Boulder perfumer creates scent culture, wins for ‘Colorado’

From scents dubbed 'Avocado Toast (The Hipster Skin Scent)' to 'Wild Coyote,' each perfume has its own distinct story

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz poses for a portrait at The Essense Studio in Boulder on June 11, 2019. Spencer Hurwitz recently received a 2019 Art and Olfaction Award for her fragrance “Colorado.”
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Boulder-based award-winning perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, owner of DSH Perfumes and retail space The Essense Studio, has kept the residents of the Front Range and beyond smelling delightful with her ever-evolving arsenal of handmade botanical scents. In her nearly 30-year career, she’s crafted thousands of perfumes — each with their own distinct story. Filled with fresh organic ingredients, often mirroring the scents found in nature, these innovative offerings stretch far past the generic, mass-produced bottles of CK One and Chanel No. 5.

“I’ve been called an insatiable designer,” said Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, who used to construct handmade mail-order catalogs, complete with drawings, of her product in the ‘90s. “From a business standpoint, having this much stuff is crazy.”

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz works on a new fragrance at The Essense Studio in Boulder on Monday.

 

For Spencer Hurwitz, the destiny to always be a perfumer perhaps evolved from a unique condition she has had since childhood. She is a synesthete. The rare extraordinary sensory ability allows Spencer Hurwitz to see colors when she smells fragrances.

This pioneer of the American indie perfumery movement also has the unique ability to smell what perfume you have and decipher each component that went into its making.

“I’ve memorized so many scents over the years,” said Spencer Hurwitz. “It’s a lot like knowing all the words to a song.”

Spencer Hurwitz was enlisted by American Perfumer to concoct a fragrance that captured the spirit of her state. “Colorado” is both musky and clean — meant to capture the magic of a day spent at high elevation among the ponderosa pines. Last May, she traveled to Amsterdam where she was awarded for her creation that took home the coveted “Golden Pear” at the 6th annual Art and Olfaction Awards.

The Essense Studio is more a charming art studio than a perfume house.

The limited-edition perfume sold out, but there is talk of releasing another batch. Folks can get a whiff of the award-winning fragrance Friday at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s “Museum After Dark: Perception” — a gala celebrating “Our Senses” exhibit.

While Spencer Hurwitz doesn’t trek through the mountains and personally harvest botanicals for her perfumes, she does enlist the services of professional distillers. She utilizes essential oils distilled by Eric Bresselsmith — a man dedicated to combing the Rocky Mountain region for sagebrush and white fir.

“I love oakmoss,” said Spencer Hurwitz. “It’s very dense, very earthy. Some versions can smell like campfire or wet earth.”

Passersby wouldn’t necessarily know the magic that resides within her small brick storefront on North Broadway, but for those who do, The Essense Studio is quite the destination. Tourists from the likes of Nebraska all the way to Belgium have made the pilgrimage to The Essense Studio to see where Spencer Hurwitz crafts her enticing blends — and to meet the woman behind the deliriously intriguing fragrances.  From an overhead chandelier to a vintage green couch, the plant-laden space, complete with an aromatic fig tree, provides a vibe you just won’t find at a department store’s perfume counter.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz shows off a fragrance called “Become the Shaman” at The Essense Studio in Boulder.

“I’m not looking at the numbers,” said Spencer Hurwitz, a certified aromatherapist. “I’m really engaged in the art form. I treat this place like an art studio, not a perfume house.”

Her clients range from documentary filmmakers to writers to artists, all looking to surround themselves with scents that are distinctly them — smells that inspire and set a distinct mood. Spencer Hurwitz is also somewhat of a re-inventor. For one of her longtime clients, a woman now in her 90s, Spencer Hurwitz was able to recreate a discontinued perfume the woman used to wear when she was 13.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is when I’ve been able to match a beautifully made perfume to a person that makes them feel like I tell their story — a scentscape,” said Spencer Hurwitz. “A truly great perfume smells so good and feels so comfortable, people actually think you smell like that.”

From helping clients narrow down and choose what already-established scents she has in her repertoire to creating bespoke fragrances with careful customization, Spencer Hurwitz always puts clients first and often disperses samples so they can see how the fragrance acts in their everyday lives.

“I’m always my own test dummy,” said Spencer Hurwitz, who admits to only using both unscented shampoo and laundry detergent at home. “I rarely wear scent for my own pleasure.”

One of her latest summer offerings, “Wild Coyote,” is made from the elusive ylang ylang flower that, when not properly treated, can have the odor of worn leather or cured meat. She has tamed the botanical within a floral-forward blend doused with notes of magnolia, jasmine, yellow orchid, golden champaca, sandalwood, frankincense and vanilla.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz shows off a fragrance called “Avocado Toast” at The Essense Studio in Boulder.

Another current creation pays homage to a trendy brunch staple. “Avocado Toast (The Hipster Skin Scent)” exudes a fresh, juicy and creamy scent that is complemented by a toasty-warm caramelization. Other creations are reminiscent of hints of coffee and Earl Grey tea.

“I’m all about humor,” said Spencer Hurwitz. “Sometimes the perfume world can be so full of itself. It’s nice to not take it all so seriously.”

She works six days a week, with Monday being a full day of creativity where she avoids taking calls that come into her landline, but will occasionally hop on Instagram to share her latest ventures with her fanbase in a live story. The sounds of John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald often waft through her studio space — right along with the intoxicating smells of lavender, Tibetan musk and linden blossom.

Containers of fragrances at The Essense Studio in Boulder.

It’s Spencer Hurwitz’s goal to eventually open The Artscent Museum — a small gallery space within Essense Studio, where visitors can marvel at artfully designed vintage perfume bottles, 1940s perfume ads, smell the renowned scents of yesteryear and learn more about this fascinating industry. She already has the display cases in place and a treasure trove of “white whales” — rarely found — perfumes from long ago. The collection is a result of items bid on by Spencer Hurwitz on EBay, things she’s purchased from antique perfume dealers and pieces gifted to her.

“I want to have a way to offer glimpses into scent culture in Boulder,” said Spencer Hurwitz, who started her career as a painter.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz works on a new fragrance at The Essense Studio in Boulder on June 11, 2019.

When not finding the perfect scent for clients and mixing new imaginative fragrances, Spencer Hurwitz enjoys teaching others about the intricacies of this ancient art form. She occasionally hosts groups that want to learn more about the components of rich sandalwood or citrusy bergamot.

Over the years, she has also mentored numerous apprentices. Former costume designer Amber Jobin, now an award-winning perfumer living in Denver, learned the precise art from Spencer Hurwitz.

“After several internships, I was hooked and knew that this was the new creative outlet that I’d been searching for,” said Jobin. “I found a lot of parallels and similarities to costume design and other creative endeavors that I already enjoyed, so it was a very natural fit for me.”

While floral and plant-based scents are assembled at The Essense Studio, other ingredients such as ambergris — a waxy marine-smelling substance expelled from the digestive system of New Zealand Sperm Whales — can also be found in certain perfumes.

“An area that I find especially rewarding is using ideas and concepts not normally associated with perfume as inspiration for a fragrance,” said Jobin. “I’ve created perfumes based on some unusual ideas, like artificial intelligence, the materials used to make a cell phone and exoplanets.  Perfume doesn’t need to be just about flowers and plants, it can be inspired by anything. It’s this wide-open creative process and I really love that.”

 

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