The Art of the Scent

Last Friday I went with two friends to celebrate my belated December birthday. We lunched and then headed over to Parfum des Beaux Arts, which is so simply stated on this ordinary door. But when I walked through this unassuming door, the world shifted slightly and I was in a wonderland of scent, fragrance and beauty.

I hatched this birthday plan with my friend Lisa Hoffman when she and I went to hear the proprietor (goddess) of Parfum des Beaux Arts, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, speak about historical perfumes in conjunction with the Denver Art Museum exhibit, “Artisans and Kings: Selected Treasures from the Louvre”. While the exhibit was a total snoozer, the lecture by Dawn was very inspiring and opened my eyes, and my nose, to the (for me) unexplored land of perfume scents. Lisa also helped with this. She’s been mentioning perfumes to me for years and it wasn’t sinking in until I heard Dawn speak. I’m not a perfume girl, preferring a mostly uncommercially scented life – fresh air, the smell of rain, my garden in the morning, my son’s hair after he’s played outside on a hot summer’s day, garlic sauteing in hot olive oil, a waft of rosemary just after the knife slices through it – scents of everyday life, but not perfume. But Lisa was brought up in a house full of wonderfully eccentric women who all loved perfumes and followed the perfume world – early “perfumistas” (there really is such a thing). Lisa always smells wonderful and she can tell you not only what she’s wearing, but which perfume house it comes from, some history about the perfume and the next up and comer in the perfume world. It’s fascinating to me. At Dawn’s lecture we learned that she hand crafts personal artisanal scents. I was completely intrigued with the idea that I could go to her studio and that she could make a scent that was just for me. So with Lisa by my side, being a great friend and photographer for the day, we knocked on Dawn’s unassuming door and a whole new world opened up.

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Dawn has a small warehouse space she works out of. The front room being office/packing and shipping and a small corner for her retail line where she sells a wide variety of her personal perfume collections and fragrances.

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It’s in the back corner of the warehouse that the magic really happens – in the blending room – her studio. Every single bottle you see in this photograph represents a different scent. There are many “notes” within this amazing symphony of smells. They have names like, Amber, Buddahwood, Opium, Tunisian Myrrh, Fir Needle, Ivy, French Lavendar. My brain was going crazy just walking into this olfactory wonderland. I wondered how in the world she was going to be able to sort it all out and figure out what scent was right for me.

We learned that Dawn was born with an acute sense of smell (that’s an understatement) and she has honed that skill over the years. She began her life as a perfumer apprenticing at an old-fashioned perfumerie in Boston where fragrances were made my hand. “She had to memorize the hundreds of aromatics that are used to make perfumes – florals, animal scents, resins, spices, woods, leafy smells, oceanic scents. To succeed in perfume making, she had to not only be able to distinguish each scent and remember it, but she needed to be able to understand how they would smell when blended together in diferent combinations. She wrote down her observations about smells, keeping a sort of journal of her aromatic experiences, a process she recommends for people interested in making perfume. “It’s like learning a language,” she says. “You need a vocabulary. You need to be able to make poetry out of smells.” *

As we began, I told her a few of the perfumes that I occasionally wear, Angel by Thierry Mugler and Flower Bomb by Viktor and Rolf and that in my 20’s I wore Opium. But that mostly I love the smell of nature and that I don’t have any commercially scented products in my house. She smiled and started pulling bottles off the shelf – psychically sizing me up and already sensing my scent and thinking about a fragrance for me. This woman is truly a genius on many levels. We then began a scent seminar, really, smelling probably 30 different essences. Learning where they came from and how their scents are different from what you’d expect. Some I liked so much my eyes involuntarily rolled back in my head with deep delight – others made me pull away in disgust. Dawn was noting all this and “reading” me.

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This Kenyan Musk was heavenly. Not like the musk perfumes you remember from high school, but deeper and sweeter, without being sickly sweet. Heavenly.

The black pepper was a deeper note, spicy, but not so peppery. The holy basil had a deep green smell. One of Dawn’s genius qualities is her ability to describe and translate scent into words. This is an art all by itself. We’d smell and she’d describe and then it all made sense. We’d smell again and we could “see” what she was talking about. Dawn is a painter as well as a perfume artist. So she easily translates aesthetic criteria into aromatic criteria. Notice I said “she” translates it easily. It’s not so easy for the rest of us. Her breadth and depth of knowledge is staggering.

Dawn collects vintage fragrances in their lovely bottles. She and Lisa had a lively exchange comparing notes about perfumes they remembered from their childhoods and teens.

Dawn is getting ready to move a few doors down in her warehouse district and in her new space she’ll have room for a small “Scent Museum”, where these lovelies will be displayed. One of the services she offers is to recreate a perfume from long ago. If you have an old perfume bottle from your Aunt Edwina that still brings tears to your eyes, Dawn can recreate it for you. She’s that amazingly genius with scents. She can smell it and from that alone, she can recreate it. Stunning.

