Meet Mandy Aftel, Scent Magician
Perfumer Mandy Aftel lives in Berkeley, California, where she’s worked exclusively with natural scents for the past 20 years. This summer, she’s opening a scent museum and publishing a book with a two-star Michelin chef, on the art of flavor. We asked her to indulge us with a little perfume parlor-game, imagining scents for everyone from Geronimo to Emily Dickinson to Baudelaire. Here’s how she responded.
You do everything by hand, and work only with natural materials?
I have a very different kind of business model than most businesses. I believe something that's truly luxurious is hand-made and isn't found everywhere. I love making everything by hand. I think it’s important that things stay small, for me. I very much like being small. I don't have any growth model and don't want to grow. I don't think scaling up is anything I'm interested in.
How do you prepare a custom scent for someone?
A lot of my work is based on watching someone smell things. I'm very careful. I don't have questionnaires when I make individual perfumes. I introduce them to the materials and watch how they respond and base a lot of my work on what I feel they're most deeply connected with at that period in their life. It's kind of like a snapshot of who they are, through their sense of smell, at that point in their life...
You use natural scents exclusively. Why not use just one synthetic note to have a skeleton? Wouldn’t that help the fragrance to age?
Well, let's see. I love natural materials. I love natural essences and I've been working with them for over 20 years and written three or four books about them, so I'm really driven by the quality of the materials that I work with, and searching for ones that are extraordinarily beautiful. From my perspective, nothing is like natural essences, so I'm not interested in the others at all.
Natural scents have more molecules than synthetic ones, but do you think that adds to the richness... or is it just more noise?
It's a kind of texture, a richness, a complicated-ness, an alive-ness for me. It's where perfume started. To me, it's very analogous to food. Getting the best quality of ingredients leads to better food. I follow that model and work a lot with mixologists and chefs. So natural materials — the natural rose — to me, can't be replicated.
How do you get your materials?
I shop all over the world. I feel out people who are expert at coaxing the scent out of the materials and making things like essential oils and absolutes, concretes and natural isolates (aroma molecules). You can get them made in the lab or from plants, so I get mine from plants. I have a small stepped shelves of materials and I compose with the essences I have. And I have hundreds and hundreds of them: different varieties of the exact same material, different extractions. For example, I have lavender absolute, lavender concrete, lavender essential oil, and many of the aroma molecules that are in lavender, like linalyl and linalyl acetate. So I have lot of different ways of getting lavender, and they all smell different.
I guess you’re very dependent on the quality of the source...
It's like being on the spice route: finding things and being able to get them consistently is problematic. Some people go out of business, some people have crop failures, some people's crops aren't as good, some people no longer want to do the work. It's not like stuff made in a lab that you know you can get over and over again in the exact same fashion. It's, again, more like food where, you know, the peaches come in, have their peak and they're beautiful and you can get them, and then they're not in the market anymore or something happens with the farmer.
Do you travel a lot?
I don't travel at all! But I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I both know where to shop and have long relationships with people. People also find their way to me, because I've written books. People who have beautiful things or even very rare things for sale will come to me, which I love.
Like Marco Polo, who wouldn’t leave his house! Tell us about your creative process. How often do you do this? Do you have a special ritual or just an idea... and then you go to your organ and compose?
Well, I'm always stimulated by new materials and very excited when I get something new. I often will work with that material to kind of get inside of it, and be able to understand it and how it interacts with other materials. I'm trying to capture a feeling in my perfume of something that's I’m not often able to say in words. So if I was a painter or a poet, I would be painting this feeling or I'd be creating a poem about it. So I'm trying to capture that feeling, whatever that feeling is, and it's very specific, in smell. And all my perfumes revolve around a feeling that I'm trying to capture and put in that bottle and give to the person who wears it. Sometimes it's a direct communication between myself and the customer.
To anchor that feeling and express it, I usually choose two essences that I feel are in conversation with each other, and they’re the root of that perfume. I could trace that back to any of my perfumes: what the feeling was I was trying to express through the perfume and which two were the primary materials. Once the two primary materials are chosen, in conversation with one another, everything else either supports the idea of expressing that feeling, or the interaction between those two materials, and that's how I work.
“People often close their eyes when they smell beautiful smells, and it takes them somewhere.”
So, for example, you’d use some combination of scents to express sorrow, or joy?
I have a perfume called Cepes and Tuberose. Cepes is mushrooms, porcini mushrooms, and tuberose is a very heady white flower. The base of tuberose is a very earthy smell, like the mushrooms. So I wanted to move the tuberose away from being just very intensely floral, over to something more earthy. It was about the relationship between those two things and kind of a surprise, that one.
