August 18, 2011

DSH Secrets of Egypt Collection - Timeless Allure

I LOVE THE perennially intriguing and glamorous style of ancient Egypt, as so many have before me, from the interior design of the Napoleonic era to the Art Deco skyscraper architects in New York to the Hollywood directors who made classic films about Cleopatra.  I was so excited about ancient Egypt when I was a kid.  It's a pretty common obsession because the imagery is so vivid.  All those sacred cats and bird headed gods and the exquisite miniature replicas of daily life artifacts. The images in flat unshaded outlines puts me in mind of a very elegant comic book style in some ways.

One of the things that DSH does that I absolutely love are collections of perfumes based on the original texts and references from past times of perfume-centricity.  DSH (aka Dawn Spencer Hurwitz) has this delightful perfume-geek side to her, and indulged it to make a collection based on the fragrances of ancient Egypt. Using the texts and historical references that remain, and interpreting them as fragrances that are very wearable right now.

There is much from that period of time that translates well to our own.  They were just as preoccupied with their bodies as we are.  They put a lot of effort into daily bathing, depilation, applying cosmetics, ornamenting and adorning themselves with jewelry and perfume, with everyone participating in the beauty culture with the best quality they could afford. The poor wore colorful clay beading, the rich as much gold as they could.

Why try perfume based on the formulas of ancient Egypt? It was a great society for perfume and inspirational across the ages as personifying a strong, lithe, bejeweled cleansed and perfumed body-conscious aesthetic.

This culture of avid makers and consumers of perfume began a long Middle Eastern tradition where perfume is both a spiritual and carnal influence on people. They used the aromatic materials around them, as an enhancement of the climate of dry heat, worn by both sexes and all social classes.  I was touched to find that historical evidence shows ancient Egyptians of all ages, classes and both sexes considered perfume and eyeliner to be basic necessities.  I agree.

The Secrets of Egypt Collection was put together in conjunction with a 'conversation lecture' at the Denver Art Museum's 2010 King Tut exhibit.  DSH researched, reformulated and recreated both sacred temple perfumes and luxury perfumes, using botanical, precious and rare essences with minor elements of synthetics to replicate wine nuances.  I have four samples provided by DSH.  They are all parfum strength.

1000 Lilies (aka Susinon) -- I think of the lilies of Egypt as the blue water lily, which was literally a natural intoxicating narcotic when dipped into the alcohol of wine, as it often was.  It is depicted everywhere on the wall paintings and bas reliefs and the tops of the columns.  The habit of this flower is to close at night and go back down underwater, then at dawn to rise up and open again.

This is the legendary fragrance Cleopatra used to perfume the sails of her river barge, wafting her presence as a sense of both real and intangible gorgeousness on the Nile out to her people along the shore. The power and beauty of the fragrance signaled her special status as a living goddess moving among them.  Resins and spices were soaked in fragrant wine, a special "balanos" oil prepared, then added to the spiced wine and also literally, 1000 lilies.  The listed notes are:

Top notes: Cardamom Seed, Cinnamon Bark, Fragrant Wine (accord), Galbanum
Middle notes: Kenya Lily, Narcissus Absolute, Orris Root, Pink Lotus, Saffron absolute, Turkish Rose Otto, Ylang-Ylang
Base notes: Australian Sandalwood, Honey, Myrrh Gum, Sweet Flag

Even with so many spices and galbanum listed in the notes, the primary initial sensation is of a smooth floral, supported by subtle woods and spices that warm up and intensify on the skin.   There is not a huge sillage, legendary perfumed sails notwithstanding, which is just as well nowadays when people get offended by overly noticeable perfume.  The lily note has an uplifting effect, and as time goes on the spices step forth,  as perfumed by the lilies, woven together with frankincense. The lotus gives a light rainwater note, which is a favorite of mine.

When I catch the scent as I move about, subliminally I get the message this is very special, this is sacred, signaled by its aromatic complexity and sheer beauty.    This is a pretty form of beauty too, so it appeals on many levels. As a floral this one is both unusual and easy to wear, but not specifically "young", it has enough dimension to carry on someone over the age of 30 and as well as would be incredible on someone younger.  The very high percentage of natural ingredients, over 85%, impart great depth and dimension.  I get a lily of the valley tone also, couched in the resins and woods.

Antiu (aka Metopion) is far more resinous and woody, the materials had to be imported into Egypt and were therefore all the more precious to them, and idealized as a perfume.  As a modern perfume this one could be worn by a man and also a serious woman who can carry an Oriental perfume implying magnificence and energetic strength. The cedar, balsam and resin notes predominate at first, then settle down quickly, as soothed by the interior sandalwood, rose otto and honey beewax.  The notes are listed as:

Top notes: Bitter Almond, Cardamom co2 Absolute, Fragrant Wine (accord), Galbanum, Lemongrass
Middle notes: Australian Sandalwood, Gallica Rose Otto, Honey Beeswax
Base notes: Copaiba Balsam, Mastic, Myrrh Gum, Peru Balsam, Pine Resin, Sweet Flag

Ancient lyrics say this would be worn on the head, and I can see that brushed into hair it would be great especially if you whip your hair back and forth as they were and we are wont to do while dancing. For those who shave their heads, and the Egyptians did that too, I can imagine how it would imply a special presence like a fragrant aura around your face.

People liked to perfume different parts of their bodies with different perfumes then, and they still do in  certain parts of the Middle East today.

Which brings me to Keni, an interpretation  of the Mendesian, aka The Egyptian,  a perfume so popular in ancient times it was appropriated by other cultures, namely the Phoenicians who as merchant traders would spread it far and wide.  Cleopatra was said to use it to perfume her feet, and since she went barefoot or in sandals, it was an effective use of such precious perfume substances.  I tried that myself, since it's summer, and it does kick up a scent aura as you walk, and perfumes your sandals, where it lingers very nicely.  The main tone for me is that of a warm woody clove,  from the main elements of cardomon, cinnamon and myrrh.

