Donna Karan Essence Collection : Perfume Review



Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.

Along with Jo Malone and Susanne Lang, Donna Karan joins the ranks of the lines offering mix-and-layer options. The concept of Essence Collection is interesting in that it offers a hands on approach to perfumery by presenting fragrances in the form of single note blends, thus making the process of layering less intimidating even to those who generally avoid experimenting. If suggestions to layer Le Mâle and Mitsouko may sound outlandish, combining lavender and labdanum appear to be less so. Moreover, the oil versions of Essences are speaking to the current interest in aromatherapy, with the image of the line presented as wholesome, down to earth and approachable, while nevertheless sophisticated.

The essences in the range are best envisioned as soliflores, fragrances focusing on the single note, rather than essential oils, because they are certainly not all-natural, single ingredient compositions. …

The EdTs and the oils can be layered at will, as the choice of four fragrances was made keeping the potential layering combinations in mind. One should not fear wearing the oils undiluted (which cannot be said about the real essential oils), since they are already contained in the fragrance oil base. The EDTs and the oils can also be worn on their own, however I find that they are somewhat lacking in tenacity, and frequent reapplications are required.

Dklavender Lavender (1) is a classical soliflore, with the sweet tonality and the vivid herbaceous element. It layers especially well with Labdanum (4), a fragrance meant to resemble the balsamic and honeyed scent of resin emitted by rockrose bush. Often used in amber and leather accords, labdanum has a good affinity with lavender, thus, combining two Essences produces an interesting result.

Dkjasmine Jasmine (2) has a touch of greenness and indolic richness. As a jasmine soliflore, it is pleasant, without an overly rich animalic facet, and as a layering option, it might be best selected for Wenge (3), a fragrance reminiscent of the dark African wood with a deep, sweet quality accented by the caramel redolent smoke. It is one of the elements that make Donna Karan Black Cashmere such an exotic composition, and it is by far my favorite from the quartet. Besides Jasmine, its other successful partner is Labdanum, the honeyed element of which harmonizes with the sweetness of Wenge, while the balsamic darkness tempers the rich quality of the pairing.

While the process of considering various layering options is appealing, it also means incurring a rather high expense ($165 and $90 for the EDT and the oil, respectively), and in all fairness, I find it difficult to justify for myself.

The Donna Karan line is available in form of oil, Eau de Toilette, body lotion and candle. It can be found at select Neiman Marcus stores as well as Neiman Marcus site.



  • Sisonne: Dear V, though I find layering options rather interesting, I never do it myself.
    I´m simply more tempted to buy a well-composed perfume than some essence oils or stuff like that & then start layering to get an interesting scent.
    Perhaps I´d be more interested in those essence collections if I had the money to purchase everything I want to have – *dreaming* ;D – but since this is only a dream I´ll stay with perfumes that already contain various notes.
    But nevertheless it was as interesting as always to read your review – I haven´t heard about this set being available here in Germany, so I learned something new & will test it when it comes across my way. December 22, 2005 at 7:02am Reply

  • linda: Great review, V! I tried these the other day and thought that they were just ok. Wenge was my fave too but not for $165. I can buy Black Cashmere instead and be just as happy. December 22, 2005 at 10:27am Reply

  • Laura: I’m going to start selling my paintings by quadrants. Each quadrant will cost $$$$. You must buy all four to get the complete image. Good marketing ploy. As I’ve never been a huge fan of DK intact, I’d probably not be one of DK in modules. December 22, 2005 at 5:37am Reply

  • Evan: As I may have commented here before, I’m resolutely against layering. As an artistic purist, I’m always slightly repelled by the idea of someone second guessing a composition, but then I also tend to think of perfume as an end in itself and sometimes forget that the (ostensible) goal is to wear it.

    I also can’t say that I’m happy with the current emphasis on quantity over serious quality in the perfumery world, with the number of fragrances and sub-fragrances and variants on those sub-fragrances spilling off shelves. I don’t really understand why anyone would want to pay so much for these rather uninspiring notes. Lavender and Labdanum essential oil both smell characteristic of their plants, so why not just buying the essential oils and some jojoba ester to dilute them? Jasmine absolute can be rather crude, so I can understand buying a balanced jasmine note, but your description doesn’t make it sound that exciting. The Wenge note sounds interesting, in that there is no Wenge wood eo that I’m aware of (and in my limited experience with it in woodworking, I can’t recall it having an unusual smell), so it seems like a purely abstract concept, odd among 3 “natural” notes.

