Welcome to Part 2 (Spicy-Warm) of my series on DSH Perfumes, the American indie perfume brand helmed by the talented and prolific Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. For those of you joining me just now, let me recap a little.
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.
I’m writing a series on DSH Perfumes primarily to help 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, it might be useful to break the perfumes down into broad categories and review them as a group. The casual visitor to the DSH website 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.
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 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 (link)
DSH Perfumes Series: Spicy-Warm (this post)
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
Epices d’Hiver’s dramatic opening hinges on a flourish of boozy Coca cola spicing – nutmeg, orange, cinnamon, rose, and carnation – folded into a bready musk; a big spice extravaganza like Egoiste or Youth Dew writ small. I love its softness and its clarity, two qualities that are difficult to achieve simultaneously in a spice-based scent.
As the scent dries down, it develops into a dusty book-paper type of vanillin, backed by the sour doughiness of benzoin and a nutty 1950’s style butterscotch amber. Epices d’Hiver feels like a conscious updating of an older model, a more forgiving take on the thicker, harsher spice perfumes of yore (both Youth Dew and Old Spice jump to mind). Epices d’Hiver would be a fantastic addition to any December rotation, where I imagine it would jostle shoulders companionably with Comme des Garcons Parfum, Costes I, and Frapin Caravelle Epicée. I find this scent energizing.
The opening bristles with a glorious hit of freshly-ground black pepper, its oily sharpness smacking my saliva glands into action. Almost immediately, however, the fiery spice is subsumed by a wave of nag champa sweetness, an accord that seems to consist partially of bubblegum, partially of burlap sacks and quinoa, and partially of unlit cone incense. Undercutting all this is the faint but lingering taste of urinal huck.
My feeling on this is that if you enjoy the specific gummy-fizzy aroma of the headshop, then you’ll like Poivre. For me personally, although I don’t object to a bit of that wheaty, hippy ‘good for you’ ambience, it buries the promise of that searing spice note within 2-3 seconds. As the scent settles, the shape of a carnation emerges from the wool, a soft, warm flower with ruffled silk edges, its heat muffled under a wax coating. I like the silkiness of this note, but the heat might be too subdued for the true carnation lover.
There’s a hint of the same amber in Jitterbug that coats everything in a warm, white soap casing, although in Poivre, the spiciness shines out a little more persistently. Briefly, there’s the weird sensation of soap scum floating on cold water after washing out candles, a mildly unpleasant stumble in an overall pleasant trajectory. The scent soon rights itself, however, steering confidently into a beautifully textured drydown with a sustained smoke and pepper burnout, like the long tail of a comet.
Souvenir de Malmaison
Carnations are wonderfully complex-smelling flowers, but I hesitate to describe use of the note in perfumery for several reasons. First, and most importantly, the words of a carnation-dilettante (or part-time dabbler) like myself can never satisfy the curiosity of the die-hard carnation hound, member of a small but hardcore sub-segment of floral lovers. These people know every carnation fragrance, both modern and vintage, and what’s more, are able to compare one to the other, fluently discussing the salient points of divergence, etc. I lack the vocabulary to do Souvenir de Malmaison justice, therefore – these aficionados have my number before I’ve even opened my mouth.
The other reason I hesitate is that clove notes, sharing with carnation absolute a heavy eugenol presence, are often subbed in for carnation in perfumes where formula cost is a factor, and until I got used to it, clove was singlehandedly responsible for ruining many’s a good perfume for me. While clove and carnation are somewhat similar, they are not identical and care needs to be taken when building a carnation accord using clove and rose oils alone. On its own, clove can smell unpleasantly sweaty and metallic, for example, exhibiting a sharpness that is not a key feature of carnation. A true carnation material, on the other hand, has a lush, velvety floral character, the olfactory equivalent of a ruffled collar.
