Review En Bref: Aftelier Perfumes Secret Garden Eau de Parfum

As always, my Reviews En Bref are for perfumes that — for whatever reason — didn’t seem to warrant one of my more lengthy, exhaustive, detailed reviews.

SecretGarden bookOne of the most beautiful children’s books is The Secret Garden (1910/1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As a rather lonely, very isolated child whose main companions were books and animals, The Secret Garden gave me hours of comfort, joy and peace. In fact, I kept my copy of it throughout the years and am staring at it as we speak. So, as you might imagine, I was extremely excited to try its concrete, olfactory manifestation: Secret Garden by the highly respected, acclaimed perfumer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes.

Ms. Aftel is a perfumer who specializes in natural fragrances, seeking out only the finest in pure essences and oils. She hand-blends and bottles all the perfumes herself in small batches in her Berkeley studio. As she explains on her website:

My perfumes and products contain only the purest, most sublime botanical essences from around the world. I work with awe and passion for the alchemy that transforms these rare, gorgeous individual natural essences into a beautiful perfume. Indulge yourself in authentic luxury.

Secret Garden Eau de Parfum. Source: Fragrantica.

Secret Garden Eau de Parfum. Source: Fragrantica.

In 2011, Ms. Aftel released Secret Garden, a floral oriental fragrance that comes in Pure Parfum and Eau de Parfum concentrations. This review is only for the latter. According to the Aftelier website, the perfume’s notes include:

Top: bergamot, bois de rose, Geraniol, blood orange.
Heart: jasmine sambac, raspberry (compounded isolate), Turkish rose.
Base: civet, castoreum, vanilla, deertongue (plant), benzoin, aged patchouli.

A few words about the notes. First, I’ve read on a number of sites, including Fragrantica, that the perfume also includes Blue Lotus, which has a sweetly aquatic, watery, floral aroma. I don’t know if it is still included, since it is not listed on the Aftelier website. Second, “deertongue” is a plant and has nothing to do with any animal. There are no animal cruelty issues to be concerned about here! The plant is sometimes called the “Vanilla Plant,” and its scent is described by Ms. Aftel as a combination of “the sweet and powdery notes of tonka beans with the aromas of the countryside.” Third, Ms. Aftel clarified in a comment on Now Smell This that Bois de Rose is another name for rosewood. Lastly, as Fragrantica explains, Secret Garden “includes two historical animal essences: very old civet bought from a retired perfumer and castoreum tinctured from the beaver.” Since the civet was extremely old stock, there should be no concerns of animals being harmed to create Secret Garden, but those who seek completely vegan perfumes may want to ponder the civet issue.

Ms. Aftel describes the perfume as follows:

Like fitting a key in a lock, when you inhale Secret Garden, you enter a redolent and sensual wild garden, where the scent awakens a vitalizing force in the wearer.

Secret Garden opens into roses and wood, brightened with mixed citrus. The jasmine sambac heart of the perfume, with its spicy indolic kick, paired with the jammy raspberry, lends the illusion of spice where there is none — like the lure of a blind pathway in a garden. This intertwines with voluptuous Turkish rose absolute.

Secret Garden opens on my skin with animalic notes from the very start. There are subtle touches of geranium alongside a very heavy, rich, red rose, atop a foundation of raspberry with just the subtlest hint of citrus. But these are all extremely muted; the primary, overwhelming impression is of castoreum and civet, creating a dense musk tonality with strongly leathered, almost tarry, undertones. The castoreum is potent and, for once, the term “animalic” applies quite literally.

George Seurat: "Young Woman Powdering Herself."

George Seurat: “Young Woman Powdering Herself.”

There are also hints of vanillic powder that lurk in the background and that become stronger with every passing moment. As it increases in prominence, less than five minutes into the perfume’s development, it softens the potent, opaque, heavy richness of the animalic tones, rendering them lighter and softer. The powder accord strongly brings to mind those extremely old-fashioned, big, powder poofs that women in the late 19th century would use to dust their décolletage to erase any suggestion of a moist sheen. Here, the note is that exact same old-fashioned, vanilla-centered, makeup powder accord. It’s light and daintily sweet, but, as time passes, it becomes one of the primary, dominant notes on my skin, overshadowing much else except the castoreum.

