Conversation with Dana El Masri


Dana El Masri is an indie perfumer for Jazmin Sarai perfumes based in Montreal.  Back in February we had a lovely chat with lots of laughs, which unfortunately just can’t be transcribed, a real shame as I think you would have appreciated Dana’s bubbly, inquisitive nature as much as I did.  I hope that some of it does come through though in the transcription:

Her Two Scents: How did you get started as a perfumer and do you have any formal training?

Dana El Masri: I had an epiphany about six years ago and I had just graduated with a degree in communication studies and for the longest time I wanted to sing and go into sound production. Once graduated the economic crisis hit and there were no jobs in my field and so I started doing a lot of reading and my friend gave me a book called “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins and I had this insatiable need to find out about all the ingredients in the book, like this “magnificent jasmine” and bee pollen which I had never heard of before. This book helped me realize that I have very strong scent memories – I remember what I wore to my prom, what I wore when I graduated from high school. Having grown up in the Middle East I was surrounded by the scent of jasmine and incense and our rituals have a lot of scent components, culturally speaking, the way you smell is really important, even when you have guests in the home. I’m also a perfume super fan, I have a lot of perfumes.

So in the beginning I thought of going back to school to learn chemistry so I could get into ISIPCA, that route would have taken too long but I was lucky enough to find the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and I ended up doing the whole one year intensive. I was interviewed for the school in New York by Clement Gavarry, Senior Perfumer at IFF, and as it turns out Clement’s father (Max Gavarry) ended up becoming my professor. So, yes, I am classically trained in the Jean Carles method and it was one of the most incredible years of my life.

H2S: Are you mainly into naturals or do you use synthetics as well?

Dana El Masri: As far as ingredients are concerned, I would consider myself a mixed media perfumer. We were taught that naturals and synthetics go hand in hand; that naturals are the flesh and synthetics the skeleton of a perfume. I don’t like to isolate ingredients when I create, I’m more interested in how they work together. I have a lot of naturals but I feel that synthetics push my artistic capabilities further. I also find that achieving transparency using only naturals is difficult – they’re expensive and hard to work with and you have to be very capable to work with them – being very dense a lot of them can end up smelling very similar. At the end of the day this is an art and you need to always be learning and using new techniques, new tools.

H2S: Nowadays everybody wants everything yesterday. I see a lot of newbies on some of the perfume forums wanting to be perfumers in a matter of months. From the perspective of a perfumer that’s already out there doing their thing, in your opinion, what are some of the realistic expectations with regard to what can be done in the first three years, for someone just stepping into this art?

Dana El Masri: For one, if you can get training in any shape or form, do it because it’s really important. Not to take anything away from self-taught perfumers, there are a lot of immensely talented self-taught perfumers out there. But perfumery is such an isolated art already it’s vital to be able to talk to others, get real-time feedback and constructive criticism about your creations. One of the things I learned during my year of training is that the title ‘perfumer’ is a title to be earned. One year is not enough. Before I started selling enough perfumes to call my self a perfumer I always used the title “perfumer-in-training”. It’s only been two years that I’ve been calling myself a perfumer and even then I feel like I need 10 years to feel like one. As a perfumer you never stop learning so it’s important to stay humble. You need to have a strong palette, access to as many ingredients as you can get your hands on and the willingness to invest the time to learn them by heart. I also did a residency at The Institute of Art and Olfaction where I created perfumes inspired by music Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas. The thing about the IAO is that they have a ton of ingredients that you can experiment and expand your scent memory with and that’s a wonderful opportunity for any perfumer in training.

H2S: Share with us some of the strategies that you have used to create visibility for yourself as a perfumer? How did you take your first steps in sales.

Dana El Masri: That’s a good question because I’m still learning! (She laughs.) I launched my business a year ago and I think that when I came back from Grasse I started a blog, like you. I didn’t start out with the intent to sell but to just get my name out there and be recognized for sharing information on scent. But I’ve always been clear about my approach, which is music and scent, equating sounds to smells. So my way is to really try to push perfumery as an art form. At first I wanted to sell only online not realizing that you need the live person, real touch component, and I do try to attend as many tradeshows as possible like Elements and I write for the magazine ODOU, as well I found a few stores willing to stock my perfumes. Mine is a five year plan, I’m taking the long view.

H2S: Since you formulate around music, how do you go about that, what’s your unique process for composing look like? Do you use the classic Top, Middle, Base approach?

Dana El Masri: I would say that I will use the classic approach when creating a bespoke perfume as a way to structure the process and help the client “scentually” visualize the area I want them to focus on. But for myself, when I’m composing my own perfumes I will listen to a song that I’m using as the muse and note the pitch, the rhythm, and beat and I’ll write down my impressions, feelings and similarities of tone and then I translate that all into olfactory form. For example if I listen to song and find that it’s very heavy and dense then I don’t see where a top note would have any bearing on the translation of that song to scent. It really depends on the perfume and what calls to me.

H2S: What are some of the raw materials you always come back to and why?

Dana El Masri: For me I think it always changes. During school we had access to all kinds of materials, if it wasn’t available they ordered it, it was then I realized I had an obsession with Sandalwood, incense, and Cassis Base. I also have a very strong connection to Jasmine, I find it very versatile. Osmanthus too, is beautiful but hard to work with. What I found is that when you become aware of what you like you have to consciously practice restraint to not keep using it. And also personal tastes do change over time. I remember at first I didn’t know what to do with Amber and I didn’t like Civet but practice, smell and play is what keeps changing things up for me.

H2S: What three scents would you use to describe your city, Montreal, to someone who’s never been there before?

Dana El Masri: I had a really hard time with this question. I would have to say it depends on the season because Montreal smells completely different every season! If I had to give it a general smell I’d say a light fractionated Patchouli, which is slightly humid but not too heavy with a scent of bagels and Birch trees. But in the Spring, Montreal really comes alive, the lilacs are coming out, so a little bit of C14, Cassis base (of course!), linalol, hints of honey…all the snow is melting so you’re definitely getting the slight fermented ‘waste’ smell coming at you, too, and that’s strongly mixed with the fresh grass shoots and vegetation. Also a lot of brick and cool pine.

H2S: Any advice for aspiring perfumers?

Dana El Masri:

  1. Experiment as much and as often as your budget will allow.
  2. Keep all your formulas even the ones you can’t stand right now.
  3. Keep informed about the industry, things are always changing , new materials are always becoming available.
  4. Listen to feedback but stay true to your vision.
  5. Write everything down and label everything!
  6. This is a long journey and you’re going to make a lot of crappy smelling stuff so be patient with yourself.

I think all six points are important but the last one, being patient with ourselves as we learn, to me rings the loudest. Thank you, Dana, for taking the time to share your journey with us and I hope you all enjoyed the read!

Happy Wednesday!