After all that (probably unnecessary) preamble, how does Souvenir de Malmaison fare? In my opinion, brilliantly. Do keep in mind that this comes out of the mouth of a carnation virgin. It does seem to lean heavily on clove, but rather unusually, it smells like freshly grated or crushed cloves rather than the stale, sweaty stuff I usually smell in indie perfume. The scent of fresh cloves is very different to that of clove oil; it is similar to black pepper but much warmer, and it has an attractive cinnamon bark facet to it. The opening of Souvenir de Malmaison smells almost exactly like when I stick 10-20 cloves into a slice of lemon to prepare what I call the Irish Remedy for colds – basically a hot toddy. My mind catches the fresh clove smell, therefore, and makes a quantum leap to Irish whiskey and a generous pour of Acacia honey. It would be rude to object to this delightful turn of events, and so, I don’t.
A hot rose fills out the ruffled, floral edges of the carnation accord, but my mind dwells on the deliciousness of hot booze and honey, with grated pepper, lemon, and clove buds floating on top. It’s dark and spicy, but not cold or bitter; that amber performing an all-important swaddling function. I’ve worn this several times now, and I can trace my semi-obsessive attraction to Souvenir de Malmaison to the precise point where the dark, spicy-rosy clove accord bleeds out into a brown sugar amber. There’s no immortelle listed anywhere for this, but the ambery base has a distinct maple syrup and dry hay character that makes me wonder. Beautiful work. If you’re a clove or carnation lover, don’t hesitate to get a sample of this dark and (dryly) sweet take on it.
Poppy is in the spicy-warm section of this series, because when I was arranging my samples, I looked up the notes for each perfume on Fragrantica and decided which category would fit each scent (broadly-speaking, of course). The notes list for Poppy reads like a proper spice extravaganza, with tons of nutmeg, cloves, carnation, and tolu balsam.
In fact, I was confidently expecting something along the same lines as Souvenir de Malmaison or Poivre, because a) the notes lists are vaguely similar, b) the word ‘poppy’ is analogous to ‘opium’ scents in the indie sector (and which all use some variant of clove or carnation to build the opium accord), and lastly, c) Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is famous for her deft hand at spicy carnation-based fragrances. In fact, her talent with hot spices (clove, carnation) is practically a signature.
All very suggestive and all very misleading. Poppy is not spicy or ‘hot’ in any way. Instead, it smells like a curl of green apple peel floating on a lotus reflecting pool. I’d go so far as to suggest that Poppy is an aqueous scent, a watercolor in pale blues and greens on a silk screen. It’s also a bit soapy in that amorphously perfumey style common to clean white musk scents. Poppy leaves me, if not cold, then at least a little lukewarm. But people who wear the rather soulless floral musk-and-latex-paint jobs like Alaia and Narciso eau de parfum (white cube) will probably love it.
Cimabue is something I’ll probably continue to buy from DSH Perfumes until I die. That sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Sorry. But Cimabue is a true love for me, and a constant in my winter rotation. Try it if you love the supine saffron silkiness of scents such as Safran Troublant but need the spine-stiffening balustrade and balsamic chutzpah of a vintage Coco or Opium. Full review here.
Cardamom & Kyphi
Cardamom & Kyphi smells neither of cardamom or kyphi (at least not any of the modern reconstructions I’ve smelled) but of a clear, hot masala chai stirred with a shard of cinnamon bark. The spice element smells fantastic; both crystalline and woody, a hard jab to the temple to prompt you awake. It dries down, rather rapidly, to a heart of spicy, dark European gingerbread with burnt edges and a shake of black pepper.
A simple but effective winter warmer, Cardamom & Kyphi’s basic premise is rocket fuel chai. Unfortunately, the texture of the fragrance is too faint and watery to carry much weight. Something like this ought to be built on gargantuan scale, rich and thick beyond belief. Cardamom & Kyphi gets you halfway to heaven but runs out of steam midway, attenuating and shedding richness with every minute until all you’re left with is a sheer wash of spice.