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Key Takeways from Scent Festival 2021

Published October 20, 2021
Published October 20, 2021
Digital Scent Festival

Yosh Han founded the Digital Scent Festival last year out of the desire to connect the scent community in a time of social distancing and lockdowns. The inaugural event, entitled “Olfaction and the Senses,” offered talks on subjects such as the manufacturing process of perfumery, the connection between smells and music, as well as future application possibilities for scent. It expanded from an initial six-week-long program of Insta Lives and Zoom events into a six-month-long stream of conversations.

Han has been a key voice of the indie scent industry, from her own fragrance line YOSH, a range of perfumes built on the principles of numerology and chakra energy, to being creative director for Scent Trunk, a DTC subscription service which commissions monthly scents from niche perfumers around an annual theme, as well as offering DIY bespoke creations.

This year’s Digital Scent Festival subject was “Intersectionality & Perfumery,” hosting the conversations summarized below. In conjunction with the festivities, Han has launched a petition to reclassify the terms “oriental” and “floriental” in the fragrance industry. BeautyMatter rounded up the key takeaways and anecdotes from the week’s events.

Talk: South Asian and North African Scent Heritage

Dana El Masri, an interdisciplinary artist and founder of perfume house Jazmin Saraï, led the week’s inaugural event. With El Masri’s goal of replacing the often Eurocentric vision of the perfume industry with multicultural narratives, the creative led an illuminating talk on the vast olfactory landscapes of the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Syria, and Sudan, to name a few.

  • Sudan has an aromatic tradition dating back to 7000 BC, serving as a trade route for aromatic materials. Today the area has two traditional methods of incense use called bakhra and takhriga.
  • The first recorded mention of frankincense, which was used for purification and godly offerings, was in an inscription on the 15th century BC tomb of Queen Hapshetsut.
  • Kyphi, an incense blend created by the ancient Egyptians, was one of the first known fragrances. Egyptian civilization also believed you achieve life through the nose.
  • Mesopotamians crushed various flower petals in wooden pressors to extract oil.
  • The roots of modern distillation practices originated in the Arab world.
  • Oud, originating from the UAE, is not a sustainable raw material, nor is it accessible for lower economic levels.
  • “There's been an over-obsession with oud in the perfume world, almost similar to the fetishization of the so called orient in the 20s.” – Dana El Masri
  • In modern-day Egypt, the greeting “May you have a morning of jasmine and jasmine sambac” is often used as a nod to the region’s flower.
  • Saudi Arabia holds an annual Taif Rose Festival in honor of said homegrown plant.
  • The social uprising leading to the Arab Spring in 2011, beginning in Tunisia, was dubbed the Jasmine Revolution.
  • “What’s happening behind [the scenes] and what is being presented are two different things. The reality is: who does it benefit?”
  • The Boswellia Sacra tree, or frankincense tree, grows abundantly in Oman.
  • Laurel soap, the tradition of hard soap, originated in Syria, not Marseilles as commonly thought.
  • Lebanese-born olfactory art historian Ashraf Osman created the travelling olfactory art exhibition project "Scents of Exile," in partnership with Givaudan in Dubai and Paris, as well as Syndicate in Beirut. It explores “the memory, identity and nostalgia of scents associated with cities and places no longer accessible.”
  • “It's important to note this whole this topic of decolonization, it's not just about let's use the correct terminology and break down these regions, but it's also understanding the effect of capitalism, the effect of colonization, because a lot of these farmers, they don't have fair trade.” – Yosh Han
  • “Most jasmine is still picked by children and women who are not paid very well … There's barely any good system in place. Unions in fragrance do not exist, so how can we remove at least one channel so that the people who are actually giving us what we're accessing have a better chance of living?” – Dana El Masri
  • “Part of this conversation is to give consumers a little bit of awareness. There's so many people who [say], ‘Don't bring politics into perfume.’ It’s already political because if you understand free trade coffee, how can you not understand that this is imperative in the raw materials supply chain?” – Yosh Han
“There's been an over-obsession with oud in the perfume world, almost similar to the fetishization of the so called orient in the 20s.”
By Dana El Masri, Founder, Jazmin Saraï

