Thirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.
Today marks the launch of Series Three of Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series. There will be five, weekly instalments in this series, including interviews with Dana El Masri, Josh Meyer, Yosh Han, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and Hiram Green.
You can catch up with Series One of Thirteen Thoughts here, featuring interviews with Emma Leah, Mark Evans, Angelo Orazio Pregoni, Paul Kiler and Sarah McCartney.
For Series Two of Thirteen Thoughts, I interviewed Mandy Aftel, Ellen Covey, Shelley Waddington, Andy Tauer and JoAnne Bassett. You can read those interviews here.
The intention of Thirteen Thoughts is to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, let me introduce you to…
Dana El Masri of Parfums Jazmin Saraï
Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.
Oh I have many! This is a tough one… I’ll go with one I haven’t shared before… back when I was about 4 or 5, I was on a flight from Dubai to Beirut. There were no tunnels upon arrival, just the stairs to descend out of the plane. The strong scent of gasoline mixed in with the unforgettable Beirut air (fresh, pine, lemon, slightly aquatic with a hint of pollution) struck me. That thought brings me back and undoubtedly every time I land in that city, I feel like I am four years old again, and every time I smell gasoline, with slight rubber notes off airplane or car wheels, I think of that moment.
What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?
I am from the Middle East and grew up there; scents have always been a part of my life in one way or another. I moved to Montreal in my late teens with the hope of making my dream to sing come true. I graduated with a BA in Communications and felt like there was something missing. Long story short, I read a lot and had a moment of awakening: I wanted to become a perfumer. From there I did everything I could to get to where I am today and hopefully further in the future. Why did I become a perfumer? Well, it’s undeniably satisfying as an art form; it connects many different ideas and feelings… it feeds my creativity to no end. Being a perfumer opens my eyes, ears, hands and nose to the world even more vividly and don’t even get me started on how much I appreciate flavours as a result too.
Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?
Yes, I was classically trained at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP). Among my very special professors, I had Max Gavarry as a composition teacher and Philippe Collet of Expressions Parfumées guided my winning perfume the year I studied. We also visited Jean-Claude Ellena at his lab in Cabris as a class. My experience seeing Jean-Claude Ellena was unforgettable; much of his advice has stuck with me. Yosh Han has been very generous with her advice along the way as well. Without my education at GIP, and subsequently a trip to Pitti in Florence, I would have never met her.
Culturally speaking, I believe that my perception of scents has been influenced by my ethnicity even if it isn’t predominantly clear in my work. The fact that I have grown up with so many people from different cultures has also helped me stay curious and aware of how others perceive smells.
Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?
I have a list of that too! I’m a fan of many perfumers’ works; it’s inspiring and great to learn from others. What a group of extraordinary people!
My favourites would include Francis Kurkdjian whose work speaks for itself. As well as Olivia Giacobetti, Pierre Bourdon, Jean-Claude Ellena (his minimal approach rubbed off on me), Calice Becker, Christine Nagel (her perfumes are cohesive, romantic, with a strong point of view), Christopher Sheldrake (I deeply connect to Serge Lutens and his collection). Christophe Laudamiel is a total badass whose work I respect tremendously, this doesn’t just include his perfumes but his olfactory artwork and his championing of scent education. This is very important to me, bringing about scent awareness and channelling scent as art. A Lab on Fire, Indult, Neela Vermeire Creations, Mandy Aftel, Pierre Guillaume. In terms of old school scents, I really love Poême by Lancome, Tabac Blond de Caron, Idole by Lubin (the original and its reconstitution). I’m a sucker for most Florientals… Sophia Grojsman is a force and her view of perfumery is very interesting to me.
Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.
My brand Parfums Jazmin Saraï is a collection of perfumes inspired by songs. I have four perfumes and am working on a fifth. The concept is simply scent & sound. Both are invisible, connect to emotions, are authentically direct and transport us elsewhere. The idea is to approach perfumes and scents in another way, since scent is subjective and music is a universal language connecting people around the world.
I want to help change perspective and bring attention to the nose, therefore appreciating and understanding oneself through the experience of these two mediums together. Also, I want it to be a fun experience; a new way to experience scent and a shot at hearing a song/artist you might not have heard of before!
