Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is an American indie perfumer based in Colorado, much loved among American perfumistas for her warm, engaging personality and prodigious talent. Her perfumes have long been a point of curiosity (and even obsession) for perfume fans outside of America, but as with indie houses like Sonoma Scent Studio and Parfums DelRae, distribution outside of the States has been an issue. Thankfully, Dawn now sells her perfumes in an optional Voile de Parfum format, which is IPM (Isopropyl Myrastate)-based and can thus be safely shipped internationally without, you know, blowing up the plane and stuff.
I’m writing a series on DSH Perfumes for several reasons. The first is to help out potential buyers outside of the United States to come armed with adequate information and reviews when choosing a sample pack or blind buying a bottle. Although there are plenty of individual reviews on DSH Perfumes scents out there on the Net, I thought it might be useful to break the perfumes down into broad categories and review them as a group, thus putting all of the information in one place. I admire Dawn and I love many of her perfumes, but the DSH website is as clogged as a teenage boy’s face. The casual visitor can easily get overwhelmed and decide it’s not worth the trouble to slog through each of the 100+ entries (all of which come in 7-8 different formats), cross-referencing with Fragrantica all the while to see whether it’s something of interest to them. If I can help just one person sort through the listings and not give up, then that’s a win.
The second reason is that Dawn herself was kind enough to load me up with tons of samples when I was buying my annual ‘nip’ of the drug I like to call Cimabue (review here), both in 2016 and in 2017. Although I did review another fantastic discovery, Le Smoking, here, and loved it enough to include in my Building A Capsule Wardrobe (Using Minis & Travel Sizes), here, the rest of my DSH samples have been accumulating in an empty Diptyque candle jar, taunting me every time I sit down at my desk. Whatever Catholic guilt complex still remains buried within me is reactivated every time my eye accidentally catches the eye of the Matsu or Vanilla Bourbon Intense. It’s time to do this, and do it right.
I think it’s useful to review perfumes within the context of its siblings from the same brand, especially for those interested in undertaking house-specific discovery and sampling. I do this myself informally while wearing fragrances from my own collection (i.e., mentally ranking a Guerlain or Parfumerie Generale against its stable-mates), but rarely do it on the blog itself. As a reader, though, I love it when other blogs and writers do a house-specific post, because it allows me to do a deeper dive into the house than a review of a single perfume. The Perfume Posse Malle and Serge Lutens round-up posts are the absolute best examples of this I’ve found because they’re written with both knowledge and a sense of humor, a combination that’s rare indeed. I also loved the brand-specific posts on Olfactoria’s Travels, mostly because of the enthusiasm of Birgit’s audience.
The way I’ll be organizing this is to review per ‘grouping’ as listed below and fill in the links and I get the posts up. At the end of the series, I’ll publish a ‘top picks from DSH Perfumes’ with the understanding that such rankings are always deeply subjective. My hope is that this series will help someone, somewhere, sometime when it comes to picking a sampler or perfume from the DSH Perfumes website.
DSH Perfumes Series: Orientals & Chypres (this post)
DSH Perfumes Series: Spicy-Warm
DSH Perfumes Series: Gourmand
DSH Perfumes Series: Japanese Series
DSH Perfumes Series: Animalic
DSH Perfumes Series: Floral
DSH Perfumes Series: Fresh-Green-Citrus
DSH Perfumes Series: Woody-Smoky-Incensey
Jitterbug is an ambery chypre with a retro flavor and a fuzzy outline. Its abstract construction means that all impressions received are nebulous, like someone breathing at you through wool. You perceive the totality of spice and amber without being hit with any one identifying note, but this soft focus glow is so pleasant that you soon stop trying to figure it all out. That it’s not nudged firmly in one direction or the other may bother some people, but not me.
The most striking part about Jitterbug is that is manages to recreate the slightly off, sludge-like topnotes of an improperly stored bottle of perfume. It’s the same odd but alluring mix of embalming fluid, wax, resin gunk, coffee, and hairspray that greets the nose when you open a bottle of really old Coco parfum. A touch of inky balsam or blackcurrant leaf has been added in small brushstrokes to this golden blur, adding a vintage bitterness that almost leans green but not quite.
Jitterbug’s scaffolding is equally fuzzy, with big throaty gusts of patchouli and resins muffled under sealing wax, like a museum exhibit. The raspy, bay-leaf amber of Ambre Sultan lurks beneath, waiting to warm cold feet. I’m a big fan of the way Dawn does patchouli, because she’s not afraid to butter up its rough edges with her trademark earwax amber, and yet somehow, she avoids the trap of over-sweetening the pudding. Fans of the grungy-chic of the Reminiscence patchouli fragrances (and I’m one of them) will like this drydown.