Or I have another perfume called Sepia. That one was all about my interest in the Gold Rush in California and the old buildings, the old wood… how things aged and what happened in California in the Gold Rush. That perfume is all about that: ruined old buildings and how things are sometimes more beautiful when they're aged than when they start out. And I made one called Memento Mori, which was all about grief and sadness over losing someone you love, either through a breakup or through death. Memento Mori are old Victorian things that say don't forget. Old jewelry and objects… so this perfume was made to evolve on your body like the smell of someone you'd been close to.
What's the lifespan of a natural scent versus a synthetic one?
You mean on the body? Or in the bottle? Or both?
In the bottle, it usually just gets better and better. The materials age and age in a beautiful way. I have over a hundred-year-old oils that I sometimes work with and a collection of antique materials. Many of the old materials are even more beautiful than when they started. It’s just extraordinary, like wine, how they've changed. On the skin, they only last a couple hours. Synthetic perfumes last all day and sometimes weeks. They last a very long time. Natural perfumes do not last like that at all.
It’s the alcohol, right?
No, I use alcohol. It's not the alcohol. What makes a perfume last is the presence of synthetics. It's the difference between a baguette and Wonder Bread. If you have Wonder Bread, or you have bread that's been treated a certain way, it will stay fresh for a very long time. But a baguette has a natural shelf life and then you move on.
I’m interested in taking a journey, through scents — what Guerlain did with Jicky: trying to encapsulate the walks he had with his father at dusk. Would it be possible to vaporize different scents in a room, like walking through a forest?
Conceptually, it’s very possible. I work with all the materials of the forest, so that would be very possible. You could smell them one after another. You’d have to technically isolate the materials, so you move from one to another, so they didn't all blend somehow out there in the atmosphere. Capturing them is easy enough to do. People have the technology to do that, but in terms of sequence, putting together those smells? It’s very simple. I think I do that all the time when I'm just smelling my materials. I have the roots, the barks, the resins, all the different trees… it's quite wonderful that way. But having them isolated and moving across? First, you'd smell the pine and then you'd smell the… yeah, I think that’s possible. I've done some environmental things for installations and often it's just one smell in one room. But it wouldn't be hard.
Could you give us an example of a transformative power of scents?
The real materials are so extraordinarily gorgeous and so deeply connected to memory, that when I do a custom perfume or even a demonstration for my books, I see people quite honestly getting high from smelling the materials. It just takes you somewhere. People often close their eyes when they smell beautiful smells, and it takes them somewhere. It's very similar to having a beautiful bouquet in your house, or a walk in the forest. When you engage and are very present for those activities, your mood and your mind is transformed. It just can't help but happen. It's one of our deepest pleasures.
And something we all share...
It's a pleasure that spreads across the globe, across genders and personalities and places and times and ages. It's a very universal experience! People love to smell beautiful, natural smells. That's why they garden and I think it's why they cook, and part of what leads them to perfume. You see the smile come across someone’s face, when they walk in the forest or smell a rose growing in their garden or a beautiful oil from jasmine.
You’re also interested in identity, and tailoring scents based on people’s profiles. I read that if there was anybody you could design a scent for, it’d be Oscar Wilde. Would you be willing, if I through a few names in your direction, to speculate about what a scent for that person might be like?
It's a very provocative question! I could try.
How about Geronimo?
Well, first of all, I don't think Geronimo would need a perfume! It’d have to be something herbal and grounded and transcendent for someone as magnificent as Geronimo. I would think of the forest. The most dignified, beautiful trees. The kind of wisdom he had to offer was very, very beautiful. There's a very beautiful fir absolute that I buy from one purveyor that's very berryish, almost strawberry in that jammy, fir-y nature. It's extremely special, so I'd probably put that in for sure.
Baudelaire I relate to! He was a sensualist and very much into smells. A lot of his poetry, which I've quoted in my books, are correspondences between smells and sights in poetry. I would think of something very sensual for him. Perhaps quite floral and soft and rich. Things like tiare, which I have (a gardenia from Tahiti). Just very sumptuous, beautiful things. Ambergris, which comes from whale, is one of the most ancient and shimmering materials.
Oh, I like her. I like her. I could see for her, because she's so careful and so talented and spare, some of the really unusual materials I have, like poplar buds and a frankincense from Oman. Very precise. Maybe something like black pepper, which is very woody and rich. Restrained.
Words by The Editors and Mandy Aftel.