to explore less traveled paths in scent-making, a key component of her life as an artist are her customers.

“When you want to make avant-garde perfume it’s almost as if you are making olfactory art,” she says. “If it’s only for an installation then you should go for it and make a scent that is soot on the roof of a Soviet Union factory; but if it’s meant to be olfactory art and a perfume, it must be both. There is certain criteria I’m always trying to balance.”

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz established the Essence Studio in North Boulder in 2008.

When a customer comes into the Essence Studio looking for a new perfume, Hurwitz begins by asking them a series of questions meant to suss out what kind of scents they will enjoy. Finding the right fragrance for a customers requires a grasp of the other senses, which allows Hurwitz to build a perfume that reminds a customer of their favorite sweater or of sitting in the forest at night.

“You have to take that imagery and those textures and ideas and find the right kind of terminology,” Hurwitz says. In the English language, Hurwitz explains, we have adjectives to describe everything we see, hear, taste and touch. Yet when it comes to describing what we smell, words often fail us.

But Hurwitz is synesthetic, that is she experiences scents as colors and shapes. This allows her to superimpose her visual arts background onto her scent design and gather a clear idea of what a customer wants through terminology of the other senses.

“Designing scent is very much like making sculpture or designing architecture,” Hurwitz says.

“It’s spacial, there’s movement, there’s edge quality.”

While visualizing neroli, an oil derived from the blossoms of bitter orange trees, Hurwitz sees a butter yellow color, with edges of light green. As a shape, Hurwitz describes the scent as an upside down draped handkerchief — blooming at the top with curling edges spiraling down. “If you could take silk and cashmere and mix them together so it’s like sheer silk with a little bit of a fuzzy tone, that’s neroli,” she says.

Hurwitz understands scent is incredibly personal, and what may be a calming smell for one person may not evoke the same feeling in another. Because scent is the only sense to bypass the cerebral cortex, Hurwitz explains, she has gotten good at recognizing how people react to different fragrances through their instantaneous body language. As she observes her customers reacting to different perfumes, she waits for the reaction that will tell her she has found the right match.

“It’s seeing a shine that comes into their eyes. Their whole body lifts up. They rejoice. It’s amazing,” she says. “That’s one of the experiences that, each and every time is happens, is reaffirming.”

Even 27 years into designing fragrances, Hurwitz is always ruminating on different concepts and ideas, looking for the scents that will bring a twinkle to someone’s eyes.

“I still feel like I’m learning,” she says. “There’s always new materials and new ideas, and there’s always new things I’m trying to do to push the art form. I’m always trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible.”