We all start somewhere when it comes to perfume, even masters of the craft like Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes who has been making fragrances for more than 20 years and is the indisputable doyenne of American natural perfumery. She, too, began somewhere, and she graciously took time out of her busy schedule to talk about her journey, as well as how she learnt about the building blocks of perfume-creation, her methodology, her favorite materials, her books, the world of food, and more. I’m extremely grateful for the glimpse into her world, and cannot thank her enough for patiently answering some very long questions. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
- I’m very interested in people’s perfume journeys, particularly what it was like for a perfumer when they first started, especially someone with such vast knowledge as yourself. You were originally a therapist with degrees from the University of Michigan in Psychology and English. A 2005 profile article on you in SF Gate says that your practice “specialized in helping musicians, writers and artists realize their creative potential.” You even wrote a book in 1982 on one of the Rolling Stones entitled, “Death of a Rolling Stone: The Brian Jones Story.” Then, in the early 1990s, you started making fragrances. Was there anything beyond a general interest in scent and aromas that triggered the leap from being a therapist and published author to creating perfumes?
After the book about Brian Jones, I wrote another book, The Story of Your Life, which married my fascination with plot and narrative to what I had learned about character and transformation through my years as a therapist. Then I decided that I would write a novel, with a perfumer as my protagonist. I knew nothing about the craft of perfumery, but its aura had allure. As part of my research, I signed up for a perfume class, and simply fell in love with the essential oils. I discovered that I had a knack for blending with them — I could appreciate their textures and shapes almost instinctively, like a language in which I was already fluent. Just as sometimes you meet someone it seems you have known forever, the essences, with their distinct personalities, had a mysterious familiarity to me. Working out the intricate interactions in a perfume blend did feel in many ways like a psychological endeavor, similar to the role of therapist in sorting out the characters in someone’s life.
Besides researching the aromatic perfume materials, I immersed myself in the rich history of scent, acquiring more than two hundred rare and antique books on perfumery. One book leading me to the next as I fell under the spell of their charm, beauty, and eccentricity. In the history of perfume, I could see the world being discovered, and retrace the footsteps of the people who found spices in faraway places and learned to extract the aromatic oils from exotic plants. In their intricate woodcuts and engravings, old distilling apparatuses looked like a cross between lab equipment and the tools of witchcraft. I was totally drawn to this heady world that commingled perfume with medicine, science, alchemy, cooking, mysticism, cosmetics, and craft.
- The SF Gate article says that you started by taking a single fragrance class, but what followed after that and how did you teach yourself the basics of your craft? Do you remember the very first things that you put together in a beaker, and what the end result was like?
Actually, the first perfume that I ever made in the early 90’s was called “Angelica.” It was at an afternoon class that taught aromatherapy, and I made a liquid and solid version of the same perfume — I still have the formula. It became part of my first line of perfumes, Grandiflorum Perfumes, which were sold at Bergdorf Goodman’s and Neiman Marcus. It was quite a complicated perfume, and looking at the recipe I can’t believe that I had control over so many and such diverse essences the first time that my hands touched the materials. Here’s what was in it: Base notes: civet, oakmoss, angelica, frankincense and patchouli. Middle notes: rose, jasmine, ylang ylang, kewda (pandanus flower). Top Notes: tarragon, sweet orange, line, and tangerine. It was a spicy floral with this citrusy green top and formidable base.
- What were some of the early challenges that you faced when teaching yourself about the process and methodology of perfume creation, from tincturing to distillation and making the final product? What were some of the unexpectedly easy parts? For example, was it hard to learn about precise proportions, the more chemistry-related aspects of how ingredients interact, or how particular ingredients needed to be handled in terms of doses lest they overwhelm the entire composition?
Certain working methods of creating perfume I figured out when I started, and have never really changed since. Others of my methods have evolved steadily over time. I was always aware of the crucial importance of the relative odor intensity of the various essences, so I studied that whenever I got a new essence in the studio. I was always quite attracted to these “accessory notes” and worked hard to include them in many of my perfumes.
I know that many natural perfumers are attracted to distilling and tincturing materials from the garden, but this has never held any appeal for me. I leave the growing and extraction to the experts, and I love to shop the world for the finest materials.
I started out creating perfumes by adding the drops of essences to a 10 ml beaker of alcohol, and I still work that way. I personally enjoy the experience of working with drops, and working with the thicker concrete materials that need to be scooped. I relish the unmediated experience of nothing coming between me and the materials – – I’m more of a mortar and pestle kind of gal than Cuisinart.