    But for the prices, and my anti-layering feelings, I’ll pass. As I was telling Tania last week, I philosophically loathe improvisation in the arts (I’m interested in composition, etching, counterpoint rather than expression, spontaneity, randomness) so improvisational perfume sets don’t interest me either. And don’t get me started about the dreaded aroma”therapy” angle – ick!

    Thanks for smelling and reviewing these, I wouldn’t have bothered to think about them otherwise! December 22, 2005 at 5:52am Reply

  • Robin: L’s idea cracked me up. Do want to run into NM & try the Wenge, but otherwise, no interest in the quartet. V, did they seem to be selling well? I’m surprised they aren’t offering a set of smaller bottles or something. December 22, 2005 at 12:24pm Reply

  • Marina: Thank you very much for this review, V, I was very curious about these, and they do sound apealing, but the price…my goodness. I wonder if the Wenge would be to dull on its own? 🙂 December 22, 2005 at 9:11am Reply

  • Tania: Oh no, there it is again — another lavender + amber(labdanum) for me to wonder about.

    I’ll also note that this set is less ‘improvisational’ than Evan might consider it to be. (It is truly hard to imagine any art arising without improvisation, so I assume he means raw improvisation presented unrefined to an audience.) If we assume that the perfumers have carefully selected and honed these fragrances to behave in harmony with each other, what you have, really, as Laura points out, is six simple fragrances, in parts. Only they come with adjustable levels (turn up the bass!). Whether those fragrances are worth it is the question. From what I can tell, they don’t sound particularly intoxicating, and since I have plenty of variety as it is, I think I’ll skip it. December 22, 2005 at 9:23am Reply

  • Tania: Or more than six in parts, actually. Now that I realize you can mix more than two together. Did you try mixing them *all* together, V? December 22, 2005 at 9:37am Reply

  • linda: Why are they so expensive then? I just looked at the and they seem to be out of stock on several fragrances. December 22, 2005 at 3:23pm Reply

  • helena: At first I was very excited to try Wenge which reminded me a little of both Chaos and Black Cashmere. However, it doesn’t last AT ALL. I was too disappointed to try the rest. December 22, 2005 at 3:32pm Reply

  • Katie: Evan, I don’t think of layering as second guessing, it’s more akin to a remix, like say Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. Or there’s this strange mixed song I heard the other day of Nine Inch Nails “Closer” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” In theory, it seems like it’d be idiotic and/or contrived, but in practice it creates something brand new that allows you to hear those songs in a whole other light.

    I’m not sure I’d be willing to pony up that kind of cash for mix and match soliflores like that, though. At least with the Hermessences one can happily wear them as stand alone fragrances in addition to some layering choices. December 22, 2005 at 11:17am Reply

  • julien: The layering concept is something i love for it is the easiest way to wear something that noone else can smell at a reasonnable price.
    But this must be very delicate making.
    Usually i use an amber or musky drydown to florals.
    The molinard scents are good for that.

    Thanks for the review…
    I would like to smell labdanum scent for it must be all i love:honeyed,vanilla,balsamic…mmmm!:)

    j. December 22, 2005 at 4:38pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Laura, even if you cut up your paintings, the quadrants would have still been interesting. December 22, 2005 at 12:01pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, I do not mind the hands on approach to perfumery, if only because it allows to understand how tricky it is to create a harmonious, well-blended fragrance. If one has not tried blending an accord oneself, the tendency is to assume that it is easy–just put two or more nice smelling things together and there you have it. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

