The New Noses: Dana El Masri of Jazmin Saraï

The New Noses is a series on independent perfumers who came upon the craft the unconventional way: who aren't French men, heirs to perfume empires, or trained in prestigious fragrance schools. (OK, so in this case, Dana was actually formally trained at the GIP—but as you'll see, her story is pretty unique.) Dana El Masri is the creator of Jazmin Saraï, a line of perfumes that explores the convergence of scent, music and culture. She currently lives and works in Montreal.


 

ON KISMET AND FINDING PERFUME AS A LIFE VOCATION

"I went to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in 2010. I discovered I wanted to be in the world of scent accidentally, a year before I applied. It was something that had lied dormant in my subconscious pretty much since I was born.  Being Arab has had a huge influence on my connection with scent: I grew up in the Middle East, where it’s an Integral part of culture. In Egypt we say, It’s a morning full of jasmines. It's a part of language and how we interact with each other, it's part of art and music. Little bubbles embedded in everyday life.

I moved [to Montreal] at eighteen to study. I knew I didn't want a nine-to-five job, and I wanted to sing, so I went into sound production as a way of producing my own music. But this was 2008, when the economic crisis hit, so there weren’t a lot of jobs. I didn’t connect to what I was doing, so I spent a lot of time reading, trying to figure it out. I would perfume myself to feel better. Then my friend gave me this book called Jitterbug Perfume, and it was the catalyst. I was like, 'Oh wait, you can be a perfumer. You can do this as a job?' My mind was going crazy trying to figure out what "K23" smelled like. And then I read The Alchemist, which was all about seeing the signs. Those two books together created a strong, unnerving sense of purpose. Within that year, I left.

The GIP looks for people who are well-rounded, and they put people's cultures in perspective. In my case, I wrote them a letter about my undying passion for perfumery, my stories, and how they converged to become my destiny. I did a couple of tests, and I went to New York to get interviewed by Clement Gavarry. It was mostly a blind smell test. He tested my nose and asked me what different ingredients were. They try to see whether you can isolate ingredients, explain what you're smelling, find a way to pinpoint it. It's really hard to say why they picked me. I wrote a really good letter, I was very passionate, and I maybe fit a quota of some sort. It’s very rare to have a lot of Arab women in the industry. Even to this day, I think I am one of the only ones. I wouldn't say that there are more than ten Arab female perfumers out there."


ON HOW SCENT RELATES TO SOUND

"When I went to school I had this idea of scent and sound—I kept finding all of these connections, particularly in the work of Septimus Piesse. In the 1800s, he wrote a book called the Art of Perfumery, and he equated different notes—like A minor, C major—to different scents. That made a lot of sense to me. Scent is a lot of musical lingo. A perfumer’s organ. Everything has to be harmonized. Accords. Chords. Compositions. The fact that they’re both invisible, that they both work with emotion, they both transport you, and they’re both time-based. Beginning, middle, end.

Leaving school, knowing that there is this connection, I started playing around with this idea.  I wanted to start my own thing, and I asked myself, “What if I created a line that was more based on experience than product?” A way to  make the perfume world more accessible, like music. Music is more or less universal; it can connect to thousands of people at a time, despite language barriers. It’s just about feeling. Perfume is so subjective and so difficult to connect to sometimes. Marketing can skew your perception of it, the scent can mess with your emotions or trigger something. It’s very particular. And I just so happened to smell sounds! Sounds have colours, and they have shapes, and they also have smells."

 

ON STARTING HER LINE, JAZMIN SARAÏ

"So I decided to do olfactory covers of songs. It’s a form of pastiche and homage to musicians, genres and songs that affected me as a person and an artist. All of the artists chosen here are more or less people of colour who were either controversial, or people have a love/hate relationship with them. That’s how Jazmin Sarai was born. It was a continuation of the concept of scent-music-culture; I just want to find the connections between those three things continuously. SaraÏ is a word that was originally Turkish; it means palace. So my line is 'the palace of musical perfumes.' I imagine this grand palace where there’s all these doors, and when you open a door you find a culture, or an idea, or an experience.  And then there’s jasmines. 

My process depends on what I’m inspired by. When inspiration comes knocking, you open the door. With NEON GRAFFITI, I had a specific idea: I wanted to make a very fluorescent scent. I was playing that song a lot at the time, and she [MIA] was talking about a lot of important issues in the song—she mentions gun control, for example—and so I wanted to create something that had meaning, without being heavy. A lot of pop songs are very sad, but their beat is so catchy that no one notices the words. 

HOW YOU LOVE was all about a feeling. I was going through a lot, trying to accept myself, and this song is all about loving yourself. LED IV was inspired by my first love; it was our song, and it marked a very important time in my life. OTIS - it just happened. I was very clear about it. It only has 10 ingredients, which is maybe why it does so well. It’s minimal, it’s direct, and it’s androgynous. SOLAR'1 took me years. That was tricky because I was inspired by D’Angelo’s Higher, and not Africa. I wanted to recreate Higher initially, because there was a lot of gospel, and I smelled a lot of white pepper—but I couldn’t find a good source for white pepper, so I switched the song.