- When you were starting out, were there any materials that you found to be challenging to work with, either due to their innate properties and characteristics, or something else? Which ones were easy from the start, and which ones did you fall in love with immediately? Have your feelings about any particular ingredients changed over time?
I have been drawn from the outset to the difficult perfume materials. Each of my perfumes is built around a design problem, which usually involves some problematic material that I am trying to find my way to the essence of, quite literally.
One of the perfumes that I created back in the early 90’s for Grandiflorum Perfumes was Absinthe; it was built around wormwood, which is a nightmare in the blending department. It is one of those intense “accessory notes” (a “10” on a 10-point scale), made especially difficult as a top note. In the middle or base it would not be such design challenge, but in natural perfumery, the top notes are the hardest to fit in, and being such high odor intensity at the top makes it worthy of being an assignment on Iron Chef.
Mushroom can be a difficult note to work with, but I wanted to use it in a recipe in 2004 for my cookbook Aroma. I created a perfume around the relationship between porcini mushrooms and tuberose, and liked it enough to keep it in my regular perfume line, instead of retiring it after this many years. It is not for everyone, but does have a good number of fans and got onto the list at Now Smell This of “100 Fragrances Every Perfumista Should Try.” [Ed. Note: This is the fragrance called Cepes and Tuberose.]
My latest perfume Palimpsest contains fire tree oil; it took me five years and many failures to figure out how to work with it.
I tend to be attracted to pretty much everything, except the medicinal. All of my work is based in my deep love for the complexity and texture of the scents, and the depth of history of the materials. From the start I found Rose, Jasmine, citruses, Sandalwood, and Frankincense very easy to use. I think of them as almost filler notes unless I’m building a perfume around them.
Working with natural isolates (aroma molecules isolated from natural materials) was a paradigm shift for me. They open up possibilities in the aromatic shapes and textures that I had in my imagination but couldn’t get from using the whole essential oils and absolutes. These natural isolates smell quite different from the synthetic versions of those molecules, and they provide a way to add a lighter slice or facet of a fragrant material to a perfume.
- You hold seminars and classes on perfume composition. Could you give readers a glimpse into some of the basics that you teach? For example: why certain materials should be considered as either a top, middle, or base note; the way various notes interact with each other and should be used; and how to layer the elements when putting them altogether. You yourself go the unusual route of composing a fragrance from the “ground up,” starting with the base chords, then ending with the top notes, while other perfumers go in the other direction. Perhaps you can share some of your thoughts in a mini-lesson?
I’ve found that being stringent about structure is key to creating a great natural perfume. If you’re working with synthetics, the evolution of the fragrance materials can be manipulated, but with the naturals, the structure of the evolution of perfume is anchored in time to how each material reveals itself, as intrinsically a top, middle, or base note. When a new essence comes to my studio, I put it on a scent strip with the time and date, and then smell it on the strip at intervals until it disappears, so that I can classify it as top, middle, or base.
Most of my perfumes are conceived as a conversation between two essences. That may not be obvious when you smell the finished perfume — and it usually isn’t, but that is what’s going on in my head. I am also always trying to capture something fleeting about an emotional experience. I never create my perfumes in chords nor dilute my materials — I like to know their raw capacities and blend them in those proportions related to their intrinsic nature. I conceive of my perfumes as a whole, not as building blocks of tops, middles, and bases. As I’m building the perfume my choices become smaller and smaller about what could be accommodated into that perfume. An analogy would be if you were decorating a room — in the beginning you can start with any wild sofa or lamp you might want, but after you’ve got a few key pieces then everything else has to respond to the overarching needs of what’s already there, and how everything goes together.
Part of everything coming together involves locking and burying — a couple of concepts that I use to describe how essences interact with each other. Locking is when some facets of two essences combine to result in more than the sum of their parts, creating something new beyond their two distinct aromas. Burying is when some aromatic aspect of an essence (or even all of it) is muted or eclipsed by another essence, making it in a way unexpectedly less than the sum of their parts. Locking and burying can be good or bad, depending on whether they support the design goal of the blend.
When I teach my classes I only teach two things: one is how to crawl inside the materials and understand them from the inside — how they will interact with each other, what they do to each other, how they function as elements inside of a perfume (which is an endless study). The other thing I teach is how to edit your work — how to find which essences are burying each other and locking with each other, and exercise control over your work to reach your aesthetic goal. That’s really all I teach.
