“Why do some people like orange blossom so much?” I ask Sana Jardin founder Amy Christiansen Si-Ahmed where we've met at a hotel cafe in London’s Belgravia. I ask this, in part selfishly, as it happens to be my favorite scent, and in part as it seems to be a focal point in her line. The luxury fragrance house’s headlining scent ‘Berber Blonde’ is based chiefly on orange blossom, and I suspect, named after her. Immaculately groomed and poised, Amy is indeed very blonde, yet boasts a rich cultural upbringing, multi-faceted career path and exotic life of travels you wouldn’t know just by looking at her.
Amy, who has a background in social work and philanthropy, moved to London 11 years ago after living in Bahrain, Dubai, New York, and her native Chicago. She founded Sana Jardin, the world's first socially conscious luxury fragrance house, after repeated realizations that it’s mainly money that women need to turn their lives around. “When I worked as a social worker in Chicago, I realized that many of these women don’t need me in their house telling them what to do, they just need some economic empowerment.”
But she has a slight issue with a certain buzzword. “I really don’t like to use the word ‘sustainable’, which is why I trademarked the term “Beyond Sustainability”. Sustainable is really just paying fair wages to people and leaving a negligible impact on the environment, and I feel like in this day and age we can do a hell of a lot better than that and really enable people to flourish – which is what I feel Sana Jardin does with its business model."
"I feel like in this day and age, we can do a hell of a lot better than sustainable."
Beyond Sustainability™ seeks to create tangible and measurable social change through commerce, not charity. A vehicle for social impact, the Sana Jardin model works by upcycling all the waste from perfume production and converting it into a line of products that the native women who harvest the flowers sell nationally, earning 100% of the proceeds. Traditionally, the rose, jasmine and orange blossom harvests only provided short-lived employment for the women harvesters, with no alternative employment options. Furthermore, 900 tons of orange blossom waste by-product are yielded annually from the harvest and essential oil distillation, (the first stage of perfume production). This waste can go towards creation of orange blossom water, which is a project in the works. Sana Jardin also shares the supply chain value with the communities involved in making the products fairly as a sustainable business practice and aim to revolutionize the fragrance industry.
Amy got the precise idea for the company three years ago, but feels that it was praying on her mind for a long time. Although she grew up in suburban Chicago, her grandmother was an international trailblazer who laid down a blueprint for working in emerging economies and working with women. “In the 1960s she founded the United States Delegation For Friendship Among Women. And the purpose of that organization was to increase communication among American women and those in developing countries. She was an intrepid traveler. One of my favorite stories about her is that she used to smuggle audiotapes between President Sadat of Egypt, and the prime minister of Israel [Menachem Begin] so that they could negotiate the terms of the Camp David Peace Accords secretly. She grew up on a farm in Michigan, but she was always really adventurous and interested in different cultures and in connecting people, especially women, and she always says that her whole life has evolved because of the kindness of her female friends all over the world and through decades.” Amy proceeds to tell me of romantic stories of her grandmother being in hotels in Cairo in the sixties and seventies, and the different people that she would meet, and we reflect on how there was an existence of real serendipity in those times.
Amy also feels that social work or wanting to be in any of the helping professions is just something you’re born with. “Ever since I was very small I wanted to be in a helping profession, and then after working in direct practice I was thinking that this is just sort of ridiculous, me in their home and telling them what to do, so I tried to help people on a macro level.” Amy worked for the Robin Hood Foundation in New York, before heading to the Middle East. In London, she was a pro-bono adviser to President Clinton’s foundation, and then one of the governing trustees for Cherie Blair’s foundation for women. “I think out of all of those experiences, because all of the foundations I worked for are all really cutting edge and innovative, it just makes you always try to think about the next way to achieve social impact. And I felt like there was a better way to achieve social impact than traditional philanthropy, and I wanted to do that through business and commerce.”