Ten minutes in, the perfume shifts a tiny bit. The geranium recedes to the background, to be replaced by muted hints of rose and jasmine. They are not strong. In fact, the flowers are never wholly distinct on my skin at all, and are completely dominated by the other notes. By the twenty-minute mark, the floral bouquet feels almost amorphous and abstract, just an overall suggestion in the midst of what is predominantly fruity musk, raspberry and vanilla powder. Very soon thereafter, and for the remainder of the perfume’s development on my skin, Secret Garden is merely powdery, raspberry musk. That’s it.

I tried Secret Garden twice, and it was the exact same development on both occasions. Before the start of the second test, I wondered if perhaps my skin was too dry to bring out the lush, blooming garden that I had so anticipated, so I put on some unscented lotion, waited thirty minutes, and then re-tested the perfume. I applied a greater quantity; I even applied a smear to my inner thigh as well, in case something about my arms was wonky and was throwing off the scent. But, alas, nothing worked. Just like the first time, there were minimal florals at the start, followed by almost none after the first 20 minutes. Instead, the perfume was mainly raspberry castoreum musk and old-fashioned, scented makeup powder, lying close to the skin. And Secret Garden remained that way for approximately 5.5 hours and 6.5 hours, respectively, until the last traces finally faded away. (For an all-natural perfume with no synthetics, the longevity on my voracious, perfume-consuming skin was quite impressive.)

Vintage 1930s Powder Puff Compact. Source: Etsy Boutique "ItsAGoodThing" listing 72555631

Vintage 1930s Powder Puff Compact. Source: Etsy Boutique “ItsAGoodThing” listing 72555631 (Link to the Etsy store embedded within. Click on photo.)

Given my personal style and tastes, the way Secret Garden manifested itself on my skin wasn’t my cup of tea. Something about my skin chemistry completely refused to bring out the lush garden that I kept reading about in all the reviews. Whether one reads the assessments on Now Smell This, The Non-Blonde, The Perfume Shrine, Perfume-Smellin’ ThingsOlfactoria’s Travels, or Smelly Thoughts, they are all glowing; and the vast majority talk about the rich, spicy, powerful floral heart that prevents the perfume from being too jammy or too much of a fruit cocktail. Reading Freddie’s experiences in his Smelly Thoughts review, in particular, I felt as though I was crazy and smelling a different fragrance entirely. Naturally, the tricky issue of skin chemistry will often mean that a perfume manifests itself differently. But those are usually small differences in degree, here or there, not a totally polar opposite experience.

I would have felt like a complete anomaly in the vast ocean of positive raves about the lush, floral garden if I hadn’t come across a few isolated voices whose comments reflected — just in small part — my own experience. For example, on Surrender to Chance, one person wrote: “Sadly, on me it smelled unexciting — like Juicy Fruit gum, with a little nutmeg thrown in. Next.” If we’re going by this analogy, I would compare it more to a powdery sweet, raspberry bubble gum, but I can understand the impression. On Fragrantica, one of the two (both positive) comments says “Warning: it can smell ‘grandmother-y’ to certain people used to very conventional perfumes.” I like both conventional and extremely unconventional scents, and I’m hardly a perfume dilettante, but, yes, I think Secret Garden’s manifestation on my skin was “grandmother-ly.” Without any doubt at all. It’s the overwhelming powder. It’s not bad, and it’s almost sweetly pretty, but that extremely old-fashioned, simple character is not to everyone’s taste.

Again, the minor criticisms or caveats are few and far between. Judging by the blogosphere, 99% of people seem to have had a completely different experience than I did. All perfume experiences are subjective; I repeat that again and again in my reviews. My personal experience with Secret Garden may very well be a complete anomaly. But given the overwhelming nature of those many (many) positive reviews, I thought it was important to share a dissenting opinion, especially as we’re talking about a perfume whose cost can reach $170 for a small bottle. I very much hope that Secret Garden manifests itself on your skin as a lush, blooming floral garden with a secret heart of animalic gold, a perfume that incorporates India’s heady, opulent, orientalist flowers with the best of the English countryside. But, if it doesn’t, you’re not crazy and not completely alone.


