On the Job: Snooping Around Perfumers D.S. & Durga's Live-In Laboratory

ds-durga-on-the-job-1a Above, right: "Our beloved distiller getting ready to steam up some lavender flowers." Enlarge Image
Manhattan-based scent-makers (and couple) D.S. & Durga aren't your typical perfumers. In fact, they came into their trade by pure happenstance—much like their serendipitous first meeting on an East Village street corner. What started as handmade gifts has turned into a full-fledged business for D.S., who also moonlights as a musician, and Durga who left the world of architecture for artisanal perfuming. With evocative names like Cowgirl Grass, Beartrapper, and Rose Americana, and a range of men's and women's fragrances that take inspiration from the lore of botany, we couldn't help being a little obsessed. Craving more of their sensibility, we decided to visit the twosome at their apartment where they handcraft and distill all of their potions. As we expected, there was lots more to discover than just antique apothecary bottles and a kickass record collection.
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ds-durga-on-the-job-3a "The stamp and 'samples overflow' drawer. We hand-stamp all of our boxes with these as well as anything else we can think of, like herbal sachets, envelopes, bags." Enlarge Image
When and how did you get your start?
Durga: "We started by making holiday gifts for friends in 2007. D.S. wanted to make a Bay Rhum aftershave for his guy friends, and I wanted an orange blossom water toner for my lady friends. We soon realized that the scent of aftershaves and toners doesn't last, so we started to make colognes and perfumes, which our friends loved."
What is the process of making a fragrance like? How does a concept become a scent?
D.S: "It is a structure just like any other that needs a solid foundation, ample middle ground, and adornments on the surface."
ds-durga-on-the-job-2b "Durga looks up the traditional uses for pimento berries while I take a break with the guitar." Enlarge Image
How about, if you were to make a scent inspired by Refinery 29 what would the process be like?
Durga: "I think we would start by asking you about the inspiration and themes behind your company. Then we'd try to match scents with those ideas to find something that conjured up the image of a refinery. Maybe old wooden boxes, scented leather gloves, or industrial refining factories, maybe we'd use a refined oil or try to stick to 29 notes and make it playful. The possibilities are endless!"
ds-durga-on-the-job-4a Above, from left: "Rare flower absolutes, attars, and musk seed oils from Chandni Chowk bazaar in New Delhi. This shop has been in the same place for centuries. When you go there and ask to sample anything, they rub your arm with giant swabs from the glass stoppers of their ancient bottles." "D.S. unscrews a jar of rose hydrosol, which is the 'rosewater' left over from distilling rose buds." Enlarge Image
How is DS & Durga different from other scent brands that are out there?
D.S.: "Unlike huge companies who rule the fragrance world, we get to see our perfumes go from raw materials to finished product. We can also take chances making some challenging scents that might not be for everyone."
Was there something lacking in perfume that you wanted to fill in for?
Durga: "We wanted to hand-make our own scents in small batches to the taste of people like us and we wanted them to be informed by history—as in how and where all these aromatic ingredients come from."
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ds-durga-on-the-job-5a Above, from left: "Durga transfers oils to the work station." "A cross section of our herbal and plant books. We gather much of our inspiration and information about plants from these." Enlarge Image
What's new for the line?
Durga: "We are doing some exclusive perfumes for Anthropologie that are due out in the fall. They are some of the best stuff we've made and will be reasonably priced at $49! We are also collaborating with our jeweler friend Erica Weiner to make a vial necklace that you can fill with our perfume so you can reapply throughout the day."
What helps to inspire your scents?
Durga: "Herb books, locations, music, outdated wisdom, recipes, old medicine, and childhood. Memory is the most essential thing to making a scent—as you must remember the impression something has left upon you even if you are using your imagination."
ds-durga-on-the-job-6a Above, from left: "A painting of us by Katie Torn that I commissioned for Durga's 28th birthday. It leans against my beloved classical record collection—vital for the background of perfuming." "D.S. measures out copaiba balsam, a South American tree resin, for a new experiment. It failed." Enlarge Image
How do you divide the work of D.S. & Durga?
Durga: "D.S. does most of the scent work and the bottling. I do all of the design as well as anything that takes technical or computer handiwork. Working together is usually great, since we have our own areas of expertise."
What type of environment is conducive for scent making?
D.S.: "I think a sunny room is best for experimenting with new scents, but horrible for mixing as sunlight can alter precious oils."
ds-durga-on-the-job-7a "Our cluttered workspace where scents come to mingle with their friends and enemies." Enlarge Image
What is your work soundtrack?
Durga: "When we work together, we prefer Belafonte, old soul, and American folk music. We're really into Otis Redding and Sam Cooke lately."
Is there anyone you are dying to have wear your scents?
D.S.: "It's great when you meet up with an old friend and they're wearing something you made. It'd be cool to make Keith Richards a custom scent, or to collaborate with other fashion houses like Tom Ford or this English company we love called Folk."
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Do you wear your own fragrances?
Durga: "We're our own guinea pigs and wear things until we perfect them. I love Cowgirl Grass—the scent D.S. originally made for me. D.S. cycles through them all, but always comes back to Marblehead Reds and a scent not yet released called New England Pine."
ds-durga-on-the-job-8a "The distiller blows at full steam much like Lindsey Buckingham's guitar solo on 'I'm So Afraid' from Fleetwood Mac's world tour '79-'80. Durga rolls her eyes at my antics. A vintage Hindu poster of the goddess Durga hangs behind us." Enlarge Image
What scents are you guys planning to wear at your wedding?
Durga: "We made our friend a custom scent for his wedding. Maybe we'll build on that and get all our friends to smell the same at their weddings. Or maybe D.S. will just wear sandalwood attar and I will wear night-blooming jasmine—we'll keep it Indian!
ds-durga-on-the-job-11a "Presents from our friends and family spanning four generations" Enlarge Image
Can you choose a few of your all-time favorite albums and match them with a scent?
"New Morning" by Bob Dylan:
"No matter where I put this on, I feel like I am driving upstate where Dylan was in those days. I would see what grows in an around Woodstock. Take some of the wild herbs and flowers from Ulster County, mix it with some "gypsy" oils and balsams and maybe some sacred resins as the dry down."
"Pathetique Symphony" by Tchaikovsky:
"Here was a man who once said, 'this evening I feel sad, and shed tears, for on my wanderings in the woods this morning I was unable to find a single violet.' Clearly he was a sensitive man who enjoyed his nature. Maybe we could take his violet idea by creating a violet leaf accord expanded by dark Russian pine."
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"Exile On Main Street" by the Rolling Stones:
"This is rock n' roll poetry—just listen to the lyrics of "Casino Boogie." The Stones recorded it while exiled from the UK for tax evasion in Keith Richard's giant house in the south of France. This scent would be complex. With a deep tobacco-resin base, orange blossoms and tuberose for Provence, ashes to symbolize the musty basements where they recorded, with cypress trees, roses and frankincense."
"The Man and His Music" by Sam Cooke:
"Nothing says summer nights in small coastal American towns more than Sam Cooke. So, for this scent we would make it very oceanic with hints of smoke from the barbecue and the crisp, salty air."