How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?
A little bit of both; sometimes the idea or the song chooses me almost right away and I can get the formula on the spot, other times I need to flesh out the concept or the juice itself a lot longer. I don’t look at trends to fill in the gaps; I just make what feels right. I will usually dissect the song, separate its ‘parts’ and translate timbre, pitch, melody, rhythm, tone, what have you, into scent form.
What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?
I make perfumes with a very small number of ingredients. Out of the four perfumes in my current collection, the maximum number of ingredients is in Neon Graffiti, which has 30, while the shortest formula belongs to Otis & Me, with just ten ingredients. Everything is made by hand, in small batches; every single aspect of my brand, actually, is authentic and straight from the source. Part of the focus of my work involves synaesthesia (merging of the senses) and intermodal perception; so I am being quite literal with the scent and sound continuum, I think that’s cool!
What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?
My biggest challenge is accessing ingredients in small quantities… anything in small quantities for that matter! It’s tougher going at it alone with limited access to supplies and things like that. In terms of distribution, the fact that perfume has been classified as ‘dangerous goods’ now has really made things a lot more difficult than they need to be (in terms of shipping). It’s a learning process though, many of the challenges from the beginning cease to get in the way as your business grows.
How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?
They are that much more heightened. I feel like my world is more vivid and more interesting. I feel like I am more present and more perceptive as a result of my stronger sense of smell. I smell therefore I am! Every environment I am in is a new chance to discover new smells; I seek little nooks and crannies to stick my nose in! Even with smells that are socially considered to be ‘bad’ – I now have even more curiosity and less judgement.
Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?
Ambroxan is interesting, I love its scent: fluid, refined, slightly ambery, cool and sexy. Osmanthus is beautiful, however I think there are already very close flavour equivalents to the scent (apricot, tamarind etc…) Most musks too, they smell so comforting, it would be like eating clouds!
If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?
I would like to go back to when and where ‘perfume’ was created. I want to be surrounded by ancient alchemists and resins. The transformative, spiritual aspect intrigues me. If not, then I’m very happy with this period of perfumery. We have new technologies, more respect for the industry as a whole, more transparency and more access. People are writing about perfumes and sharing scents all over the world, and it’s a good time to be a female perfumer too. Times have changed; do you see how many women out there are noses now? It’s incredible.
If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?
I love this question! Hmmm… it would definitely have something to do with diffusion and being able to share scent everywhere no matter where you are. They’re working on this for sure… Maybe being able to express my art through laptops. I want anyone who visits my website to be able to experience the multi-sensory message that I am trying convey. It would benefit perfumers because they would save on shipping and this would give their fans/clients a chance to experience their work immediately. Scent is the only medium that requires physical presence. It’s less about gadgets for me though, I’m all about sharing the world of scent and how special it is; accurately informing the public on how perfumes work and how special their own sense of smell is.
What is the purpose of perfume?
To understand, treat and express oneself, to alter perception, to feel and smell goooood!
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first instalment of this third series of Thirteen Thoughts.
I want to extend my warmest thanks to Dana for her fascinating answers and for taking the time to chat with me for Thirteen Thoughts. I connect strongly with Dana’s use of synaesthesia in her creations and love the way she works with both music and sound to create her perfumes.
If you’d like to find out more about Dana and her fragrances (and buy them), visit the Parfums Jazmin Saraï website. You’ll find information on each of the fragrances, including the musical inspiration for each perfume. You can also find Jazmin Saraï fragrances listed on Fragrantica and Basenotes.
Dana also has a blog, The Scentinel, full of interesting and regularly published pieces about her own fragrances, scent culture, and music.
I will write an article soon about Dana’s fragrances for my new Smell and Sound Series, which delves into the relationships between smell and sound that are currently being explored by perfumers, musicians and artists.
Stay tuned to see how perfumer Josh Meyer of Imaginary Authors answers the thirteen questions in Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series. Follow the blog here or over at Facebook so that you don’t miss out!
All interview answers and photographs were provided courtesy of the perfumer, and remain their intellectual property. All interview questions remain the intellectual property of Perfume Polytechnic. Please do not reproduce interviews or images without permission.