Indie perfumer Mandy Aftel’s new perfume Sepia was inspired by her explorations of California’s Gold Country ghost towns. During the Letters to A Fellow Perfumer series on Nathan Branch’s blog, Sepia went from a fantasy of a lost world to a perfume. It is includes notes of cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit, pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, and labdanum. I decided to ask Mandy a few questions about her perfume and the creative process behind it.
Q: Sepia was created during the Letters to A Fellow Perfumer series on Nathan Branch’s blog, in exchanges with Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scents Studio. What do you value the most in such collaborations? What did you learn in the process about the way you create?
A: I was very deeply honored to do the Letters to Fellow Perfumer series on Nathan Branch’s blog. It has been incredible to have to step away and try to put my intuitive creative process into words. I think I have gained a lot by that distance––it it has helped me to understand better how my mind works, and that I see aromas as a language and the creating of perfumes like writing and editing to express myself as best I can.
Knowing that I would have to share it publicly with others was slightly scary to me––being the shy person that I am––but I learned so much about my own and the other perfumers’ creative processes, and had the good fortune of Nathan’s rigorous editing, great suggestions, and the richness of his own research & adding those glorious links to the letters.
Q: Can you please describe in your own words what the fragrance of Sepia is like?
A: Like old woods and musk and more. From the few people who have smelled it, I think Sepia begins to haunt you, it grows on you . Some people may not respond to it immediately but it seduces and woos you back. My best friend, who didn’t love it at first, found herself dreaming about it days later. It does have a ghostly presence in one’s mind that lingers on: it is the aroma of an absence.
Q: Was Sepia a challenging perfume to create, given its complexity?
A: Sepia was an extremely difficult perfume to create, and I knew it would be when I set out to do it. Taking my inspiration from the beauty that I found as I drove around to the Gold country of northern California––the ruins, the ghosts from the past and the wildness of coming out West to look for gold.
To translate a feeling into a perfume is a challenge. But to me perfumes are always about feelings and experiences where words are not adequate. I knew that I wanted the perfume to have a certain sheer texture and to convey the richness of things aging together and becoming more beautiful. But beautiful in a way they never were at the outset.
One of the most challenging aspects of creating Sepia was using such intense notes like cepes, cocoa, coffee tobacco, indole, and creating a perfume with a sheer and soft texture.
Q: What draws you to such challenging materials like ambergris, oud, cepes, cocoa absolute?
A: Actually, I love the challenging essences the most. To me, they are magic and dangerous — because just a drop can change everything in a perfume. They have a singular beauty, and it is a pleasure to massage them into place in a fragrance.
Q: How did the idea of putting oud and ambergris occur to you?
A: It was always in my mind to use ambergris because of its shimmering quality and the way that it softens all the other essences in the perfume. Oud was a perfect addition to express my ideas about the elegance of aging which to me is what the evolution of a perfume on your skin is all about. But, surprisingly, at least to me, the idea of including oud was one of the last things I thought of. I think I was avoiding it because the last perfume I made, Oud Luban, was so much about oud that I was worried about repeating myself. I see my line of perfumes as chapters of the book, building on each other to a whole together with each chapter making its own contribution to the whole.
Q: As a creator, how do you know that the perfume is finished? When are you ready to send it into the world?
A: I am afraid this will sound silly, but I just know when it is done. I have a certain visceral experience inside that lets me know that it is complete. Also, while working on the Letter Series, Nathan Branch has pointed out to me that when I send him a couple versions of a perfume to sample — and not just one — he knows that I’m not done yet.
Q: If someone loves Sepia, what other fragrances from your collection would they enjoy?
A: The two perfumes in my line which are closest to this one are Cepes & Tuberose and Tango.
Image: California’s Gold Country ghost town via Aftelier