Scent from Sound: A Q&A with Dana El Masri of Jazmin Saraï

March 25, 2015

Dana El Masri wasn’t born into the world of perfumery, but she was born into a fragrant world. Growing up in the Middle East, she was surrounded by scent and the strong position perfumery holds in Middle Eastern cultures. But when she decided to follow her passion and make perfume her career, she drew inspiration from another cultural pillar: popular music. She studied in Grasse, founded Jazmin Saraï, and —fascinated with the concept of synesthesia began crafting scents based on the tunes of Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, and Simon and Garfunkel.

When we spoke with Dana, she told us about Neon Graffiti, the scent she based on an M.I.A. song. We loved it so much that we included it in our Inspiration is Everywhere collection—and you loved it, too, because it’s flying off the shelves.

Olfactif: Let’s set the stage. What does it smell like where you are right now?

Dana El Masri: I’m at home, so it smells like my lab, which is an amalgamation of a lot of smells. I love the smell of the lab. It smells like what I’m working on, so a little bit of vanilla and castoreum, and there’s a little bit of incense going. My roommate just made some tea, so a little bit of mint and some nag champa.

O: You’re in Montreal now, but where did you grow up?

DEM: Well, I’m kind of a citizen of the world. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, and then I moved to Dubai in the UAE when I was about a year and a half old. I grew up there, so I stayed there for almost 16 years until I came here to Montreal at about 18 years old. So my whole childhood, more or less, has been in the Middle East. My mother is Egyptian and my father is Lebanese, and I went back and forth to both of those countries during the summers. 

O: What were the smells of your childhood like?

DEM:I grew up in a very multi-cultural environment, so I feel very connected to a lot of different cultures, but my essence is very Middle Eastern. So as you can imagine, the smells that I was exposed to were also quite oriental. My first and strongest memories were very jasmine-based. My grandfather grew it in his garden. He also grew mangoes in his garden, and mangoes are very fragrant while they're still on the trees.

Plus, people in the Gulf are very, very much about strong scents. When it comes to their sillage, the stronger the better. Perfume and scent are a part of identity, a form of ritual, and it’s very embedded in the culture.

O: How did you get into perfume?

DEM: It was in me all along, but I needed to have this epiphany to understand that it was meant for me. I’ve had a lot of scent-related memories. My grandmother wore a lot of perfume. So did my grandfather and my mom, too. So I had a lot of perfume connections—things that would remind me of moments in my life, or moments in people’s lives around me. 

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in three years, so I didn’t even feel like I had the time to really enjoy being young. And when I graduated, there was the economic crisis and there were no jobs. I didn’t feel very connected to what I had learned. I was reading a lot, and my friend and roommate at the time gave me Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, and it changed my perspective. 

I had this “Eureka” moment where I had a deep need to understand what the perfume was throughout this book. What is the combination between the magnificent jasmine and the beet pollen and the lemon drops? I tried to recreate it in my head. I also realized that I would often wear perfume to make me feel better, but I had never really thought about creating it. 

I just kept studying and studying, and I wanted to make perfumes in my kitchen. My mom thought, “Are you crazy?” But she said, “If you're legitimate about this, go and find a way to learn.”

O: You wanted formal instruction?

DEM:Yes. But as you know, perfumery is a really small industry and it’s extremely hard to get into. It took me a really long time, but I found the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, which was open to people like me who didn’t generally have experience in chemistry. It was a little bit difficult, but deep down I knew that there was a chance to make this happen. So it wouldn’t be like, “Hey, I want to make perfumes in my kitchen, and I’m putting this business together not knowing how it works technically.” I wrote them a letter and told them my story, and it was just meant to be.

O: How did you come up with this concept of creating scents that were inspired by songs?

DEM: I had the idea before I went to France to study. I was reading a lot about this man called Septimus Piesse, who had synesthesia, which is the merging of the senses. He had a chart in which he basically connected different musical notes to different perfumery ingredients. So something high-pitched would be in the citrus family, and something very low-pitched might fit into the woody or balsamic family, which is what we would assume. 

I was also inspired by the musical lingo that we use in perfumery—notes, composition—and I thought, “Okay, if I come into this and I have a good nose and I have a good hand to execute what I’m thinking, I'd really like to explore this idea further.” So while I was in school, I played around with Curtis Mayfield and Simon and Garfunkel. I took all of this newfound knowledge and decided to really dissect these songs and understand the meaning, the lyrics, the intention behind them, but at the same time also be quite literal with translating the beats, the rhythm, the melody, and finding the connection to scent. 

O: Let’s talk about Neon Graffiti. How did you decide to create a scent based on “ Sunshowers” by M.I.A.?

DEM: I’ve been a fan of M.I.A. for quite a while, and what I like about her is that she’s risky and she’s not afraid to be herself. But I also really enjoyed the song, and I felt like it represented a lot of what she’s about. She’s political. And there’s a lot of juxtaposition in this particular song because there’s a sweet melody but she’s talking about gun control. So I think it was the juxtaposition between light and dark, the idea of finding sweetness and sun around a very difficult topic while being able to dance to it.

I thought it would be a good introduction to Jazmin Saraï as a brand, because it was fresh and young and it made a statement, and it didn’t shy away from anything. But at the same time, it was still approachable from the floral perspective. It’s still citrus, and it’s fresh, and it brings about a lightness.

O: It’s such a happy scent, but it doesn’t smell simple or expected. It has a lot of interesting nuance that you don’t always get in citrus-focused perfumes, and there’s grittiness. I love how you mentioned the “urban jungle” in your description. It does feel bright and alive with pops of neon orange and green, but there’s also a wet concrete note that counterbalances the representations of nature.

DEM: Thank you so much for understanding it. If people love it, then it just makes me happy, because that’s why I make perfume. I make it for other people at the end of the day. 

O: Do you encourage people to listen to the song or watch the video while they experience the perfume?

DEM: Upon first sniff, yes. It creates a multi-sensory experience. I think that the perfume can stand alone, because I’m not selling a song; I’m selling the perfume. But yes, it’s a multi-dimensional way to experience both. 

O: What’s great about your scents is that because you’re using popular music, we’re able to pull our own memories into it, too. It’s a third dimension of the experience, because we all have our own experiences of popular music.

DEM: Exactly, exactly. But you know what’s funny—I have a perfume inspired by an Otis Redding song, and a lot of people haven’t even heard of Otis Redding. These songs do hold sentimental meaning to me, but while I hope people discover perfume, it’s also a way for people to discover music, and vice-versa.

O: What’s next for you?

DEM: I’m trying to do more workshops, advocating knowledge about scent. I’m also working on multiple perfumes and a Middle Eastern collection inspired by Arabic music. Arabic music, in its construction, is completely different from any other style of music. So I’m doing a lot of research and trying to understand how it’s put together.

O: Thank you so much for talking with us, Dana, and for letting us feature your work. We’re inspired by what you do.

DEM: Thank you! Thanks for the opportunity.

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