Clubhouse Chat: When You Love a Perfume but the Name Is a Shame

This casual, humourous, and free-flowing talk was hosted on Clubhouse by Perfume Playdate, a live beauty talk hosted every Wednesday by fragrance journalist Olya Bar and cultural historian Daisy Bow. Attendees were invited to come in to disclose the fragrance names that caused them personal discomfort. While we won’t disclose the actual fragrances, the products mentioned can be summed up by the following categories:

  • Inappropriate sexual puns
  • Excessively long product names
  • Fragrance titles glorifying drug use or fetishizing other cultures
  • Co-opted fragrance names trying to capitalize on the legacy of the original
  • Out-of-touch or insensitive launches

Talk: Colonialism, Spice Trade, and Raw Materials

Led by Rachel Binder, founder of the fragrance house Pomare’s Stolen Perfume, winner of the 2020 Aftel Award for Handmade Perfume and recipient of the International Perfume Foundation’s Sustainable Brand of the Year award, this event delved into historical and present-day contexts of colonialism around raw materials.

  • The term French vanilla is misleading; vanilla has never been grown in this region but is instead predominantly sourced from Tahiti or Madagascar, although the French did occupy these lands. Vanilla originates from Mexico and potentially Guatemala.
  • Edmond Albius, a horticulturalist from Réunion born into slavery, invented the technique for pollinating vanilla orchids that is used to this day.
  • “It's also important to look at how people are being compensated, how the environment is being treated for these materials. The classic hallmark of colonialism is exploiting another workforce for cheaper labor and bringing things back to the more colonial nation. That nation can even be the United States, right now, that cheaper labor, and then also not caretaking the earth in the manner that perhaps the native tradition would have, respecting the land.” – Rachel Binder
  • Companies such as Diaspora Co are championing equitable trade relations, paying six times the commodity price.
  • “What's happened with this colonial industrial revolution, on making things so easily mass producible is we take these materials and they now no longer have a face, they have a CAS number.” – Rachel Binder
  • “Whether it is an aroma molecule made in a factory, and you aren't sure what the legitimate status is of their run-off [date], or if it's flower essential oil that you purchase from somewhere: each of these ingredients has a story that's really important.” – Rachel Binder
  • “Land has an energetic imprint and a feeling. I like to make things that reflect as much as I can the heartbeat of that land. Another nation’s story isn’t my story to tell, but I can still tell my own personal story. I hope there are different ways we can encourage people to feel a little more comfortable around this conversation of appropriation.” – Rachel Binder
  • “The way we either sexualize, fetishize, or otherwise look into [a certain] culture as less sexy or cool, this is also part of that bigger colonial prism.” – Rachel Binder
  • “The more people become aware of other cultures, the more aromatics that are available to them, the more the world is a magical place.” – Rachel Binder
  • “Nobody in France came out with how to make an attar, and so it's interesting that this one Eurocentric story has been told over and over again. I mean literally every year at the same time, there's a story about them working the fields in Provence and picking the jasmine. This portion of what we find beautiful is also where colonialism lies … We can learn from other cultures without taking it and calling it our own.” – Rachel Binder
  • “We can pay respect to people that have given us such incredible scent traditions, by finding whatever small ways we can to ask the right questions. Then, hopefully the people that do use larger suppliers, you'll be able to move their needle so they know that they won't be able to just use the cheap labor and get away with it anymore.” – Rachel Binder
  • “If we can move the farming practices to regenerative, we're healing the earth, and we can heal economies.” – Rachel Binder
  • “A lot of people who want to make perfume don't know how to make perfume because the industry has been closed. What's interesting is, in this process of the last few years, consumers want clean beauty, now it has become kind of a tipping point where people also want clean perfume. Things are getting shaken up because there's a lot of conversation between sustainable perfumery, natural perfumery, synthetic perfumery, what's better, there's so many things that we don't know the answers to.” – Yosh Han
  • “If we're going to further our conversation on safety and natural beauty, we're going to have to step away from only looking at the world through the paradigm of isolationism and lab chemistry, which is fundamentally, from a scientific perspective, different than organic chemistry.” – Rachel Binder
  • “Why do we have to have a formula that feeds the desire for millions of people. Why don't we take the concept of fast fashion and slow food and have slow perfumery?” – Yosh Han
  • Jack Chaitman of Scents of Knowing, John Steele of Lifetree Aromatix, and Christopher McMahon of White Lotus Aromatics are a few individuals taking a more conscious approach to natural raw materials procurement and use.
“Why do we have to have a formula that feeds the desire for millions of people. Why don't we take the concept of fast fashion and slow food and have slow perfumery?”
By Yosh Han, Founder, Digital Scent Festival