I recently bought a vintage mini of Indiscrèt by Lucien Lelong, and I think the best compliment that I can pay Jitterbug is to say that the two perfumes are really very similar. That a modern composition mirrors so closely a 1936 creation is testament to Dawn’s skill. If you know Indiscrèt and love its warm, fudgy-spicy ‘vintage Coco’ feel, then Jitterbug is a safe blind buy.
Parfum de Luxe
Parfum de Luxe is one of those perfumes that shoehorn so many notes into the frame that they begin to cancel each other out a little, resulting in a rich haze of scent that’s gorgeous in its totality but impossible to pick apart. Many of Dawn’s ‘classic’ scents possess this analysis-resistant character, which is important to know if you are the kind of person who loves to puzzle out the intricacies of a perfume until you think you have it all squared away into neat little boxes. I find it hard to switch off the analysis part of my brain, but all the same, it’s a mystery to me why this part of the DSH Perfumes style bothers me a bit in some perfumes, like Parfum de Luxe, and not at all in others (Jitterbug, for example).
In other words, it’s difficult to say what’s going on in Parfum de Grasse other than it smells great. The only way I can put it is that it smells like years of perfume ingrained in the collar of your mother’s good coat as she comes into the bedroom to kiss you goodnight – something perfumey in the upholstered, classic style of First (Van Cleef & Arpels) or 24 Faubourg (Hermes).
Because Parfum de Luxe is so abstract, judging it becomes a game of pointing out what I can and cannot smell, which is probably doing the perfume a disservice. The main movement seems to be a cluster of fruit and flowers whipped up into a waxy, aldehydic blur, and topped off with the brandy-ish ‘off’ topnotes of a vintage perfume. Beneath the hairspray and coffee of the opening, there’s a brief but alluring hint of dark chocolate, specifically one of those slim, elegantly plain bars of single plantation chocolate with an undertone of raisin or redcurrant. It dries down to a soft coffee milk amber spiked with minty draughts of geranium that counter the sweetness with a rosy, metallic sharpness that might be interpreted as blood or wine.
There’s an attraction, I suppose, in smelling like perfume that’s been ingrained in a fur collar or a chic silk scarf that is never washed for fear it will fray away into nothingness. It’s faint and soft, and perfumey in the glowy vintage style. Although Parfum de Luxe lacks the animalic, mossy sharpness of a true chypre, there is something moreish about the resinous, bitter licorice-like tang of the base, which nudges the perfume in the Mousse de Saxe direction that DSH Perfumes specializes in. Rather greedily, I would love to smell more of it and for longer.
Parfum de Grasse
Parfum de Grasse is vigorously aromatic, with the bergamot sourness of a tennis chypre like Eau Sauvage dancing over an oakmoss that has the grace to be decently animalic for once. The oakmoss note contains all the sweaty-dry funk of a locker-room and oak tree roots lying half in, half out of swamp water. It smells like ink and noblesse oblige and the unwashed clothes of an aristocrat. All this is probably just an innocent little intro to the powdery carnation floral that follows close behind, but for me, it’s the main event and I can’t take my eyes off it.
Unlike the blurred, soft focus lens of DSH Perfumes’ other ‘classic’ or retro-styled chypres, Parfum de Grasse has plenty of hard angles. The piquant moss and the clove-hot spiciness of carnation, in particular, jut out provocatively, flaunting their chypric bone structure. The scent still feels classic, but in an updated way that doesn’t feel self-consciously retro-referential. I can see this working for people who love the modern chypre stylings of Patricia de Nicolai, as typified by scents such as Balle de Match, Vie de Chateau Intense, and New York Intense. Parfum de Grasse is classic, quite French in style, and nicely brisk. As a weird aside, I get a hint of Chanel’s grimy-soapy Cuir de Russie in the far drydown, but this might be just me.
Neither particularly rosy nor green, Rose Vert will strike you as a misnomer until you realize that the Australian sandalwood it dries down to does actually smell green. The sandalwood component of Rose Vert smells plainly and robustly of itself in raw oil form, which is to say redolent of pine, yoghurt, lime, and sage. It is not terribly rosy, but then again, rosiness is a minor player in Australian sandalwood’s aroma profile.
I’m making Rose Vert out to be simple and linear, which is unfair, because it’s not. It opens with a rich, fruity brandy topnote that’s (again) reminiscent of the gassy topnotes of an improperly-stored vintage perfume (I’m beginning to develop a fetish for this signature of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz), before rapidly segueing into the mandarin warmth of Grand Marnier. A bitter grapefruit marmalade accord holds up the orangey liqueur from beneath, the combination of which reminds me of Christmas parties when I was young and being allowed to dip my little finger into my mother’s empty glass of digestif.