So many women put a lot of work into their feet in the summer, with pedicures and polishes and open decorative shoes,  and even jewelry, this could be yet another added layer of ornamentation.  What luxury.  Keni also means embrace, and Mendesian means from the city of Mendes, the very ancient capital city.  The notes are listed as: 

Top notes: Bitter Almond, Cardamom co2 Absolute, Cassia, Cinnamon Bark
Middle notes: Australian Sandalwood, Benzoin, Fragrant Wine (accord)
Base notes: Atlas Cedarwood, Myrrh Gum, Pine Resin

Megaleion is named for the perfumer, Megalus, or the location, Megale. The inclusion of spikenard is significant because that element was considered to be especially valuable.  People would save all their lives to obtain spikenard for important personal and family ceremonies. This style of perfume was extremely costly and complicated to make, and was perhaps the earliest highly regarded "designer" fragrance.  Personally I find this the most soft and subtle of the four.  I get  a camphor/aromatic wood bark tone with the edge taken off by rose and myrrh, and the rest seems blended so tightly together that the result is a very subtle veil of aroma that simply enhances the skin tone, like a natural version of white musk.

Top notes: Cardamom co2 Absolute, Cassia, Cinnamon Bark, Fragrant Wine (accord), Lemongrass
Middle notes: Australian Sandalwood, Balm of Gilead (accord), Spikenard, Turkish Rose Otto
Base notes: Copaiba Balsam, Costus, Myrrh Gum, Olibanum (Frankincense), Peru Balsam, Pine Resin, Sweet Flag. 

These are all in limited edition, and all the full size flacons are strung with semi-precious stones of turquoise and carnelian. Samples are available.  As with all predominantly natural perfumes*, these may require some re-calibration of your nose and attention, because the beauty is more subtle, quiet and round than what you get used to around fully synthetic fragrances.  I think of it as the difference between classical music played on acoustic instruments and rock or pop played on electrified ones with microphones.  Both are engaging and wonderful in their own way but must be evaluated on their own terms to be truly appreciated as they deserve.

*85% and above natural concentrations.  Please note there are synthetic ingredients within the wine accords in these compositions. 
DSH has over a dozen fully 100% gorgeous botanical perfumes on her site as well.

Above images:  Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in the 1930s;
Art Deco Grille from the lobby of the Chanin Building in New York City;
Egyptian mural of a dancing girl, 14th Century BCE;
Blue Water Lily by a wonderful Adelaide photographer,  please open this link for more images of water lilies;
Lotus Sculpture from the Global Egyptian Museum online; 
which also shows the image of the lady with a perfume cone on her head (this may be symbolic rather that literal, it may be simply a symbol of participating in a special activity);
Christian Louboutin sandals, from Manolo's Shoe blog.
and as Manolo says, 
    "such thing of beauty go a long way to making our lives more bearable".  
As in both perfume and shoes, so true.
DSH Secrets of Egypt Collection is on the DSH website, go there to find out more about these perfumes.

Note, I have received no compensation for this post, it's simply as Manolo says, such things of beauty go a long way to making life more bearable.


lostpastremembered said...

Love this post, Lucy. I want to try them all... heck, I'd like to taste some of them. The combinations are so exotic and timeless. Must smell them all one of these days!

Lucy said...

Lostpast, I have tons of stuff for you to try next time we meet

Carrie Meredith said...

First of all, Happy Birthday Lucy! I hope you have a lovely and fulfilling weekend. Are you doing anything special?

I've not yet tried this collection of Dawn's but have been interested in it from the start. For whatever reason, I kept choosing other scents of hers over these when it came time for sample orders. I need to just order a sample set. Like you, I'm very into ancient Egyptian history, so what's not to love? Your review of these perfumes have pretty much sealed the deal for me.

Lucy said...

Hey thanks Carrie,
DSH is so prolific, I don't know where to go next myself. I was so in the mood for this right now though partly because August as my birthday month reminds me of my childhood days and fascinations, and partly because of the season and the history geek streak in me. I would also highly highly recommend the Perfumed Court (I wrote on it in a couple of posts before too, love love love). So happy people are making such beautiful associative things these days!

Scent Hive said...

Oh dear, it appears I missed your birthday! Well Happy Belated Lucy!

I absolutely loved reading this DSH review. I have had these samples for a while now, but have been saving them for a special occasion. I think reading your review is just that special occasion! When I wear them, I will think fondly of your words.


Lucy said...

Trish, I think you will especially love 1000 Lilies.

Thank you for the kind words!


tarleisio said...

A belated Happy Birthday to you, Lucy! As you know, I'm a massive fan of 1000 Lilies, which is one of the most gorgeous florals I know! I have samples of Sampsuchinon and Cardamom and Kyphi I have yet to try, but I can't wait for the others in the line, too! Dawn has a unique ability to add a time dimension in her perfumes...surely no more evident than here! Can't wait to read what else you think of the Secrets of Egypt - ancient perfumery is such a fascinating subject, and the added perspective of olfaction brings it alive in a way nothing else can.

Lucy said...

Dear T/Sheila, Thank you! I know 1000 Lilies was a big hit with you, I so enjoyed your wonderful piece on it. You know how to really send a person with your descriptive powers.

Perhaps you HAVE sold your soul to the devil and your other piece is actually non fiction.

I don't have those samples you name, perhaps you will do a piece on them some time in the future.

I have some feedback from a scholar and would love to get some of these samples over to her too, if I could persuade her that would make for a great guest piece.