These lead to my new Arabic scents. I've been working on them for years. They’re deeply inspired by who I am and instigated by my family. NAR is inspired by my grand parents’ love story; the man who sang the song sang at their wedding. He asked my grandmother what she wanted to hear and she said, 'Your Love is Fire.' With NAR, there are only five ingredients, which is very little for a scent. It’s also mimicking Arabic music in that often, the musician will sing the same word, over and over again, just differently. There’s a call back and forth between the vocalist and the audience. Arabic music is structure differently than Western music. I took all that into consideration. 

MA'RÉ is an homage to Beirut and my father and his love for Fairuz, who sang a lot of traditional songs. Fairuz also means turquoise, so I tried to play around with the colour and scent of turquoise. In the song she says, 'See the sea, how big it is? That how’s much I love you. See the mountains and the sky, how vast they are? That’s how much I love you." So I tried to play around with those things.

With this new collection, I’m trying different structures, different scents, different fragrance and musical compositions. I want it to open up the world of me being an interdisciplinary artist, and creating scent for spaces, or collaborating with other artists for galleries or their own art pieces. My art isn’t necessarily just in the bottle. But this so happens to be the way I could present my work to the world in a niche, artisan fragrance fashion."

 

ON SCENT'S ROLE IN ART

"Olfactory art isn’t super common yet. It’s omnipresent in Berlin and Amsterdam and parts of London, but not this side of the world. I went to the Whitney a while ago and there was this huge, life-sized candle in the form of Julian Schnabel, 11 feet tall, and it was melting. I was like, 'That’s really cool, but why didn’t they think of a scent?' It’s simple things like that. You go into all of these art spaces and see all of this visual art being represented, but scent is always an afterthought. And that’s what I’m trying to change.

Because sight and sound took on such important roles, and with the extreme use of audiovisual media, scent has taken a backburner role—because of the subconscious nature that it has, you know? We’re so inundated and we don’t need to use our sense of smell as much anymore. But when something goes bad in your fridge, what do you do? You smell it! You still use your nose to protect you.

If the perfume industry had been upfront fifty years ago about how things are made, and the importance of perfumery, and how much work goes into cultivating fragrances and flowers, I think people would understand it more. But that’s a part of my MO and my forever goal. I’m creating this, but a part of it is sensory education. Again, it’s just practice. Because if you connect your sense of smell to sound, or to sight, something that people can understand and relate to, then it’ll be easier to re-introduce our understanding of it. Paying attention to the smells around you is inadvertent mindfulness."
 

 

ON CHOOSING TO BE A PERFUME ENTREPRENEUR

"Having my own line, I'm definitely more confident in my own creative freedom. And, I don't have to listen to anyone, which is why I am a solo entrepreneur in the first place. I didn't want to go down [the route of working for big fragrance firms] after seeing the realities of the perfume industry, which is very smoke and mirrors. A lot of what you think to be true is not true, which is sad and bittersweet. Certain brands are not what they seem. They're either not making as much money as they claim, or the perfumer is not actually the perfumer, which is the worst part.  Or, they're not hundred percent clear with the ingredients that they're using. Which is difficult for me, because as a person I am all about being real.

Perfumers are these creatives who are almost held captive in a way. It's complicated: even something as simple as credit, or working on a project for years and years and it not working out, or being restricted by IFRA regulations and not being able to fully be your creative self. Or being overworked on multiple briefs only to not get it in the end, or having to cheapen the formula because of price restrictions.

I'm not very good at being told what to do. I knew that if I had to keep working on complex detergent formulas for the next 10 years and having to compound formulas that are not my own, I would go crazy. Even though there's a lot of technical knowledge there—and it's really wonderful and irreplaceable, the kind of knowledge you would get—the fact is, a lot of perfumers don't have the time to apprentice you and don't have the time to teach, because they’re so inundated with the amount of work and competition they’re dealing with. In the end I was like, 'What's the point?It’s going to take me forever to get to where I want.'

I’m eight years in. I don’t have the most extraordinary technical knowledge, but I’m still pretty good. I did work for other companies and I still have managed to create projects for very big clients. I just choose not to go down that route. There are different ways to get to the same place. It’s a longer and more difficult road this way, but I think I know more than the typical perfumer because I happen to have my hands, my brain and my nose in every aspect of the perfume business."

 

ON THE SPIRITUALITY OF PERFUMERY

"Every perfumer I’ve met has taught me something. Their view on life and art and matter and all of that is very esoteric. Because the nature of our art is so invisible, intangible, and so emotion-feeling based, you have to think about different things. What I love about perfumery—and why I was so unsatisfied with all art forms prior—is that it holds all kinds of different worlds together. It's like a kaleidoscope of art and culture and spirituality, psychology and science and nature and poetry. Everything you can imagine is in fragrance.

You look at the ingredients: that’s science, nature, ecology, environment, culture, people. You go into the actual bottling of it, then it’s about scaling up, business, manufacturing. Then you look into actual perfumery and the art of it, and then you’re like, 'You gotta be spiritual to think about all of this stuff.' You gotta be analytical, because it’s cooking and baking. You have to be specific, but you have to be kind of crazy. So I always say that a perfumer's work is part intuition, part imagination, part innovation, part insanity."