Cost & Availability: Secret Garden comes in different formulations and sizes. It is available directly from the Aftelier website as 2 ml of Pure Parfum for $50; 0.25 oz of Pure Parfum for $170; and 30 ml Eau de Parfum for $170. Samples are available for $6 for a 1/4 ml vial of both the EDP and the pure parfum. Aftelier’s shipping rates start under $5 in the U.S., and under $9 worldwide. I obtained my sample of the Eau de Parfum from Surrender to Chance where prices start at $3.99 for a 1/2 ml vial.

14 thoughts on “Review En Bref: Aftelier Perfumes Secret Garden Eau de Parfum

  1. Dear Kafka, it sounds like we had a similar experience with this. The EDP was a “one chance” trial for me and I set it aside for not being interesting enough for me to try twice (my usual “too many samples, not enough skin”). Since I never take notes when I test (it’s only for me after all…and ummm, for comments), my recollection of this was that it was sharply animalic with some flat flowery scent. This combination was unexpected, given my expectations that a garden should smell flowery, sweet with some earthy notes mixed in. Perhaps the name did not live up to what the perfume turned out to be. My tiny sample went to a new home in a swap last year.

    • I’m relieved to know I wasn’t the only one who had a slightly different experience than that described by the blogosphere. I’m particularly glad to know that the florals were never dominant on you, too. But it doesn’t seem to be a question of the name and the name alone: other people seem to have experienced that lush garden. You and I just happen to be in the small minority for whom it never happened. Do you remember any powder?

      • I don’t remember the powder…I do like powder like the kind I get from Cartier Baiser Vole, FM Iris Poudre, Prada Infusion d’ Iris

  2. It sounds pretty disappointing, actually, and nothing like the book. Was she simply going for generic “secret garden” or did she want people to think of the book?

    • Well, judging by the blog posts, most people seem to have experienced the full garden. One found the scent evocative of the comfort of motherhood, but generally, most of them talk about the flowers. I don’t know if those who had a very different experience haven’t spoken up or if I’m in the small minority. :

  3. What a disappointment after hearing so many good things. It’s sort of surprising to me the powder note is so prominent in a perfume with the name “garden” in it. I’d be curious to try it just to see where I fall between your reviews and the raves (or if I fall outside these margins). Prior to reading this review, this wasn’t one I’d ever really seek out to try, but somehow this review sort of makes me want to try it just to see how it smells. I’ve come around to accept some powder, but if it’s nearly as powdery on me as it was for you, I don’t think I’d like it. I have some affection for stereotypical “grandma” scents, though, so perhaps I’d surprise myself.

    • I think it may be worth trying for the experience of a truly castoreum-civet perfume and, who knows, you may be one of those who gets the full oriental flower effect with the lush jasmine and the rest. As for “grandma” scents, this isn’t like the Guerlains which also have powder and which young people sometimes find to smell “old.” The powder here is much more like scented makeup powder. I’d be interested to see how your experience compares to that of others and to my own. 🙂

  4. THANK YOU for being honest. I have wanted so much to love Afteiler’s perfumes and aside from the solid Jasmine – which I truly love- and the bath scents, I haven’t liked any of them. They ALL smell too sweet and without any of the complex notes that other reviewers have written so eloquently about. Pear, coffee and fig body oil? Smells like coffee, just coffee- there are notes of pear and fig but they don’t blend at all. That is one of the points of well crafted perfume, that different scents, like a flavors in a dish, blend well to create something wonderful, a different something. But in my experience, her perfumes are just not finished dishes, but more like drinking a teaspoon of vanilla and cream instead of enjoying the finished ice cream. Wild Roses perfume? The perfume that has gotten rave reviews and multiple awards…? Cloyingly sweet.. and unless your rose garden smells like the cheap perfume that is sold to little girls, nothing like the layered sensuous scent of a real rose. And the Cocoa perfume? Not very cocoa-y or interesting. That chocolate-orange which is literally, chocolate and orange- fades within the first 10 minutes and leave you with a lasting note that is a dead ringer for Sweet Tarts. No joke. I assume that people who give these awards are either such talented noses that they can pick up on layers of scent that the rest of us mere mortals cannot; or they are all smokers and this very serious case of the Emperor’s new clothes has taken everyone by storm. 🙂

