Mandy Aftel : Conversation about Natural Perfumery


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.



  • cora-lu: Just yesterday I wore Cepes and Tuberose and I am pleased to say that (so unlike me) I did not want to layer or test anything else whilst doing it. The two notes mingle so well and in such an interesting and unusual manner, that I was kept interested (and sniffing eagerly) all day long. You captured the impression so well, dear V, when you said “The result is quite special, as the marmite like cepes absolute tempers the voluptuous richness of tuberose, while lending it an earthy twist.”

    I have briefly tried Shiso and quite liked it, but I need to test it further and thoroughly.

    Whilst about Essence and Alchemy, I am afraid I wasn’t that impressed, it struck me as a bit unstructured, a mish-mash of interesting facts, but not very well put together. Maybe I need to re-visit and check that I was not mistaken 🙂

    Thank you, dear V, for your wonderful site, reading your posts is one of my daily pleasures! October 11, 2005 at 5:41am Reply

  • parislondres: Interesting interview V! 🙂 I am so glad to read Anya’s work being praised by Mandy Aftel.
    Now I am keen to get hold of “Aroma”.

    Have a super week! October 11, 2005 at 3:12am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Dear N, yes, I was pleased to hear our Anya being praised as well. Have you tried any of Aftelier fragrances?

    Have a wonderful day! October 11, 2005 at 3:26am Reply

  • Robin: What a wonderful interview, V. It is a delight to read about Ms Aftel’s dedication, and now I really must seek out more of her fragrances. Anyone who loves the odd, not conventionally beautiful touch is someone that interests me. Cepes & Tuberose sounds wonderful. October 11, 2005 at 9:21am Reply

  • Gail Adrian: I was particularly gratified to notice that Ms. Aftel praised working with the more challenging materials. As an intuitive perfumer, I value the opportunity for transformation that lies in botanical Perfumery. I feel that in working with materials which demand close technical concentration brings us closer to ourselves. Through the intimate working knowledge of the incorrigable raw materials of perfume we open ourselves up to our personal internal combustion. This process is concurrent with the alchemical dance occuring within our perfume composition. This creates a duet linking our hearts with our scent. (On a good day LOL)

    Gail Adrian October 11, 2005 at 8:49am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Cora, I find many of Aftelier fragrances very interesting and unusual. Pink Lotus with its beautiful ylang ylang over sandalwood is a great. Cepes and Tuberose is probably one of my favourites, because it is just completely unconventional and unexpected.

    Shiso is another very interesting composition, with a very unusual clove note (soft and floral, which makes me think that it is well-aged). I would love to hear your thoughts on it when you have a chance to try it again. October 11, 2005 at 10:39am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Gail, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I also appreciate that Ms. Aftel works with unusual materials, because they give her compositions an interesting twist, which sole reliance of rose and jasmine cannot do. I liked her point that “Often the odors that are not considered beautiful are an important piece of what makes something beautiful.” October 11, 2005 at 10:41am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, Cepes and Tuberose is a very interesting composition. Like you, I am very much attracted to Ms. Aftel’s unconventional thinking. I only hope that I was able to capture her passion well in the article. October 11, 2005 at 10:42am Reply

  • Tania: Cepes and Tuberose sounds wonderfully strange. I wasn’t terribly excited by the Grandiflorum scents or the Aftelier scents I smelled (Jasmine solid and the notorious Cacao) but it sounds as if she’s taken some interesting directions that are worth exploring. Her enthusiasm for the work seems infectious, and I felt a sigh of agreement escape me when I read her counsel not to rely on expensive florals and vanilla. Truth to tell, I’m fairly exhausted of reading about, you know, exquisite floral oils that can only be obtained by riding a stolen horse five months into the driest valleys of the ends of the earth to barter with an ancient sage who whispers sutras to his gardens every morning and afternoon while irrigating them with the tears of orphaned children, etc. Someone who could surprise me with tarragon and pepper is welcome!