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After we’d narrowed it down a bit, Dawn began to get a sense of what I was all about.

She made my signature perfume by blending it right on my skin, so I am part of the perfume. My personal fragrance smells different on me than on anyone else because I’m part of the perfume. As Michelle would say, “How cool is THAT?”.

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So the blending went. She started with a couple of “base” notes (or is it bass) and added a few middle notes and then some top notes.

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She kept very detailed notes as we went along, writing down the exact formula.

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She blends her perfumes the old fashioned way, one drop at a time.

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A lot of back and forth and adding this and then some of that, and drop by drop, voila! My personal scent was created. I still haven’t named it. I need to live with it for a while before a name will come to me. The amazing thing is that when my husband and daughter smelled me (separately) when I came home , they both said, “It smells just like you.” Whoa. She totally got me and translated that into a personal scent.

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This is my wonderful and beautiful friend Leah who also came with me on this magical day. She’s a delightfully funny and incredibly supportive friend and I was so glad to have her be a part of this sensorial experience.

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Dawn has been in the perfume business for 16 years. Starting out in Boston as an apprentice and then opening her own studio and business. I’m sure it’s been more than challenging at times. It is for all artists. Her positive attitude and appreciation for the beauty of life is everywhere. From her small but charming studio/warehouse, to her love and deep passion for scents and fragrance, to her generosity of time and expertise, this is a women who is driven, in the best possible way, to bring beauty into this world through her sensual art.

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Even her small bathroom had these little gems on a tiny shelf.

“People are finally getting the idea that fragrance is an art form,” she says. “It’s about what it’s like to be alive, what it’s like to be a human being. That’s what every artist does. You translate your ideas about life into something other people can experience.”*

To read more about Dawn’s journey to perfume genius, you can go to her Parfum des Beaux Arts website here. Once there you can peruse and shop her fragrance collections. Her website is very thorough and an education in itself. Have a look. If you are in the Boulder area she has open studio hours on Saturday’s noon to 5:00 p.m., but check the website in May as she is moving to her new location and I’m not sure what her open studio hours will be. If you would like a personal fragrance made just for you, you need to call or email to make an appointment.

For those of you who are fired up by this post and want to go deeper into the fascinating world of scent, I highly recommend the film, “Perfume”. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s got a creepy aspect to it, no doubt. But the way the story of this early perfumer is told, you get a deeper understanding of the world of scent. Visually dark and mysterious it evokes an olfactory experience you won’t soon forget. I highly recommend it. Here’s the movie trailer:

* Boulder Weekly newspaper did a lovely article on Dawn in October 2007, which I have quoted in this blog post. You can read it here.

6 Responses to The Art of the Scent

  1. Leah Kahn says:

    And where is that permission waiver that I signed for my largish image to be posted across the universe? That was very sweet of you to include little ‘ol me (even if I do look like I just got off the boat)!! It was a very fun & educational day – thanks for suggesting it. XO-L

  2. How Cool Is That INDEED! I hopped over here at breakneck speed to read more about this fascinating event! I am swooooooning with delight that you did this very cool thing – and I am also thrilled that Lisa was along as we know she is ‘scent girl’. Darling photo of the two of you!! Is that cabinet filled with rose scents? I’m a wreck – that is where I would be perched, waiting for a waft. I remember Lisa buzzing about that lecture. It’s like a Rock Star Moment to get Dawn to design your signature scent, isn’t it? I forgot about that movie….will add to the must-see list. Thanks Fran for this terrific post. “To make poetry of smells”, wow!

    Happy belated Birthday!!

  3. stephanie says:

    this is all so fascinating and wonderous! What a treasure Dawn is, really….thank you for this perfect rundown of your day with perfume. I love the film and of course from the first time I read of your trip thought of it, that hightened sense of smell, the flowers set in the beeswax I think?? all the visuals that brought the scents into my imagination.

    well, this just brought it to life…AND I love that you celebrate your birthday in the spring!

    happy happy!

  4. Steph says:

    Really enjoyed visiting your blog! Great post!

  5. eb says:

    OMG

    this is the treat of treats – I am in love with color. sound and scent – this post is one of the best experiences of my blog-life – what a wonderful trip you have shared here – I am INSPIRED!!!!!!!!!!!!

    xox – eb

    ps: would/could you send me a hint of YOUR scent?
    I may do this here tomorrow with my local folk –
    may not be as thorough – but…
    also – “loved” the movie…

    thanks for a deLIGHTful journey…

    xox – eb – again

  6. Mary Ann says:

    Fran,

    I’m catching up this early Wednesday afternoon. How fun to come for a visit and have all this goodness to read about and SEE. The photo of you and Lisa is SPECTACULAR!
    loved the tour of the parfum goddess. what a rare and special treat.

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