And she could also never find an orange blossom that she liked. “Living in the Middle East I was always looking for some exotic fresh wonderful orange blossom in the souks in Damascus or Oman, and obviously Marrakech, but I could never find it. I’d then look in Barneys in LA and all over, but I could never find something that smelled really pure."
After reading the book The Scent Trail, she knew that a lot of the floral harvest for perfume comes from North Africa. “I thought there has to be a way to do what has been done in fashion and make the supply chain more ethical and transparent and do that in the perfume industry because no one’s done that before, and I love perfume. So it’s all been a big journey, and if I’m really honest, there’s been a lot of blood sweat and tears.”
Morocco also seemed like a fated place to start. “I spent a lot of time in Morocco because one of my best girlfriends is Moroccan, and she lives there, so you just end up in a certain region of the world. They have a very learned culture, and I feel they have a very deep cauldron of knowledge, knowledge of people, and of spirituality. There is a magic there.”
Magic. Serendipity. We seem to be onto a theme. “Perhaps alchemy?” I ask, thinking of Paulo Coelho’s book, which, rather unsurprisingly, is also set in North Africa.
Setting up Sana Jardin in Morocco was no easy feat, and involved a dizzying story of tracking down the right contacts to gain access to the perfumers and suppliers so that she could gain access to working with the women who harvest flowers, and work with that supply chain so she could do something to help them economically. She then partnered with non-profit organization Nest in New York, which dedicates itself to alleviating poverty, empowering women and promoting peace through the successful creation of artisan businesses. “I’ve always wanted to work with them. They’re just like this bubble of goodness. They’re so enthusiastic and pretty big in the US in this space.”
Transitioning from the world of helping others, philanthropy and non-profits to the world of marketing luxury fragrance operations wasn’t of course, perfectly seamless. “In the beginning, there were a lot of decisions I made because I wanted the brand to have a certain cachet and I felt an internal pressure to partner with people or companies that were safe and established. I think if I had more confidence in myself I would have chosen partners who were maybe lesser known, but as somebody starting off, I felt like 'oh I need to have all the big names', so I think for sure that was a big learning curve for me.”
I ask her what the brand looks like now on the ground. “So Nest stayed there for three months to help the women set up a cooperative, where they used to just have access to seasonal work three times a year, now they can work all year round because they have their own businesses so they sell their own orange blossom water and they sell a lot of candles, which again comes from the waste product. Right now they’re being trained how to compost because the farm in Morocco is organic so they need organic compost.”
Amy reasserts that she really believes that we can create a shift in business and in the world if we think about things in a creative way, and that’s why she founded Sana Jardin. Of course, she also loves perfume. “When you wear perfume you feel different. It raises your vibration.”
“What’s a scent you always loved?”, I ask. “I’m not sure if they still make it, but Crabtree & Evelyn used to make something called a Moroccan Room Spray, so it was literally a room spray but it was very spicy, probably like amber, and again I always felt like, I used to spray it in my bedroom when I was like 14 or 15 and smoke cigarettes and eat ramen noodles and drink Darjeeling tea and spray this Moroccan room spray and think I was really exotic. So that is probably one scent that stands out the most to me. I thought I was so bohemian and had all these scarves, and then you look out the window and it’s suburban Chicago.” With this memory, we acknowledge that destiny may have played a hand.
Back to orange blossom. Amy answers my question by explaining that orange blossom in particular centers the mind, and also promotes a feeling of presence and calmness. “All scents have properties. Ylang Ylang, which is in one of our perfumes called Revolution De La Fleur, works on your heart chakra because a lot of our perfumes have a very high concentration of essential oils. Jasmine is connected to sensuality and is an aphrodisiac; sandalwood historically was used to open the third eye and connected to the cosmic divine. So I think that people are attracted to what their body needs for balance.” Perhaps the creation of fragrance itself is a type of alchemy and a tool in striving for balance. Indeed, as I watch Amy (who smells amazing by the way) switch from a hot-water-and-lemon to a Coca Cola, I realize she may definitely know a thing or two about it.
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