Aftelier Perfumes Sepia : Fragrance Review


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.

Sample: Aftelier



  • marsi: I tried Tango at Bendels and that one was a wow for me. But it doesn’t last! Is there anything I can do to make it stick to me longer? August 28, 2012 at 10:12am Reply

    • Suzanna: marsi, I’m afraid everything lasts and lasts on me, even when I don’t want it to :–(

      I know some people recommend using unscented lotion first, but I’ve never done anything like that. Perhaps someone else will come along and comment. August 28, 2012 at 11:14am Reply

      • marsi: I will have to try that. Thanks!
        Sepia sounds interesting, but I’m scared of oud. That note hates my skin. August 28, 2012 at 11:28am Reply

        • Suzanna: It doesn’t like me much either. I’ve just become somewhat accustomed to it since it’s appearing in so many perfumes. Where it’s extreme, it’s impossible. But elsewhere it just smells medicinal/fungal to me, in a way that you might smell a pharmaceutical preparation and find it strangely alluring. August 28, 2012 at 11:48am Reply

  • silverdust: Suzanna, you painted quite a picture with your description. It was well done!

    Sepia sounds like something I’d like. However, Aftelier and the rest of the high-end perfume houses won’t have a shot at me with these ridiculous prices.

    When I was burgeoning ‘fumer, many moons ago, “good” perfumes were a little pricey but fully in the “do-able” range.

    If the sellers insist on these prices, my finances will insist on waiting for a quality replicator. August 28, 2012 at 1:48pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Silverdust, I’m glad you brought the price of perfume up. You’ve described the past perfectly: “Good perfumes were a little pricey but fully int he “do-able” rang.”

      Well, those were the days. I recall Malle scents were $73.00. Go have a look at their prices now. Gobin Daude had what for the time was a terrifying stick: $140.00 for 50 ml.

      I’ve stopped buying. I might buy two bottles a year now. August 28, 2012 at 5:33pm Reply

      • solanace: Thank the Olympus for decants!
        I almost never buy any FBs, it is so much fun to invest in small portions of a lot of stuff. August 28, 2012 at 5:44pm Reply

        • Sandra: Decanting businesses save the day by making it easier to sample new things. Just got a bunch of samples from Surrender to Chance. Yay! August 28, 2012 at 5:56pm Reply

          • Suzanna: Enjoy those samples, Sandra! August 28, 2012 at 6:03pm Reply

        • Suzanna: Here and there I buy decants–most of them I get from swapping. And most perfumes are just enough in a decant! August 28, 2012 at 6:02pm Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: Gorgeous post, Suzanna. I am especially captivated by the descriptor “raunchy”. I would never have applied it to any of Mandy Aftel’s other scents, but I must admit, I am perversely intrigued. I love the elgance of decay. August 28, 2012 at 4:21pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Lynn Morgan, then Sepia is for you. Decay of men and the decay of the things they build; this is all accounted for with Sepia, plus there is the involvement of animals (cow/horse) and their fur and particular sweats. It is a picture of the past as a complete tableau, then time-traveled to the present where the sun shines through it further bleaches it dry. A must-try. August 28, 2012 at 5:36pm Reply

      • Lynn Morgan: Swoon!!!! August 29, 2012 at 4:18pm Reply

  • Ariadne: Aaow! psssst! What a great review/descriptor! Seems quite the concoction really this fume. Having spent a few days of my honeymoon holed up in the Georgetown, CA hotel/saloon I totally get this reference and would like to find a way to sample this perfume… but for less than $150. A sample of Laurie’s Forest Walk might be more in line for transitioning me into Fall. August 28, 2012 at 6:56pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Sonoma Scent Studio also makes excellent scents, Ariadne! (Her Femme Jolie is a favorite of mine and somewhere in dim recesses is an olfactory picture of her Sanctuary scents, long since vanished myrhh/sandalwood potions that I wish she’d offer up again.)

      Sounds like an interesting honeymoon you had at that hotel/saloon! I wonder if it is the one where Louise Brooks filmed a Western in the long-ago past.

      I consider all scents worth trying, so if you come by a sample of Sepia, do not pass up. It will take you on a voyage. August 28, 2012 at 7:07pm Reply

    • Mandy Aftel: Ariadne – I do sell samples of everything, and definitely recommend that people start there… August 29, 2012 at 12:13pm Reply

  • Annie: Sepia is such a round, whole, sum-is-greater- than-the-parts perfume, that I marvel at it’s artfulness, most especially because it is composed of all naturals. It is one of my all time favorite Aftel perfumes. . . the only full bottle of Perfume I’ve bought in years.
    I have the same difficulty with perfume staying on me. I find putting down a thin layer of pure shea butter, then the Sepia, helps a lot. Or put a dab at the base of your nose, or on a dark bit of clothing.
    It is easy and reasonable to get a sample of Sepia from Mandy’s website- August 29, 2012 at 12:04am Reply

    • Suzanna: Annie, I’m glad to hear the thoughts of someone who has been wearing and enjoying Sepia. Thanks for adding to the discussion! August 29, 2012 at 12:42pm Reply

  • annemariec: Price-wise, Aftelier is out of my league too, although I do appreciate that the cost of raw materials is a often factor in the price.

    I’m not sure I am interested in atmospheric perfumes – I stick to the idea that I want, first and foremost, to smell beautiful. But what is beautiful? That’s the key question!

    I like your suggestion that this is a perfume that will broaden one’s horizons. Lovely review, thanks. August 29, 2012 at 4:47am Reply

    • Suzanna: annemariec, I agree about that eternal question: What is beauty/beautiful?

      There are a lot of atmospheric scents around, including the famous Etro Messe de Minuit and Sonoma’s Forest Walk. It’s a category I really enjoy. August 29, 2012 at 12:44pm Reply

  • Mandy Aftel: Wow Suzanna, your evocative details make this an amazing review! I appreciate your wise words about being patient with Sepia –- people often tell me that it enchanted them over time.
    Mandy August 29, 2012 at 12:12pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Glad to know that the review captured a bit of the essence of this scent, Mandy! August 29, 2012 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Jennifer: Sepia was one of the first set of samples I got from Aftelier. I admit I didn’t like it at first.. all I smelled was a barnyard. Definitely a challenge for a novice at the beginning of her perfumistahood. But then a couple weeks later, I revisited it, and I “got” it. It actually did start to evoke being in an abandoned building in a dry prairie landscape, with the barn in the background. August 29, 2012 at 4:24pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Jennifer, you get the picture! And barnyard can be, well, exciting. It’s a place to go in perfume. August 29, 2012 at 6:09pm Reply

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