March is Women’s History Month, a month where we celebrate the vital role of women in American history. The 21 st of March is also National Fragrance Day, a day where we celebrate all things fragrant. Blending these two together, it was kismet to curate a collection of all female perfumers that fearlessly charged into the often-secretive society of perfumery and made their mark. A gloriously fragrant mark that is!
For the 2022 March Collection, Gold Rush, we honor women in perfumery. Always inspiring, each one of these ladies rock the indie perfume world and it is our absolute honor to showcase them.
They’re gold. You’re gold.
Let's meet Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Perfumes and enjoy the gold rush.
Perfumer: Dawn Spencer Hurwitz
House: DSH Perfumes
Fragrance Selected for the March 2022 Box: August Picnic, 1976
Q: Who is the most influential woman in your life, past or present?
You know, I really can’t answer this question, as there are SO, SO many women who have influenced and inspired me over the course of my life. Way too many to name. From artists, to politicians, to academics, to activists, to female perfumers, as well as friends and relatives, I’ve found inspiration and sustenance from women’s lives and works as long as I can remember. There really is no one that I could name; the thought is overwhelming!
Q: Did you always want to be a perfumer? If not, what did you want to be growing up and how did the transition to become a perfumer come about?
No; I had no idea that being a perfumer was something one could become. I have always been involved in the arts: when I was growing up I was in the performing arts (I was a dancer, a singer, and did theatre until I was in college) but after I went to art school to become a painter I wanted to become an academic teaching painting. It was while I was in art school that my asthma condition became really problematic and I began learning about herbs and aromatherapy to alleviate some of my suffering (the medications were a big problem for me with a lot of side effects).
This is what eventually brought me to perfumery, as I needed ‘yet another’ part time job while I was in school. I was hired to create bespoke perfumes with no actual training (or retail experience), if you can imagine it. But when I started I immediately fell in love AND recognized fragrance design as another art form like painting. I was also experiencing synesthesia, so it literally was like painting in my head with aromas. [You can read more about synesthesia HERE ].
My commitment to the perfumery art form became my career path.
Q: When you did become a perfumer, were you self-taught or formally trained? Please expand on how that evolved, what was great about it, what was not great or things you wish were different.
I started as a perfumer creating exclusively bespoke perfumes at a small perfumery in Boston; hired with no perfumery training or experience. (I know this sounds kind of crazy!). And while I was supervised, I really didn’t receive much in the way of formal training (other than some education around using my nose to reverse engineer pre-existing perfumes in order to create new / re-formulations of the perfume for a client).
The training was more or less on the spot “learning by doing”. So, no, I wasn’t formally trained at a perfume house or corporate perfumery school in the traditional way. This way of learning did have it’s advantages in that I got to learn A LOT about what clients want, and helped me hone the ability to change gears, idea-wise, with every new client so I got to think about constructing many different styles of perfume all in one day.
As I come from a fine art background, I had a practice of learning materials, and learning by ‘copying’ masterworks (this is something taught in art school). So, I did a lot of this as well as memorizing many constructions of the classics from the fabulous H&R [Haarmaan and Reimer] perfume guides. I also began collecting vintage perfumes so that I could smell how the constructions worked, and basically just kept making and designing.
At the time that I started there really wasn’t an avenue, other than gaining a chemistry degree and attempting to be hired by a big company to get formal training… unlike the wonderful programs available now. I could only dream of such programs in my early 20’s when I started.
Q: What do you think helped you the most to make a career as a woman? What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be successful?
I feel that perseverance, resourcefulness, and flexibility have been the most helpful to me as a career woman. When I first started in artisan perfumery (over 30 years ago…oh my!), just about everything was corporate and made by the big multinational companies. There were VERY few other artisans around the country doing what I was doing… so I had to learn to be flexible with what I could do, and at what steps. Learning to “pivot" then has been invaluable in our current times. I wouldn’t still be here without perseverance. The fragrance industry isn’t an easy industry to navigate or break into (it’s easier now than it was in the early 1990’s) but with a commitment to the art form, it’s so worthwhile.
