The perfume world is small at the best of times, but there are some occasions when its proportions seem laughably minute. A few months ago, a Montreal-based perfumer called Dana El Masri contacted me by email to ask if I'd be interested in receiving samples of fragrances from her new brand, Jazmin Saraï. I replied, and after a few days, we entered into a brief correspondence. As our emails flitted back and forth across the Atlantic, we soon made a startling discovery about a link between ourselves: not only did we both grow up in Dubai, but we also had the same English teacher, albeit at two different secondary schools (when my teacher left my school, she went to work at Dana's). Coincidences don't get much more Hardy-esque!
I've now had a chance to try Dana's debut quartet of scents (come back on Friday for my reviews), but by way of introduction to her fledgling brand, I'm pleased to publish an interview which I conducted with her a few weeks ago through email. I was aware that her educational background wasn't related to the perfume industry in any way, so I began our exchange by asking how she ended up enrolling on a scent-creation course.
Dana El Masri: I had graduated with a degree in Communication Studies and found that I wasn’t fulfilled; I also couldn’t find work in that field. So I spent a lot of time reading and one of my best friends gave me Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It truly changed my life. The whole story piqued my curiosity about this new world of perfumery, which then whirled me into all my scent memories. Turns out, I had been storing them for almost a decade of my life. I had loved perfumes, my mother’s perfume, my grandmother’s, and I had always been aware of my sense of smell. Yet, it was all somehow dormant in my subconscious. So after that, I read The Alchemist, and it was all about seeing the signs and believing in one’s journey. From there I wholeheartedly went into finding out all I could about the craft, about odours, new technology, whatever you can think of, I researched it, studied it, and I fell in love.
Persolaise: How did your journey take you to the Institute Of Perfumery in Grasse?
DEM: Well, there aren’t many options in terms of education, but I kept on looking. ISIPCA is usually the 'go to', but you need a degree in Chemistry. I seriously considered going back to school and doing one, but I really believed that there was more to it than chemistry alone. When I found the Institute, I thought it was almost too good to be true. Enrollment was open, so I did all the paperwork and wrote them the most passionate letter I could ever write, telling them my story and why I really wanted to become a perfumer. I received notice a few months later, telling me that I would be meeting with Clement Gavarry at IFF in New York (which is a whole other amazing story!) and in a month or so, I got the acceptance letter! A couple of months later, I had packed up my whole life and was on my way to Grasse.
P: What were some of the more memorable olfactory discoveries you made during your studies?
DEM: Oh, I’ve had many! I played around with a lot of variations of scents – discovering methyl eugenol really helped create the scent of old records for example. Smelling ambergris for the first time was definitely an experience! Mineral and fresh, yet deep and complex, it’s such an interesting paradox. Jasmin Pays is probably one of the most beautiful scents I have ever smelt. Don’t even get me started on Cassis Base! I loved it in In Love Again and recognized it immediately on first whiff. I developed a love for amber ingredients during the year, and more of a tolerance for what some people would consider ‘less pleasant’ smells.
P: Did the course give you an opportunity to meet other perfumers?
DEM: Oh yes! We had perfumers as professors, one being Max Gavarry, who was an absolute treat; I learned a lot from him. Perfumers came in as guest speakers, all kinds of people from the industry. We went to factories where we saw some perfumers in their labs. And one of the highlights for me (I’m a super fan) was Jean-Claude Ellena; I had a lot of questions for him that day!
P: How did you take the step from completing the course and setting up your own brand? What were the logistics? Do you have to have a day job at the moment or are you able to support yourself from perfumery?
DEM: I didn’t feel like it made sense for me to go down the 'bigger company route'. I knew I had a vision and I really believed I could do it. It took much longer than I had hoped because there are a lot of variables to deal with, but that is to be expected. As for right now, I left my job last summer because I felt like my work was faltering as a result and I was veering off the path of getting the collection out there. I wanted to go full force into making my dream a reality. I’ve been making custom-made perfumes for a few years now and still do random odd jobs here and there to help keep me afloat. It isn’t easy though. I’m entering a new phase, and as expected, some sacrifices had to be made, but it’s well worth it!
P: What was the inspiration behind the name of the brand?
DEM: I wanted to blend the three elements of scent, music and culture. Jasmine holds a very special meaning to me. I merged that with jazz, for its improvisational quality. A saraï is a vast palace; the word is used in many different languages. I imagined scent wafting through the palace with its sound, side by side, in harmony.
P: The concept behind your brand is that each scent is linked with a specific song. For instance, Led IV is based on Led Zeppelin's Going To California and Neon Graffiti is inspired by MIA's Sunshowers. You make the connection between song and perfume very explicit on your site. What prompted you to go down this particular creative route? Do you think your perfumes are capable of standing on their own, without this 'musical support'?
DEM: I have always found synchronicity with scent and music, I got the idea of fusing the two from the get go, deeply inspired by Septimus Piesse’s work and an ongoing fascination with synesthesia. These songs in particular hold sentimental meaning for me, almost representing a timeline. The perfumes pay homage to their respective artists too. However, I kept thinking of how I could evoke an idea that would result in a quick, innate response. I also wanted to create perfumes that were more approachable to people, since music is universal. Each song is in a different genre, keeping in mind different tastes, conjuring different visions and perspectives. And yes, absolutely: the songs were the initial inspiration. The connection exists to showcase the similarities and complexities of each medium and what can be done when they are combined. I believe my perfumes can stand alone; I made sure that at the end of the day, what I created had olfactory value and was executed well.
P: Your scents are generally 'low sillage', which is rather unusual for the niche scene. Did you consciously decide you didn't want them to be loud? If so, why?
DEM: It’s funny, I don’t think I ever thought of them that way, I figured they would wear differently on everyone. How You Love was the only one meant to be quiet: there’s nothing loud about the song or the artist that inspired it. I wanted it to be smooth, almost like a reed instrument. I’m working on a few, less shy blends of course; I can’t wait to make a few heavier scents.
P: Which of the scents was the most challenging to make?
DEM: Neon Graffiti was the only one I had a bit of trouble with. I needed to add sparkle, while making sure it wasn’t too metallic, yet it had to have enough grit to pull off the ‘cement’; it was hard to maintain the duality of light vs. grounded. In the end, I realised that I was afraid to take a risk, so I pushed the dosage of a couple of ingredients I would usually avoid playing with too much, and then it felt finished. I had a lot of very good advice in the making of that perfume.
P: What of the future? When will we see your next release?
DEM: I’m working on a few projects right now, so expect a few things in the coming year. I want to branch out and really work with scent in different mediums. Some special collaborations are coming up, a writing gig too. As for a next release, I’ve been working on something. I have a strong idea, and I need one ingredient to get it right, I think. I’m always working on new formulas...when inspiration knocks on the door, you always answer! So, this is just the beginning.