Perfumer, educator, and author Mandy Aftel is widely considered a pioneer of natural perfumery. Believing that natural perfume ingredients impart an olfactory and emotional depth that synthetics lack, Aftel creates artisan perfumes from 100 percent natural ingredients gathered from the best botanical sources she can find.
Her Aftelier line often veers toward the exotic: her perfumes might contain ingredients such as shiso leaf, sarsaparilla, agarwood, and Australian Fire Tree, a base note that even Luca Turin, famously indifferent-to-unfriendly about natural perfume, describes as "practically a perfume in itself."
In addition to being a perfumer, Aftel (as anyone who has read Essence and Alchemy knows), is an avid collector of vintage perfume books, bottles, essential oils and ephemera like the perfume card shown at the bottom of this post. I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet her recently for a tete-à-tete nez-à-nez to talk about all things perfume, but with an emphasis on her vintage collection.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Aftel's Berkeley studio is the heady scent of essential oils from her perfume organ: they hit your nose the way multiple notes held down at once on a musical organ would hit your ears.
Lined up against the perfume organ's dark wood was bottle after bottle of natural perfume notes, some marked "old" and "antique," all calling out to be opened up and sniffed. I felt awestruck and reverent like the antihero of Patrick Suskind's novel-turned-film Perfume (minus the virgin-murdering impulses) the first time he enters perfumer Giuseppe Baldini's atelier and sees a real perfumer's materials.
When we moved on to her perfume organ and its magical contents, it wasn't long until we began doing what two perfumaniacs do best: We started sniffing.
"What would you like to smell first?" Mandy asked. She had told me earlier she had 100-year-old animalic base notes like civet, castoreum, musk, and ambergris. As an animal lover, I am glad those notes in their natural form have almost entirely been replaced by synthetics in modern perfumery. As a perfume lover, however, having only sniffed their synthetic versions, I wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Almost all great perfumes of the past, after all, contained natural animal notes.
“Civet,” I replied definitively. (In Essence and Alchemy, Aftel writes of civet, “There is no ingredient with which civet does not blend beautifully. It prowls through a blend, transforming each of its elements and giving the whole extraordinary depth. As with all magical things you only need a minute amount to perform miracles — a drop for one or two ounces of perfume.”)
“Do you want the tincture or the undiluted version? It’s pretty powerful,” she asked. Naturally, I wanted the undiluted stuff!
She took the vintage civet in its beautiful antique bottle off the shelf and opened up the stopper. I inhaled deeply. Let me tell you, I have synthetic civet from Givaudan, and although it approximates civet to a startling degree, it cannot impart what the real stuff can: depth, warmth, and complexity.
The authentic civet I sniffed started off, without a doubt, a little fecal, but it was hazy and round rather than a sharp, clear-the-room fecal. It evolved, though, into what I can only describe as a floral radiance. It’s some kind of miracle of nature that this substance secreted from an animal’s anal gland had a floral facet. I see this as nature’s lesson that scent is multidimensional. Just as a gorgeous-smelling flower like jasmine can contain indoles (molecules that are also present in feces and that we are taught to find disgusting), civet must contain some molecule or molecules that make it smell lovely in a way we’re familiar with. What smells nice in nature, it seems, has within it something that, quite frankly, stinks. This is what complexity in scent means, in part, just as complexity in food can mean that things that taste good might also be bitter, salty, sour or smelly.
Speaking of food, the vintage natural castoreum smelled initially like soy sauce, but soon it fanned out to include the familiar facets that make it a prized note for leather scents: animal fur and hide, and again, a warm, floral sweet-ish aspect. A vintage musk pod (sans musk grains) given to Aftel by a student in one of her perfume classes sat hairy and rude like a fetish in a glass jar, emitting after all these years its animal intensity. (I can’t really remember its smell, but the vintage musk tincture I sniffed reminded me of ginseng root.)
My second favorite note Mandy let me sniff from her perfume organ was vintage Costus. Costus is a substance obtained from the Saussurea lappa plant’s roots, and is one of many botanical ingredients that has an animalic sexiness to it. In Costus’s case, it’s been described variously as violet-like, sebum-y — like unwashed hair— and even goat-like. (For me, this last facet is very faint; Costus smells most to me like unwashed hair. And what is sexier than olfactory bed head?) I had always wanted to smell Costus, seeing as it’s in some of my favorite vintage perfumes: including Rumeur, Fille d’Eve and the first Scherrer.
In the day’s most dramatic presentation, Aftel asked her husband to get a box they have in storage that contained a lump of ambergris and two bottles of vintage ambergris dilutions — one labeled Tincture and the other Ambreine. The lump of ambergris smelled smoky, floral, marine and warm, and the tinctures like fully realized perfumes themselves. I almost wondered if the ambergris inside had begun to resurrect the colognes the empty bottles once held, so complexly floral was its scent.
The day ended with some samples from Mandy’s wonderful line of natural perfumes, including the bright Trèvert (green, herbaceous and even minty), and Tango, a spicy perfume with an animalic vibe that has wild sweet orange, ginger, roasted seashells, and champaca on a smokey, honeyed base of tobacco and tonka.
I left Mandy Aftel's perfume studio drunk with the memory of scents present and past. Not a bad way to spend the day...
I really loved watching Mandy sniffing perfume. People who love fragrance sniff in a much more intense way, like foodies who eat with gusto versus those who eat to live. The first photo I have in this post of Mandy sniffing something she's rubbed onto her hand depicts this kind of sniffing. It and the image of Mandy in front of her perfume organ are actually screen shots from a fabulous little Yahoo video interview in which she explains how she switched careers from psychotherapist (!) to natural perfumer.
The perfume card with the civet in the corner is from her personal collection, and the other images are photos I took when I was in her studio.