Perfumes That Conjure the American Desert

For today’s fragrance makers, the arid landscapes of the Southwest are fertile ground.

Article by Caitie Kelly

5-TMAG-DESERT-SCENTSClockwise from top left: Saguaro Sagebrush eau de parfum,; D.S. & Durga Sweet Do Nothing eau de parfum,; Leland Francis Cowgirl eau de parfum,; Dryland Wilds Piñon Soliflore perfume, and Piñon Resin incense,; Astier de Villatte Tucson perfume,; and Estée Lauder Desert Eden eau de parfum, Photography by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi.

“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 — unsavoury 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 defence 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.”

For Benoît Astier de Villatte and Ivan Pericoli, the founders of the French ceramics and fragrance line Astier de Villatte, desert dwellers themselves were the starting point for their new scent Tucson. Struck by the friendliness of the locals when they visited the Arizona city for a book signing four years ago, the duo set out to bottle the town’s warmth. Rather than stick to solely native flora, “we played with aromatics like oregano, thyme, rosemary, cedar from Morocco and everlasting flower, or immortelle,” says Alexandra Monet, the nose who created the recipe. “In a warm place you smell immortelle everywhere.” Today, the company’s Tucson customers, “really believe it is the scent of their city, which is more important for us than being true to the plants that grow there,” says Pericoli.

The master perfumer Anne Flipo also took a less literal approach to capturing the landscape with her latest work for Estée Lauder, Desert Eden. For her, inspiration came from the spiritual connection many feel when visiting the desert, as well as these areas’ typically colourful sunsets and sunrises. She used notes of incense and frankincense to convey “mystery and mysticism,” she says, and added Turkish rose as a nod to the pink-tinged morning light.

Robin Moore and Cebastien Rose, the founders of the Albuquerque-based perfume line Dryland Wilds, on the other hand, do more than look to the environment for inspiration. They drive, or sometimes even hike, into the desert to gather ingredients and start the fragrance-making process. “We set up a tent that we put our perfuming equipment in and sleep by the fire,” explains Rose. Their most popular scent is a soliflore, an extract from a single plant, made from piñon pine, a tree native to New Mexico. “The state is obsessed with piñon,” says Rose. “We burn it in the winter to keep warm, we harvest its nuts in fall and in the summer we cool off in its shade.” They also gather piñon resin from the base of dead trees to make incense. “It’s like our local version of frankincense,” says Moore.

Dillon Peña, the founder of the eight-year-old, Los Angeles-based fragrance and skin-care line Leland Francis, also relies on a back-to-the land process. “None of my scents have synthetic fragrance, and I think that plays into the way I grew up,” says Peña, who was raised in a farmhouse in Western Oklahoma and named his brand after the man who built that home: his great-grandfather. Peña’s scents Cowboy, a bright, grassy citrus fragrance, and Cowgirl, a woody white floral one, are odes to the ranches, farms and rodeos of his youth, with ingredients like cedar, cinnamon and galbanum. Says Peña, “They’re a sensory reminder of a simpler, grounded life.”