Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is a pioneer in the olfactory art perfumery movement. After she studied fragrance as an art form, Hurwitz designed her own line of innovative perfumes under her own label, DSH Perfumes. Throughout her career, Hurwitz has partnered with many top designers to consult on new lines of exclusive perfumes. She has also partnered with several art museums, like the Denver Art Museum, to share her expertise on fragrance as an art form. Get to know Dawn and her unique career in the alluring frontier of olfactory art.

Dawn is speaking at our next virtual event, TEDxMileHigh: Vision, on December 5th. You can register for the event here.

What Was a Moment in Your Life That Influenced Your Career?

I’ve always wanted to be involved in the arts. As a child, I participated in dance, theatre, and singing, as well as in visual arts. When I applied to art school, I wanted to study painting and music. When I learned that each was a 4-year course load, I had to choose. I chose painting, and while at university I thought I wanted to become an academic in the visual arts arena. That was until I discovered fragrance/olfactory art form. Well, when I encountered fragrance, it was still considered a commodity—just a thing to buy and sell. I clearly saw olfactory art as an art form, akin to all of the high arts. This was the pivot point that changed the trajectory of my life. 

Over the years I have continued to advocate for olfactory art—for people to experience it as any of the other arts. I have also integrated my visual art practice into my olfactory art practice, thus creating multi-sensory experiences for my clients and art lovers everywhere.

In this way, my dreams have indeed come true.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

There have been a number of events in my life that led me here that I could consider turning points. I’d have to say that the biggest was when the New York Times Perfume Art Critic, Chandler Burr, gave a 4/5 star review in the Times for my overall body of work, centering on my CHROMA Collection of synesthetic aromas. 

At the time, he was the most widely read and respected voice in perfume critique. He was also a major proponent of recognizing fragrance as a true art form. I’m not sure if it opened doors exactly, but it did add gravitas to my voice and my views on olfactory art and design. I have been able to build and grow based on this recognition.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. I am a lover of Venice, and (just about) all things Venetian.
  2. I am passionate about gemstones and make wearable assemblage gem art pieces as a hobby.
  3. As a young person, I performed in “Summer Stock” productions in New York and was a professional singer.

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. Frida Kahlo, for her heroic adherence to her life’s dream to become a painter and her journey through horrific physical tragedy to (partial) recovery.
  2. J.M.W. Turner, as he was truly the visionary to see painting as abstraction at a time when all ‘accepted art’ was representational.
  3. Francois Coty, as he is the architect of modern perfumery concepts. He developed ideas about fragrance design as well as models of business that are still in use today.

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks TED Talk, “How We Can Face the Future Without Fear, Together.”  I found his sober yet kind manner deeply moving as he spoke about the true meaning of hope and the dangers of “magical thinking.” For many weeks afterward, I contemplated his talk and examined how I could focus my energies to find hope in despair. I also opened my world to views that oppose my own with the aim to see the humanity in those opposing views, and build peace around our shared humanity.

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

Show up and persevere. Do the work. You have to be willing to give your attention, energy, and imagination to what you love and believe in. Building something worthwhile takes time and focus, so you have to show up and treat your dreams as if they are important—because they are.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

Scheduling and ignoring distractions. With the advent of social media, any person doing anything now has an entirely new, full-time job added to their normal workload. That is, to create a steady stream of content to post on social media. It can feel like an unending, unyielding onslaught. Scheduling this new media job into an already demanding workload is a challenge.

For me personally, I can’t always tell if it is work or a distraction from work. I guess it’s both. 

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

Authenticity. I feel that as a society we learn to be individualistic without receiving tools to understand our true selves in an authentic way. When we have spent time honestly looking to see our true selves and learn to value our authentic experiences, as well as the authentic experiences of others, we are not only able to feel our individualism without feeling threatened, but also our relationship and responsibility to society.  

A good first step toward greater authenticity in society would be to teach children to listen to themselves. We need to help them ask questions about themselves so that they may explore who they are as they are growing up. 

We need to show up with honesty and compassion for the human condition to set the best example that we can. 

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

Write a book. Repeatedly, people have asked me if I would ever write a book of perfume based on my own concepts around aesthetics in scent design. I have yet to make it a reality. The best thing I am able to evoke from my students is a sense of their own “why” and their voice which is why I love teaching. 

I would love to share the creative fire that my students experience in their classes with the growing numbers of blossoming creatives engaging in olfactory art and scent design.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea?

Smell. Just take some time to examine your sense of smell. Explore your world and consider the depth of feeling that each scent evokes. It is an invaluable asset to promote a greater sense of peace, calm, joy, and even empowerment in your life. Through your sense of smell, you can bring more of what you love into your personal sphere and remind yourself of what is most meaningful.