Natural perfumer Mandy Aftel created Sepia out of an exchange with fellow California perfumer Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio. This, the third installment of Nathan Branch’s Letters to a Fellow Perfumer project, involved each of the perfumers working with a material they had not used before. Erickson chose black and blue hemlock spruce absolutes for a perfume that became Forest Walk.
Aftel originally selected natural alpha ionone (a violet-like smell) and a fire tree absolute for an idea she had to depict her feelings about California’s Gold Country and its ghost towns, of “the beauty of what remains after something is ravaged by time.” Shortly into the project, Aftel abandoned both of these original materials, replacing them with flowering tobacco absolute and blond cedarwood and from this built her fragrant tone poem of both an imaginary past and a present reality.
Despite a roster of notes that includes pink grapefruit, pink lotus, strawberry, cocoa, and coffee, Sepia is a period piece that smells the way a vintage photograph looks: antique and lived in, brown at the edges, wispy with the smoke from a nearby campfire and the grilled meat of the evening’s meal. These tones give Sepia a width that covers both a human and an historical context, including the crinkle of old papers and the bleached bones of derelict structures.
The ghosts of Aftel’s olfactory landscapes move solemnly through a progression towards decay. A first appearance of yellow mandarin is stunning, a bright and unrelieved Western sun on this otherwise dying space. This note is the most attractive citrus I have smelled, natural or synthetic.
Aftel has worked with cepes (mushroom) before in Cepes and Tuberose and the note appears again here as meaty, damp, and fungal. Oud extends the metaphor into liniment, perhaps one for the horses whose fur is smelled through indole and the shining sweatiness of ambergris.
The tumbledown aspect of the present, of gold camps and of towns like Bodie and Copperopolis, is present as well-worn wood that is pursued to death by weather and time. It rots, it stands firm. Labdanum here smells almost coppery as rusty nails. The notes sound as if they might be heavy-handed but they are not. They are, however, very persistent, and they move around freely, creating overlapping, but gentle shadows—surprisingly, it’s a skin scent.
Did Aftel succeed in capturing her aesthetic, and in celebrating the beauty of decay? Absolutely. Even if challenging, this is a perfume that will make you think, will broaden your horizons, that will not fail to affect. Sepia required some patience, but it grew on me over the course of wearing, and now I am saving up for a bottle! A real wow for people who love atmospheric perfumes.
Aftelier Perfumes Sepia includes notes of cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit, pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, and labdanum. Available at Henri Bendels and directly from Aftelier. 30 ml Eau de Parfum spray/$150, 2 ml/$45 or 1/4 oz Parfum/$150.