- I’m really interested in how you source your materials. You obviously don’t send in an order to Givaudan or Robertet! In your studio, you have over 200 essences, a few of which are over 100 years old. In Secret Garden, you used authentic (non-synthetic) vintage civet that you bought from the estate of a retired perfumer. In Cuir de Gardenia, you used a particular batch of Tahitian gardenia (Tiare) oil, which someone once said is a tricky thing to keep stable once it leaves its tropical environment. With your Lemongrass Chef Essence, you told me that you wanted one that wouldn’t be too grassy or too lemony, rejecting several that fell short of the precise nuances you wanted. You pulled your Pear Essence spray when the seasonal material ran out, but didn’t replace it with any old thing. So my question is about the process through which you find the raw materials that meet your precise olfactory requirements. You obviously must have relationships with particular suppliers, but are you sent batches from each annual harvest? How does it all work? And how do you track down some of the ancient or vintage materials that you have in your studio?
Actually, I do send in orders to Robertet but never to Givaudan. There are many companies whose materials are of no interest to me and so I would never consider buying from them. There is such a range of quality among essences that even after you find something good, things change, so I’m very promiscuous with where I source my materials. I buy from small growers, and I buy from big companies — I have a panic when I find a company I have been buying from is merging with another one, because the quality so often goes downhill. I tend to stockpile the materials I buy and sell off some of the surplus. One of my favorite things is that people get in touch with me when they have something old or unusual or discontinued to sell — it might be really good or really awful, but I love the search. I like to sell a small amount and share the amazing materials that I found, but in a quirky way, I don’t really want to sell a lot.
- You have used some very unusual or rare ingredients in your fragrances, like the Aboriginal firewood in your recent Palimpsest. I would love to hear more about the unusual materials you have worked with, particularly any which may have surprised you in terms of how they manifested themselves in a fragrance. Have there been any unusual materials that you loved but which simply didn’t hold up well to the perfume-making process?
I’m very unsentimental about keeping materials that don’t work out — they have to meet me halfway. If they don’t hold up to the process then I don’t even remember their names, as I’ve thrown them out. There are other essences that get to hang around longer without being productive — I see them as holding a secret that I haven’t discovered yet. There must be a reason for it still to be here on my perfume organ; it’s like with people: some are just harder to figure out.
I love to hunt down and buy quirky and unusual essences, which almost always present a problem in formulating a fragrance. There are some that I’ve had for 5 or 10 years that I still haven’t been able to find a home for: pineapple constructed isolate, clove absolute, seaweed, octanol, broom, celery co2, cumin co2, patchoulyl acetate, vetiverol, sugi wood, sarsaparilla, mate absolute, lapsang souchong co2, rooibas absolute, lavender essential oil (yes!) anisealdehyde, plai, and broom.
Your first book on perfumery, “Essence & Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume,” introduced a new language and intellectual construct for scent that has since widely spread. You were probably the very first perfumer (or person outside the scientific and historical fields) to focus on such critical concepts or terminology as the primordial impact of scent and the alchemical tradition. Carl Jung, neurologists, historians, and literary authors have each written about different aspects of scent, or even alchemy, but you connected them all together for the first time in the context of perfumery. Do you think it is important for the average perfumista to see fragrance in this historical construct? If so, why does it make such a critical difference?
First of all, thank you so much for acknowledging all the original work I did on connecting these various concepts to perfume. It really means a lot to me. I think it’s very important to place perfume in its glorious historical context and to learn all of its many facets. There’s really nothing like perfume. It is a bit like cooking, it’s part of what made us human, and extends as far back as the mind can go and across all the continents. So yes, I think the context is extremely important, to provide deep soulful layers to the pleasure that beautiful smells give us as humans. I think the more you can appreciate what goes in to something of high quality, made from beautiful materials, and representing something beautiful in your life — the more pleasure you will have in experiencing it.
In 2004, you expanded into the world of food with “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance,” co-written with Michelin-starred chef, Daniel Patterson. It’s a mouth-watering book with gorgeous photos, but I was intrigued by how every chapter begins with a recipe for an actual fragrance. For example, “Spicy” opens with “Parfum de Maroc” inspired by the Moroccan spice mix, Ras el Hanout, before leading into a recipe for “Moroccan Veal Shank Stew.” What led you to make the mental leap from thinking about using cinnamon, nutmeg, labdanum, rose and myrrh in a scent to thinking, “I can put this in my dinner”?! It seems so logical now, with the benefit of hindsight, but you were the first and, thus far, are the only perfumer I know to explicitly link together the world of food and fragrances. What made food or gastronomy such an obvious area in which to use perfume ingredients?