    So, V, have you smelled any of Anya’s work? I’m eager to have a sniff when her line comes out next year. October 11, 2005 at 10:51am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Tania, yes, you are right. “…exquisite floral oils that can only be obtained by riding a stolen horse five months”–now, this made me laugh out loud and nod in agreement. I also find the recent trend of focusing on raw materials (L’Artisan Fleur d’Oranger, Givenchy vintage collections, etc.) kind of curious.

    Was it Evan who made a point about expecting organic aldehydes and ethically synthesized hedione?

    I smelled only Anya’s amazing tinctures, and now I cannot wait for her line to debut. October 11, 2005 at 11:00am Reply

  • linda: Interesting interview, V! Thank you. I have a sample of her lovely Pink Lotus from beautyhabit. I am saving for a full bottle. 🙂 October 11, 2005 at 3:20pm Reply

  • Marina: Fascinating.I must confess my absolute ignorance about Aftel’s scents, I haven’t tried a single one yet *hangs head in shame* Which one would you recommend, Vikochka? What about Cepes and Tuberose? That contrast sounds very appealing. October 11, 2005 at 12:55pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marinochka, I think that you might like to explore Pink Lotus, Parfum de Maroc and Shiso. Cepes and Tuberose is definitely fascinating, but I know that you are not an ardent tuberose fan, therefore I would be reticent to recommend it. October 11, 2005 at 1:06pm Reply

  • Anya: Mandy deserves all the credit for reviving natural perfumery singlehandedly, and her instinctual, soulful pursuits of pairing disparate notes (cepes + tuberose!) is pure genius. Thanks for shining the spotlight on her, V. Another thing I love about Mandy is that she is devoted to bringing natural perfumery to the masses, not keeping it in a rarified atmosphere.

    Her latest book on solids is approachable and seductive and is bound to draw many more into blending. Before Essence and Alchemy, we who loved, collected and blended our natural essences did so at a very basic level. That book opened our eyes to a more professional approach, with the history and mystery of the art as our foundation. October 11, 2005 at 2:05pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Anya, it is truly my pleasure! I was grateful for an opportunity to learn more about Ms. Aftel and her work.

    Now, I hope that you will bring your fragrances to the masses. 🙂 I cannot wait to try them. October 11, 2005 at 3:40pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, thank you! I am glad that you enjoyed it. I am also glad to see another Pink Lotus fan. October 11, 2005 at 3:41pm Reply

  • Ayala: Victoria, thank you for posting this interesting interview with Mandy Aftel!
    Although I never met with Mandy in person, her book “Essence and Alchemy” has greatly inspired my work as a perfumer and my decision to dedicate my life to Natural Perfumery.
    Her book is a great starting point for those interested to learn about the history of perfumes and the beauty of natural perfumery – and offers a methodical and passionate approach to perfumery.
    I am certain that many of us, natural perfumers appreciate greatly what Mandy have done for reviving the art of Natural Perfumery and bringing it to the public conscious.
    In the very early stages of my career, I had a conversation with Mandy over the phone and she has encouraged me to continue learning perfumery on my own and continue with this path – with great faith in me as a person.
    I think Mandy is a very generous and courageous woman: she shares her knowledge, experience and passion, and had been determined to walk an unknown path while learning all its twists and turns on her own, through trial and error.
    I feel many of us, natural perfumers who are self-taught, can deeply identify with Mandy, and look up to her as a person that worked hard on reviving this path, as well as empower other men and women to follow their heart and their passion.
    This, in my eyes, is remarkable. October 11, 2005 at 11:31pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Ayala, I appreciate your wonderful and thoughtful comments. I was always impressed by Ms. Aftel’s work and her dedication to the cause of Natural Perfumery. Speaking to her on the phone made me realize not only how incredibly knowledgeable, but also how passionate and creative she is! It is truly special to encounter a person like this. Remarkable, indeed! October 11, 2005 at 11:56pm Reply

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