Perfumes That Conjure the American Desert

“It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks or sticks,” wrote the author and environmentalist Edward Abbey, who spent much of his life exploring the high deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. “You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry and fierce as the animals.” Still — unsavory inhabitants notwithstanding — the arid, sandy swaths of the American Southwest have attracted generations of artists, mystics, hippies and cowboys. And now perfumers are following their lead, attempting to translate the desert’s resilient plants and otherworldly aura into fragrance.

For David Moltz, who founded the New York-based perfume brand D.S. and Durga with his wife, Kavi, it was a visit to the Chihuahuan Desert Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Fort Davis, Texas, that sparked his fascination with desert shrubs and, more specifically, their use of scent as a defense mechanism. “These plants are dealing with intense sun and heat, and animals wanting to eat them,” he says. One bush in particular, creosote, an evergreen with waxy, pointed leaves, “produces a sweet, earthy fragrance that wafts across the desert when it becomes wet, traveling long distances,” says Lisa Gordon, the executive director of the garden. To Moltz, creosote oil smells like “gasoline and desert rain,” which made it just the right addition to Sweet Do Nothing, D.S. and Durga’s olfactory collaboration with the hotel El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, the art destination about 20 miles from Fort Davis. To round out the formula, he says, “we used notes of things that we could find in that area, like orange blossom, fig and the green, wet smell of an open cactus.”

The Los Angeles perfumer Linda Sivrican’s attraction to the desert couldn’t be captured in a single scent. Inspired by her frequent visits to Joshua Tree National Park in California, she launched a full fragrance collection, Saguara Perfumes, in 2016. “The plants there have an animalic quality that’s really raw,” she says. “There’s an earthiness that I don’t think you can find elsewhere.” Her Sagebrush scent — a mix of blue cypress, Texas cedar and sage — is meant to evoke the smell of Joshua Tree in the early morning. She added a touch of cannabis flower, she says, as a nod to what “a lot of the people do when they go to the desert.”

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