Perfume Genius: D.S. & Durga’s David Moltz on the History and Philosophy of Scent

As I wait for David Moltz to arrive at our scheduled viewing of the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibit, The Art of Scent: 1889-2012, I can’t help but eavesdrop on a teenage boy with a southern accent complaining to his parents about his total lack of interest in the exhibit. I feel bad, but I’m somewhat inclined to agree with him as I wait, since I had no real idea what to expect from an exhibition that relies on the nose and not the eyes. But ten minutes later, Moltz, one-half of the husband and wife duo of the small-batch fragrance brand D.S. & Durga, totally changes my mind.

Started in 2007 when Moltz and his future wife Kavi decided to make one-off holiday gifts of tonics and aftershaves for friends and family, Moltz said the pair “fell down the rabbit hole of scent creation,” which led Moltz to trade in his guitar, and saw Kavi move on from her career in architecture to product design when the hobby turned into a real business. I don’t even get a chance to ask Moltz what his thoughts are on the apprehensions I shared with the young tourist about smells belonging in a museum as we start walking around.

“The art of perfumery, which is what I view it as, more than just an accessory to fashion,” he starts off without prompt. “It transports you to a completely different time and place in the world.” It seems pithy, but as Moltz looks over each of the examples of the exhibit that was curated by The Emperor of Scent author Chandler Burr, he continues to speak knowledgeably about each scent in a way that seems half philosopher and half historian. He speaks of perfume as a concept that came with the advent of aroma chemicals; he compares the iconic scent of Chanel No. 5 to Dadaism, and explains the reason that in a time when people are obsessed with natural ingredients, synthetics are always a safer bet when making a fragrance. Though he continues to whisper, I can sense Moltz get more and more excited as he goes on.

We keep walking and taking in the various scents while we talk more about Moltz’s process and inspiration. We stop by to take in Osmanthe Yunnan, a scent Moltz mentions was created by the Hermes in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. I ask if it’s a rarity to have an in-house “nose,” as they’re called in the industry. Moltz tells me it is, adding, “That’s something that is unique about what we do; we run the business, but I also make all the scents, which is not too common in our industry.” Moltz goes on to talk about the concepts and influences behind his creations the way that a songwriter or painter describes a song or a painting, citing periods in time as influences: “Mississippi in the 1200s, when a death cult was raging and the people were building mounds, Boston in the ’80s, when the IRA lurked behind my seaside youth, etc.”

Moltz sounds like something between an eccentric and an old-fashioned Romantic, but whatever his methods, they seem to be working quite well, as nearly every major fashion magazine has embraced D.S. & Durga, and you can find the perfumes and colognes in small boutiques all across the country, not to mention J. Crew Men’s shops. They’ve collaborated with RODIN, Shipley & Halmos, JOYA Studio, BKLYN Dry Goods, and Anthropologie; Moltz keeps tight-lipped about two more that are coming up in 2013. The company is literally a mom-and-pop business, as the couple balance taking care of their firstborn son with the daily ins and outs of a small business, from boxing up orders to taking meetings with potential buyers. But D.S. & Durga also fit within the narrative of the Brooklyn artisanal revolution that picked up when it seemed like America was on the brink of economic collapse. Moltz is obsessed with his craft the way you hear Rick and Michael Mast discuss their chocolate, describing the science and technique that goes into what they make, and making sure to know where each ingredient comes from.

We finish taking in the exhibit in the sparsely laid out room. We’ve essentially walked through a hall of fame for scents, the brands that laid the groundwork for what Moltz now makes his living from. I mention how it’s funny that you don’t really think too much about what goes into creating a scent because, in most cases, it’s a bottle with a logo that tells you very little of what is actually inside. Moltz agrees as he takes one last whiff of one of the scents that he had been fixating on. “We’re doing something different,” he says as he begins to talk about how every scent tells a story, how much he and his wife put into every new fragrance, from the cologne or perfume itself to the packaging and the descriptions (“American sagebrush, flowering white thyme, & prairie switchgrass from the wild western territories. Perfect for robbing banks on horseback” for “Cowboy Grass”), and then stops for a second to collect himself. He then replies with what sounds like the greatest marketing slogan somebody can come up with for a D.I.Y. fragrance company operating out of Brooklyn: “That’s what these scents are meant to do. They are an everyday luxury that can really help a person to create their own world around them, which is Romanticism in the truest sense of the word.”

Images courtesy of D.S. & Durga