    In this case, trying to come up with something unusual having four soliflores is indicative of that. The end result is just nice and pleasant, but it is not artistic or unique by any means. The soliflores from the Collection are pleasant, but not that outstanding for the price. Wenge is a synthetic recreation, because of course, there is no wenge eo. It is nice, but like Linda mentions below, I would be just as happy and probably even more so with Black Cashmere. And that can be found online for under $20. December 22, 2005 at 12:08pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: C, I could not agree more. For the price of one of these fragrances I could have a number of other options from my wishlist–Hermessence Ambre Narguile or Vetiver Tonka bottles to replace my mini, Chanel Cuir de Russie parfum, any of Frederic Malle fragrances, Jean Patou 1000 parfum… I can go on and on.
    Even if I could afford to buy everything, I probably would not, if only because there is not enough time to wear it all. I find that I buy whatever I think is outstanding rather than merely pleasant these days. I try to avoid accumulating. December 22, 2005 at 12:14pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: M, Wenge is nice, but not for the price asked. If you might like it on its own, just go for Black Cashmere. That is far more interesting. December 22, 2005 at 12:15pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: T, labdanum is a great note, and you realize how excellently its balsamic and honeyed tobacco redolent darkness works with cool and crisp lavender. Well, if you like the combination, I would recommend Caron Pour Un Homme instead, which I know you already like. December 22, 2005 at 12:19pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: T, you can definitely mix all four together, but the outcome is not that great. I suspect that the soliflores are selected to ensure harmony with each other, however on their own the Essences are a bit thin. At first, I was thinking of Iunx waters, which are also light and evanescent, however these cannot compared. December 22, 2005 at 12:25pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, thank you and I agree. Wenge is nice, but as I said to Evan, I would be just as happy with Black Cashmere. December 22, 2005 at 12:26pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Katie, that is a good analogy. I find that layering is tricky. Layering simple scents can be interesting, although I am always circumspect about trying to do so when it comes to more complex fragrances. Harmony is difficult to achieve, and I doubt that layering is the way to get there.

    BTW, I managed to try Amarige at the local Givenchy counter, and it is just like I remember it to be. Moreover, I very much enjoyed the harvest edition, which is more floral, more vibrant (if that is even possible given the original composition), with a more pronounced mimosa note. December 22, 2005 at 2:37pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, the NM site is out of several already (or maybe they are not in stock yet). There is also a set of essential oil minis, however it is hardly cheap at $185. Wenge is the only one you might like, if I were to make a guess. December 22, 2005 at 2:38pm Reply

  • michelle: Are people so clueless that they will spend that much on something you can get at Whole Foods or online for much, much less? Okay, you have to spring for a bottle of jojoba oil, too, but really. Once again, (as in the case of Be Delicious (woman)), it is all about marketing. December 22, 2005 at 8:37pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Linda, I have no idea. Perhaps, it is the intention of DK to break into the niche market, much like Hermes and Armani have done. I agree that the price is a bit steep. December 22, 2005 at 9:24pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Helena, it does not last that well on me, although it lasts better if layered with Labdanum. December 22, 2005 at 9:26pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Julien, that is a good tactic, and sometimes layering can produce interesting results. I must say that my most thorough forays into layering have been to combine different Lutens fragrances. I admit that I am running out of time to sample new fragrances, much less to experiment with layering them. December 22, 2005 at 9:27pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Michelle, granted, these fragrances are much more elegant that the pure essential oils (Jasmine smells more like real jasmine than jasmine EO, Wenge is just a perfumer’s dream, its EO does not exist), they are priced so steeply that I cannot help but consider alternatives. And there are some. December 22, 2005 at 9:31pm Reply

  • Evan: Ok, let’s put together a set of great perfumes with these notes, which will be both better and cheaper:

    For the Lavender, Pour Un Homme De Caron

    For the Jasmine, Diorissimo

    For the Wenge, I have no idea but based on your description V, I’ll just say Lutens Un Bois Sépia

    For the Labdanum, What’s a good labdamum soliflore? You could nominate a Chypre, but the labdanum is always sublimated into the accord in that case. Any ideas? December 22, 2005 at 11:26pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Evan, great idea! Here are my picks:
    Lavender–Guerlain Lavande Velours or any products from

    Jasmine–Serge Lutens A La Nuit, Marc Jacobs Blush

    Wenge–Black Cashmere

    Labdanum–something heavy on dark amber. A friend I smelled these with said that DK Labdanum reminded her of Regina Harris fragrance, the original. December 23, 2005 at 12:37am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Kristen, I think that it is a funny name. And yes, I agree. The price kills the fun of it for me too. December 23, 2005 at 10:19am Reply

  • kristen: Is it me or is Wenge just such a funny name? I would be inclined to purchase a couple of these just to be able to tell people, especially non-perfumey types, “oh, I’m wearing a combination of Jasmine and…WENGE.” Heheheh.

    However, the price kills it for me. December 23, 2005 at 9:26am Reply

  • Judy: Personally i love Donna Karan Essence Labdanum – best match for me 🙂 June 21, 2021 at 9:59am Reply

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