Panel Discussion: Fresh Perspectives in American Perfumery

Moderated by Bambi Montgomery, an atmosphere curator and product developer, and founder of Hive Luxury Fragrances, this panel was a far-reaching discussion on personal experiences and industry futures. Speakers were Terees Western, founder of fragrance and flavor apothecary FragranTed; Kimberly Waters, owner of MUSE (Modern Urban Sensory Experiences), the only Black-owned fragrance boutique in NYC; Shawn Crenshaw, the man behind Ovation for Men, the first indie fragrance brand celebrating men of color; and Rodney Hughes, the creator behind natural and organic perfume house Therapeutate Parfums, and an advisory board member for the International Perfume Foundation.

  • “One of the things that separates us is the fact that we are a community fragrance destination. Think back to the Harlem Renaissance time where a brownstone was used to create a sense of community, conversation around particular topics, whether it was the arts or religion. I'm trying to redefine that and make it more fragrance related.” – Kimberly Waters
  • “Our brand is about heritage. When I started my business, it was probably about a year after my father passed away, and I wanted to do something to honor him. On the product side, we are about combining and celebrating the heritage of botanicals that come from the Black diaspora.” – Terees Western
  • “A concern that I had as a consumer was there weren’t any brands that look like me, talk like me, walk like me. We wanted to create a brand that has some level of mass appeal, and we thought that there wasn't any other thing more mass appealing than celebrating.” – Shawn Crenshaw
  • “I had been wearing niche fragrances really, for a long time, and I started to build up intolerances to fragrances, particularly more commercial fragrances. That was the beginning of Therapeutate Parfums, working with authentic botanicals to create master works of fragrance that are very steeped in the French and Italian heritage in terms of perfume making, but also have a very modern and urban appeal to them.” – Rodney Hughes
  • “We really want to establish ourselves, not only from a product standpoint, but also creating great content. We want to make sure that the stamp that we make is pushing the envelope to tell our stories.” – Shawn Crenshaw
  • “'Representation is everything. What I know is that when we show up and we have a place at the table, then it inspires our community.” – Rodney Hughes
  • “The last year reminded me of why I started, and that reason was to make fragrance super inclusive, and make it accessible to my community. To show the world that there are different perspectives in the fragrance space that are worth sharing, and illuminating.” – Kimberly Waters
  • “I'm thankful but inside I was like, ‘A Black man had to die for there to be a recognition of contributions of Black perfumers or even just to have them showcased.’ That was a lot for me to process because having greater attention is wonderful, but at the sacrifice of someone's life. I now have a greater mission on helping the next generation.” – Terees Western
  • “We need to use whatever platforms we have to make it a bit easier for the next generation.” – Bambi Montgomery
  • “What I've found in this industry, especially for people of color, we're often underfunded.” – Bambi Montgomery
  • “I've always found that it's been easier and much less cumbersome to work with my own funding. When my partners and I were early on opening up businesses within our community as our community was being revitalized, we found that some of the funding sources would have actually put us out of business before we actually started business, because of the interest rates and application fees.” – Rodney Hughes
  • “My frustration has been, you know, there's this, you know, this misnomer that, you know, capital is easy, and so there's plenty of money out there. That's really not true. Access to capital is the biggest hurdle.” – Shawn Crenshaw
  • “One of the things we all know, on social media, you never know who's watching you, I got a surprise grant … Always walk with integrity because the least person you expect will be the one that will give you the money you need, unexpectedly.” – Terees Western
  • “Where finances are concerned, not all money is good money. I've been offered a bag or two, but it was to alter my brand, change my story, come up with a different narrative.” – Bambi Montgomery
  • “If you are able to tell a story that people feel is a representation of them, that's where the connection is made, that's where the affinity for your brand happens.” – Shawn Crenshaw
  • Initiatives such as, created by The Cut’s Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, are creating opportunities to promote and connect Black perfumers in the industry globally.

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