    • Hi Sarah, welcome to the blog. I haven’t tried the line extensively at all, beyond Secret Garden and one of the perfume oils, so it was interesting to read your perceptions. You’re right that reviewers seem to love Afterlier products. It was hard to write this review because one wants to be supportive of small, artisanal or indie perfumers. The fragrance simply wasn’t for me and, if your experience with the other fragrances ends up being my experience, then I don’t think the others from the line will work for me either. I have a few samples, so we’ll see. Perhaps I’ll be lucky. 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Sarah!

      • Thanks for your reply and your wonderful blog! After so much effusive praise of Miss Aftel, it must have been hard to write anything negative. But your article was respectful and fair, not malicious in any way. And your article was one of the very few places I found that gave an accurate description. I don’t think the other reviewers were wrong, they just had different tastes than I do. With my first batch of samples, I was convinced that I had been something completely different from what was being described and I couldn’t figure it out. Your article was a port in the storm of confusion! I did find that If I concentrated and truly deconstructed each perfume, yes, I could get most of the notes talked about; but I think perfume should be a joy that is experienced not an archeological dig for each element.
        I wrote my response late last night and reading it again, I didn’t realize I was being quite so harsh! I wonder, since she is dedicated to using only natural methods, if her perfumes aren’t more, unintentionally in line with being historically accurate reconstructions of the way scents were in the past. Perhaps smelling like super sweet candy and vanilla powder WAS all the rage in the 1724 because their methods couldn’t create anything else.
        I want to support indie perfumers too and feel a bit bad about what I wrote. Yet, even in the sober light of day, unfortunately it’s still true for me. And all that being said, I think her solid Jasmine is genuinely lovely and the pure clean Pear in her Rain bath oil is a bright delight.
        She does have a new line of edible scents for the cook, called Chef Essenses. I haven’t tried them yet but since they are, by definition, one pure edible scent, they may be excellent. When I try them, I will let you know. And by the way, your description of the “overwhelming powder” was spot on! 🙂 From what I have sampled, it is the strong bottom note in Haute Claire, Wild Roses, Tango and Honey Blossom. It will be interesting to see how she develops as a perfumer, perhaps her scents will evolve away from those powdery, sugary bases in time.

        • I don’t think you were harsh so much as driven by disappointment, as well as by some frustration in wondering why you weren’t experiencing what so many others seemed to do. I had a similar reaction when I tested the perfume, but skin chemistry is wonky and really rules all. Plus, I do know that powdery scents aren’t my personal cup of tea. You must have a similar sort of skin, in addition to similar tastes. I truly wish I had experienced what others had done, but it was not to be.

          I have noticed that all-natural or mostly natural fragrances don’t really work for me, either in terms of how my skin manifests or retains the notes, or in terms of my personal tastes. Actually, a few non-natural, bigger houses don’t work for me at all! (L’Artisan, I’m looking at you in particular!) At the end of the day, not every brand works for every person. So, perhaps that’s the situation with you and Aftelier? Or, perhaps, the Chef Essences will be the magic trick! 😀 I’m really glad you stopped by and shared your experiences with me, Sarah! Hope you pop by again sometime. 🙂

          • Very good points! And again, you nailed it, I really was driven by disappointment! My budget just hadn’t allowed for perfume and her samples were some of the first treats I had given myself in hopes of finding ‘my’ new perfumes. Thanks for the insights regarding natural fragrances too, that will save me money and time in the future as I keep looking! Loving your blog, no need to reply, 🙂 S

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