The biggest factor that has helped me be successful has to be creativity; not just the creative ability to conceive of fragrance designs and launch them, but the creativity to find ways of moving forward, to the side, around the block, sometimes cutting back to make room for the future and the like. The creative mindset to problem solve is important in most lines of work, but I feel it is essential as an artist.
Q: How have others embraced or judged your profession as a perfumer?
In the beginning, most people would ask what my “real job” was… LOL. It was a completely new thing in the early 1990’s and very few people were doing artisan / indie perfumery. I’m sure many people thought it was a crazy thing to do… but as time has progressed, people love what I do and “have heard of it.” Scent Culture is a real phenomenon now and I love it.
Q: Perfumers that have their own brands like you do, many times have to wear many hats. Is this the case for you? And if so, what hats do you wear the most? Which ones do you love, hate?
Yes, I do wear many hats, but honestly that’s one of the things that I love about the work that I do, as it requires that I stretch and grow my abilities. I don’t think that I would like a regular job with just some tasks; I love that I have to be a thinker, a writer, a designer, a visual artist, an actual artisan making things with my hands, a psychologist, a healer, and a merchant. I will admit that I don’t enjoy ‘business-y’ things like accounting. (I’d rather go to the dentist than do data entry or accounting). I can do these things (and I do, do them) … I just don’t like doing those facets of having a business.
Q: What advice or words of wisdom would you give a young woman who wanted to be a perfumer or start her own perfume company?
Q: August Picnic, 1976 was chosen for this month’s collection. Can you tell us more about this fragrance? The inspiration, the key notes, how it makes you feel when you wear it, why customer’s love it, etc.
August Picnic, 1976 is an autobiographical perfume. It tells the story of my family’s summer pastime of having picnics at my grandfather’s farm house and the joy I remember eating rhubarb pie (and fresh, raw rhubarb with white sugar in Dixie cups) with my brothers and cousins. It’s a lovely “rhubarb landscape perfume” with notes of green grass, cedar wood (my grandfather's little cabin by the pond was built of cedar wood), and of course a touch of strawberry sweetness woven into the mix.
For me it’s filled with comfort and joyous summer reflections of being with my extended family outside on a sunny Sunday afternoon. My customers love it because it’s fresh and green… filled with fun and pleasure; it’s not too sweet and super easy to wear. It brings a smile to your face when you wear it!
Q: What in your life has brought or given you the greatest satisfaction or fulfillment? Looking back, what would you have done differently? What would you do again?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, as I feel very fortunate to have had some wonderful highlights in my life. But I think that every single time I get a letter or an email or a social media post from a client who says that the scent designs that I have created made a positive difference in their lives, THIS brings the greatest satisfaction; to know that I have made someone’s life easier or better in some way through my work means the world to me.
Looking back, I have made so, SO many mistakes (doing the trade show circuit early in my career comes to mind first, but there are many more mistakes… ).
I know that having a gigantic catalogue might seem like a mistake (from a business standpoint) to many, I’m pretty sure I’d do it all over again if given the chance, since what I love most in my work is the actual conceiving of ideas and bringing them to life. I LOVE designing; it’s my life blood, my breath. I couldn’t live happily without it.
Q: What do you do for fun these days?
Play with my son, Xander, and my husband, Edwin. Before Covid, we liked to travel together, take copious photographs, and eat fabulous food. I hope that we can do much more of this when the time is right again. I’m still painting and singing which brings me enormous joy. They, too, are like breathing.
"Floating", Original Artwork by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, mixed media on canvas, 2010.
Last, but certainly not least, have a listen to Dawn at her TEDx Talk:
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Photo credits: DSH Perfumes, NPR.org, Anatasia Zgenin, Fulvio Ciccolo
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