Actually, I stumbled in to the world of using essential oils for flavor without a plan, but just quite literally by following my nose. Most of what I’ve done in my life has grown organically out of my curiosity and passion for what I’m doing, and from a deep desire to learn about the world around me. As I went on a book tour for my first book on perfume Essence and Alchemy, most people I met either said to me they were already wearing natural perfumes (citing non-natural brands like Jo Malone), or said that they hated perfume. This experience followed me around the country. I thought about what group of people is most interested in the integrity of ingredients, and that’s always been cooks. I decided that perhaps I could do some kind of event with the chef where we talked about the integrity of ingredients, and the important role they play in both perfume and food. A mutual friend introduced me to chef Daniel Patterson, and by way of introducing his nose to my palette, I brought over some essences for him to smell. We kind of stumbled together into the idea of using those essences for flavor, neither of us planned to do that at the outset. As I began to read more about flavor, I found out that was an ancient tradition of using essential oils in food and drink, and so it just began very naturally between us to include them into food.
[Ed. Note: Below are some photos and recipes from Aroma. You can expand each picture to full-size on another page by clicking on the thumbnail+Ctrl.]
- You have some lovely historical anecdotes in Essence & Alchemy, like how H.G. Wells was notoriously successful womanizer because his lovers thought his skin smelled of honey. With your latest book, “Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent,” you’ve turned even further into a scent historian, in addition to your usual role of teacher. You clearly spend a significant amount of time on research for all your books, but I’m awed at some of the details in Fragrant: how the smell of a male tiger is so potent that its Sanskrit name is “Vyagra” (like the Pfizer pill, Viagra); how the active ingredient in a skunk’s horrible aroma is butyl mercaptan which acts like tear-gas; or the fact that many butterfly species emit a fragrance which a researcher in the 1920s catalogued, in part, as “heliotrope,” “freesia, “jasmine,” “chocolate candy,” or “rank, mouldy, cockroachlike.” Your bibliography includes cooking texts from 1685, writings by Canadian trappers, Native American ethnobotany databases, and Asian-Australian medical journals, amongst other unexpected materials. How on earth do you find these sources, or even know where to look in the first place? What are some of the strangest, funniest, or most risqué scented anecdotes that you’ve come across?
I must confess, I’m quite an avid bibliography reader, and also pay strict attention to footnotes. So when someone has a very interesting reference in their book, I’ll immediately go buy the book where they found the information, or find the article and start reading it. I love finding the original source for information — it’s a lot to me like looking for the best materials.
There is just a richness in the history of aromatics that is an absolute thrill for me to discover, like a puzzle where I can put the pieces together and share them with people. I also love the feel of an old book — the paper, the binding, the illustrations, the fantasy of what happened to it before it made its way into my hands. Everything about it is pleasurable to me and enhances whatever I’m reading about; the whole sense of touch is very important to my reading. I feel a sense of sadness when the research period of writing a book is over; research about scent is so unexamined that there’s so much material to find that’s never been seen before.
One of my favorite scent stories is in my book [Fragrant], about the trapper who hauled a bottle of skunk scent over a thousand miles to a Cree Indian reservation where he planned to try it as bait on the local species of white fox. The scheme backfired terribly (and hilariously) when the bottle leaked all over, he tried to hide it by burying it deep under the snow, but the dogs on the reservation went wild, dug it up, rolled in it like crazy, and spread the scent all over the village.
You seem to incorporate fragrance into every part of your life, from the obvious to even something as small as bookmarks made with sandalwood, pepper and nutmeg (and whose recipe you give in your book, “Aroma”). I think you try to teach the same philosophy to others, and to make scent an approachable, joyous thing, whether it’s through your Chef’s Essences, intentionally simplified perfume recipes in your books, or your classes. Yet, these days, perfume-phobia abounds, and it’s not uncommon for workplaces, libraries, or meeting halls to ban the use of scent. Has it been an uphill battle for you at times to open people’s eyes when the world seems to be more anti-scent than before? Are there people whose deep-seated prejudices against fragrance you’ve overcome? If so, how did you do it?
I think the world at large feels like it has been bombarded by the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s — so it isn’t surprising to me that people are looking now for a scent free environment. I’m quite sympathetic, but do work hard to explain that there is a different kind of perfumery in the world that is not so pervasive and obnoxious and that brings so many simple pleasures into one’s life. One of the things about natural perfume, for better or for worse is that it doesn’t broadcast and only lasts on the skin a couple of hours. No one could really have that reaction of feeling overpowered by natural perfumes; they may not like the aroma – – and I can understand that – – but they’re not overwhelmed by it from afar.