Trained at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, Dana El Masri is an olfactory artist combining influences from her previous endeavors in music and singing with her love of fragrance through a unique synesthetic lens. Her nose was cultivated early on by a diverse upbringing – she was born in Budapest and raised in Dubai with an Egyptian mother and Lebanese father. She now resides in Montreal and has developed most of her line, Jazmin Saraï, to reinterpret the mood and culture of various songs from disparate artists like Sade and Led Zeppelin to Fairuz, an influential Lebanese singer.
When we spoke recently over Zoom, her passion for her art was palpable, with her hunger to explore other multi-sensory projects involving scent, or go “beyond the bottle” as she put it, leaving me excited to see what she does next. She’s also listed some her line on Portives – grab the sample set here.
Interviewed by RJ Kaufman – founder of Portives
Can you tell me about when you realized you have synesthesia and process the world a bit differently compared to most people?
It came in two folds; in high school, I would see colours with days of the week on the calendar (Monday is magenta, Tuesday is green, Wednesday is orange, Thursday is wintergreen, Friday changes, weird!, Saturday is also orange but a different shade and Sunday is yellow).
Then in perfume school, I realized I could see colours when I smelled materials, and I remembered scents by their colours and shapes. I also really enhanced by sound/scent ability, in the beginning. I would listen to music while I created, but then I realized it was getting ‘sensorially’ overwhelming and I’d be smelling what I was hearing, which was getting in the way of what I was making.
Can you describe one of your synesthetic experiences when you smell one of your fragrances or someone else’s?
The most common one is that I smell frankincense when I smell the sound of a synth, it’s sound to scent most of the time. So with Neon Graffiti for example, when I heard M.I.A’s ‘Sunshowers’, I instantly smelled neon on wet cement. So it was part colour; fluorescent, part bright smells, lemon, grapefruit, bergamot, mango, then a damp, almost petrichor-like scent but not as pronounced, and I started formulating from that instant impression.
I smell the colour or the shape of perfume before anything, every perfume takes me into a different sensory universe.
You mentioned one of your new fragrances being inspired by an oasis village in Egypt with artisans working out in the sun as part of the dialogue around orientalism, like an Egyptian or Arabic fragrance doesn’t have to be oud and rose etc. Can you share more of your thoughts on orientalism in the perfume industry and what it means to you to approach referencing Eastern culture without orientalizing?
This is a big one! Our industry still has a lot of room to grow when it comes to varying narratives and accurate ones at that. The way we classify perfumes is at times antiquated and oftentimes, confusing. We’re one of the few industries that still use the term ‘Oriental’ in our classifications. That does not do the perfumes labelled as such, justice, nor does it say much about what the perfume smells like. Furthermore, it erases the multiplicity of cultures from the East and lumps millions of people, languages and cultures under one, occidentally viewed umbrella.
I acknowledge that my perspective is based on part of my identity as an ‘Arab’ and my need to express my love and my perspective on what Egyptian or Lebanese culture and smell experiences are like, for example. It automatically comes from a more informed and non-orientalized place because I grew up in those cultures.
It’s important to note that there are a plethora of scent cultures we don’t know about, all of which are not based on euro-centric practices.
I also like to approach it from an educative lens, I love researching and sharing, there is something to learn about each of these scent cultures and aroma methods, that have nothing to do with each other. When we understand that the role of scent is emotional, visceral, cultural, and more, we can learn to appreciate the stories of these places.
Do you have any hard-won advice for aspiring perfumers?
Know your materials!
Don’t expect fast results, this is a lifetime kind of career. You will always have something new to learn and ways to expand your knowledge.
Can you recommend some music to our readers, maybe some that hasn’t already been involved in your fragrances?
The list is endless, so here are a few songs often in rotation and some new ones that I’m listening to now:
Phyllis Dillon – On the Right Track
Yusuf Lateef – Nubian Lady
Hiba Elgizouli – Bidaya
Nothing Burns Like The Cold – Snoh Alegra Ft. Vince Staples
Sandstorm – Mereba Ft. JID
George Harrison – Marwa Blues
Gabor Szabo – Dreams
The Whitefield Brothers Ft. Quantic – Lullaby for Lagos
Tell me about your influences, maybe a favorite nose or house? Or tell me more about your experience meeting Jean-Claude Elena?
Christine Nagel is someone I look up to. Her style is sophisticated, elegant and quietly strong. She is also the same in person, a wonder!
Jean-Claude Ellena is very open and generous with his knowledge, which is one of the most beautiful gifts. He has, I am sure, helped many aspiring perfumers in their career, even at least in inspiration.
Sophia Grojsman has a way with florals that is undeniable, she’s a powerhouse!
(I have so many to be honest, before being a perfumer, I am a die-hard perfume fan lol)
Could you tell me some more about your podcast On the Nose? How did this come about and what do you cover?
It’s basically conversations with perfumers about scent and all things olfaction. I’ve wanted to give people some insight into perfumers’ minds, how we talk to each other, the language we use, capturing our idiosyncrasies and giving a little more perspective on what goes on behind the scenes, or how things work in our industry.
That’s how my blog The Scentinel started, and On the Nose is a continuation of that. It covers conversations with perfumers mostly, but there will be others who play important roles as well. It’s part fun, part education.
My first episode is with my friend and fellow GIP alumni, Ashley Kessler. We chat about our experience at the institute as well as our working relationship.
Can you tell me more about your upcoming projects/releases?
For Jazmin Saraï, Fayoum was recently released in March.
I have a diffuser line called The EP coming out in the fall (October), it’s a collaboration between me and a few musicians, amazing artists in their own right. I wanted it to be a creative project where I would create something that is inspired by one of their tracks, that they could also share on their platforms, and hopefully on tour.
I have some perfume oil and more diffuser oil ideas in the works.
On the indie perfumer side, I am working on a project around a material, I think it has to stay private for now, but it will be released in December.
On the art side, I am collaborating with an Argentinian artist in Toronto on her project revolving around mining in South America.