Mandy Aftel’s passion for perfumery is contagious. When she speaks about her creations, one realizes that this is an individual whose love for perfume is as immense as her knowledge of essences and perfume history. Ms. Aftel’s work as a natural perfumer has been trendsetting, aided by her book “Essence and Alchemy” (North Point Press, 2001), which was a labor of love, distilled from her research and her experience as a perfumer. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book became a corner stone upon which the contemporary natural perfumery movement was built. …
“Discovering the art of natural perfumery is like crossing the threshold of a beautiful old house and finding it utterly intact and splendidly furnished—but deserted, as if it had been suddenly abandoned,” says Ms. Aftel about her work, and the ever present sense of discovery is what fuels her passion and her creative process. Moreover, for Ms. Aftel, the beauty of perfume lies in the connection to history, which her work frequently underscores. Thus, Shiso, a fragrance redolent of crushed green leaves and spiced flowers, was born after Liza Dalby, who wrote the books “Geisha” and “Kimono,” brought powdered geisha perfume from Japan. The recreation of the antique formula woven through with the modern elements of yuzu, shiso and pandanus gave rise to the composition that is not only speaking of the past, but is also offering a new interpretation.
Originally from Detroit, Ms. Aftel graduated from the University of Michigan with degrees in English and Psychology. Ms. Aftel found her calling more than 10 years ago, when she took a workshop on how to make solid perfume. This one-day workshop led her onto the path of perfumery, from which she has not swerved since. She began to collect rare books on perfumery, and even had her collection displayed in an exhibition hosted by the University of Southern California’s Doheny Memorial Library, titled “The Foul and the Fragrant: Creating Perfume.”
As she notes when asked about a connection between her upbringing and perfumery, “I would not say that anything in my upbringing led me to perfumery, but I was always a passionate person, taught to follow what captivated me. If something clicked with me, I would end up getting very deep into the topic.”
Her first company, Grandiflorum, was founded with a partner, however Ms. Aftel later split off and created her eponymous line, Aftelier, which showcases her unique creations based on the natural perfumery mission—creating artisan natural perfumes based in the quality and integrity of the ingredients.
When Ms. Aftel begins to speak of her creations and of the thinking that goes into her fragrances, nothing can distract her. In this world of hers, perfumery is the main focus. “I like to envision perfume as a piece of a precious jewelry, created through an artisan process,” remarks Ms. Aftel. Her voice is full of excitement when she mentions a recent creation showcasing rare boronia flower, with its caramelized raspberry scent. “I like boronia, which has a very unique scent, however it is difficult to work with, because it easily gets buried in the composition, in addition to being expensive. However, recently I managed to create a solid perfume [Boronia] that captured the smell of this flower perfectly.”
Talking about essences is one of the most interesting topics for Ms. Aftel, whether the discussion touches upon the qualities of antique oils or the recent discoveries. Her favorite materials include many notes that are not conventionally beautiful. “I am fascinating by intense and odd notes that have almost alchemical properties in terms of their effect on other notes,” she reflects. “A tiny amount makes a difference. These notes are like rare accessories that enhance the entire arrangement.” Thus, her fragrance Cepes and Tuberose, incorporates dark and earthy cepes absolute with heady and sweet tuberose. The result is quite special, as the marmite like cepes absolute tempers the voluptuous richness of tuberose, while lending it an earthy twist. “Often the odors that are not considered beautiful are an important piece of what makes something beautiful.” Her other favorite notes include tarragon (essensial oil and absolute), nutmeg absolute, saffron, choya nakh, and pink pepper.
With the growth of natural perfumery and its community, she sees education about ingredients as one of the most important factors for maintaining the momentum. Natural perfume differs markedly from a composition incorporating synthetics not only in terms of its long evolution lacking the immediacy of synthetics, but also shorter lasting aspects. Yet, as she notes, it is an artisan product, and it must be approached as such.
As someone whose book “Essence and Alchemy” became responsible for a new wave of natural perfumers, Ms. Aftel’s advice to novices is to have an innate understanding of materials, while pushing oneself to experiment. It is important to learn the materials one is working with. “I would recommend purchasing as many different oils as possible in small quantities and learn their properties: top, middle, base. Get scent strips and learn the evolution of each note—top, body, dryout note. Pick out two notes that you love and build around these two. It is not recommended to start with more than 6 or, if one is really adventurous, 9 notes at a time (2-2-2 or 3-3-3 corresponding to top, heart, base). Think hard about these two anchor notes and visualize the structure. Add notes that would extend the properties of the two focal notes and complement them. Pay a lot of attention to how the blend works after each additional drop, and be prepared to start again, because one cannot learn without making mistakes. It is advisable to set the blend aside for some time before returning to it, because changes might take place, for better or worse.” She warns against dependence on expensive florals and vanilla and on avoidance of experiments, which together curb creativity.
When asked whose work she admires, Ms. Aftel praises Anya McCoy’s work. “Her work is exciting, and so is that of many of my students. I enjoy following their efforts,” she says, with pride in her voice.
She reflects that perfumery is such an all-consuming passion that it managed to take over her life. However, she also loves writing, which is evidenced by several books she authored. Thus, in “Aroma” (Artisan, 2004), a cookbook she co-wrote with chef Daniel Patterson, the focus is on how to incorporate essential oils into recipes. She mentions that her favorite recipe from the book is a rose and ginger soufflé that manages to create a beautiful interplay of flavors against a light yogurt mousse base.
As for her current goals, Ms. Aftel mentions that the only thing of importance is to continue discovering and learning, as the perfumery is a never-ending journey. She only hopes that others can share her passion and her love of perfume.
For more information about Aftelier fragrances and Mandy Aftel’s work, please visit Aftelier Perfumes.
Photo: San Francisco Chronicle, which featured a very interesting article on Mandy Aftel and her creations.