As quickly as it arrived, the jam-liqueur and bitter leafiness dissipates, leaving in its place the evocative scent of furniture wax, old wooden chests, and the flinty taste of oaked wine. Here and there, there is a glimpse of the titular rose, but crowded in amongst the sourish, tannic woods and citrusy liqueurs, it struggles to keep its head above the parapet.
There follows an awkward mid-section of marshy, salty vetiver that smells unnervingly like dried sweat, before the sage-brushed sandalwood base kicks in. I quite like the rugged earthiness of Australian sandalwood, because, although it lacks the creamy depth of santalum album, it feels robust and characterful enough to stand up to other strong notes. The basenotes of Rose Vert are remarkably similar to the drydown of the newer Guardian by Solstice Scents in that they both smell of pine, red desert earth, and the sharp witchiness of sage. More shamanic and earth mother than the ‘classical green rose’ Rose Vert typecast itself as, and all the more interesting for it.
Review here. Listen, there’s not much more that I can say about Le Smoking that I haven’t already said. I don’t want to bore you. Just order a sample already if you’re into vintage leather chypres a la Bandit or Cabochard sliced with the laid back coffee-and-hashish vibes of Coze (Parfumerie Generale). I’m pretty sure this is going to supplant Cimabue as my annual nip of the DSH Perfumes canon this year, it’s that good.
Pandora made quite a splash when it came out in 2011. Part of the reason why it did was thanks to a series of giveaways and competitions where people could win samples, which kept the scent in discussion, but for the most part, people raved about it because they loved it.
Smelling it now, I’m a little confused. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also muted, a little over-worked, and waxy in that soft focus vintage style of DSH that doesn’t let you draw an easy conclusion one way or another. Scents like this are like trying to make out a detail of a photo that’s been smeared with greasy fingerprints.
It’s good to be kept guessing, but Pandora is particularly obtuse. For one, I don’t perceive this to be chypre-like at all, because despite the presence of oakmoss; there is none of that marine ink bitterness that makes me suck in my stomach a little tighter. Neither is there the limey finger snap of bergamot. There is plenty of labdanum, though, specifically one with a mint ice-cream strain, and a texture like honey or earwax.
Interestingly, I smell flowers and berries sluiced with antiseptic fluids, a green (minty) chlorinated smell that adds a wonderful swimming pool feel. Come to think of it, the amber accord here smells quite Indian, all stiff-necked with saffron and globules of resin, not to mention the minty bakul flowers pickled in asafetida. I love the iodine-like shock of saffron in Indian attar perfumery, and Pandora fairly bristles with it. But Pandora ultimately differs from the rather austere, leathery-spicy Indian attar character by being waxy, blurred, and super sweet. In fact, it is sweet to be point of being sugary, a toffee-ish labdanum emerging strongly to underline the point.
The abstract blur of resin, flower, and spice makes it difficult for any one note or accord to jump out and identify itself. The base is the best part of the experience, for me, because it contains a botanical reconstruction of the famous Mousse de Saxe accord, the rights to which were formerly owned by Caron (and are now owned by Pierre Guillaume).
Like many of these pre-fabricated bases (Laire 24 et al), the Mousse de Saxe is a complex perfume in its own right, and is what made the Caron extraits so famously textured in the drydown. Although the precise recipe for Mousse de Saxe is not known, there have been some informed guesses as to what it contains, which round up to anise (or fennel seed), vanillin, geranium, and isobutyl quinoline (smoky, tough leather notes). It lends a soft, mossy licorice tonality to a base, and a melting sugar darkness that some have described as marron glacé-like.
Because of this Mousse de Saxe reconstruction, Pandora does feature the same dark, melting sweetness and damp greenness of, say, vintage Nuit de Noel. But – and this is a big but – Pandora lacks the detail and color-saturation of a Caronade. It is very faint, in fact, the richness of its colors seeming to bleed out into paleness before you can properly grasp their outline, attenuating at a rapid rate until all you’re left with is a papery sweetness. Pandora is satisfying to a point, but it leaves me hungry for a proper Caron, even the current Tabac Blond, which everyone except me seems to think is awful.
Having said that, how cool is it that an indie perfumer is setting their cap at a structure this ambitious? Dawn Spencer Hurwitz stands pretty much alone, when it comes to the exploration of the 1930’s and 19040’s style of making perfume, the sheer complexity of which is daunting. For anybody who isn’t lucky enough to have access to (very expensive) vintage perfume from that era, DSH Perfumes offers a very reasonable alternative and a way of viewing the past glories of perfumery through a specifically indie filter.