JOYA'S BESPOKE FRAGRANCES
As someone with synesthesia, Dana El Masri, the in-house perfumer at Brooklyn-based fragrance lab Joya Studio, serves as a welcoming introduction for uninitiated customers of the company’s new bespoke scent service. “How do you want it to make you feel?” she asks early into the first appointment at Joya’s factory-meets-laboratory-meets-storefront across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and accepts flavors, colors, and sounds as answers.
El Masri is such an ideal fit for her current vocation that it’s hard to believe she almost ended up doing something else. As a communications studies major in Canada, she originally planned to become a musician before graduating into last decade’s economic crisis. Looking for a new direction, she spent a lot of time reading, eventually finding her way to Tom Robbins’s classic novel Jitterbug Perfume, about the competition between two perfumers to recreate a legendary fragrance. “I closed the book and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s so weird, I didn’t realize that was a job,’” El Masri laughs.
Newly inspired, she applied to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in Provence, where she became one of twelve students in the yearlong course. A native of the Middle East, El Masri explains that she was raised to value the power of scent, and found her new calling a comfortable match. “All of my memories were scent-related because scent is the strongest sense linked to memory,” she explains. “It’s also a part of our ritual over there. Even the way that we say good morning—in Egypt we say, ‘Good morning, it’s a morning full of jasmine.’ It’s been so embedded in my memories and is a part of who I am.”
It was at the Grasse Institute that she learned she had synesthesia. “I always loved all these different forms of art and never really connected to them,” she says. “Then I go to perfume school and no one thinks I’m weird. It actually all makes sense when I say that Thursday is green or that this smells metallic.”
Today, she combines her loves of sound and scent in her own work, as well as the fragrances she creates for Joya, which counts brands as varied as Marriott, Rodarte, Visionaire, and Anthropologie as clients. For the bespoke service, launched earlier this year, El Masri works with one or two customers a month, in order to allow enough time to perfect each scent. She asks about background and biography, favorite desserts and treasured fragrances, and then works from her array of 150 ingredients to craft something unique and personal. “It makes it difficult for me if someone is very indecisive and they don’t know what they want,” she explains. “If you have a general idea of who you are, I think that’s enough for me, because part of my job as a perfumer is to empathize with my client and gauge what they’re trying to say with their language. Scent is so difficult to articulate because it’s invisible and it’s so emotional.”
After the first session, the client takes home a small sample to live with over a few days, and El Masri will then further refine the fragrance if necessary, although she prides herself on usually getting it right the first time. “It’s rare that I go past three tries,” she says. The final product can come in the form of a fragrance or a candle in one of Joya’s signature vessels. El Masri accepts that she sometimes must follow an unbending client’s strict instructions, but there is pleasure to be found in the surprise of letting her lead in surprising directions, perhaps even to an ingredient like ambergris, which comes from the digestive tract of a sperm whale and has a pungent smell on its own but, when blended, can add a surprisingly pleasant note. “That tiny bit of ugliness makes something beautiful,” she says. “It’s a metaphor for life.”
Joya Studio’s bespoke fragrance service is available at 19 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn.