By Regina Connell.
Mandy Aftel is one of our favorite artisans, thinkers, and inspirations. Why? Because she’s the real deal. Not only is she one of the world’s best fragrance artisans, but she is a serious student of the world of fragrance, and an expert who is actually good at sharing her knowledge and enthusiasms. Better yet, she’s a great example of someone who’s taken her artisanal talents and turned them into a real, thriving business built on her own terms, her own values. And best of all, she is humbled by her understanding of how fortunate she is.
It’s a joy to spend time with Mandy, so I jumped at the excuse to interview her about her delicious to read, delightful, profound new book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. It’s been on all kinds of Top Ten lists, and it’s great to see such a wise, erudite book—it’s about so much more than fragrance—get the recognition it deserves. (Before I go on, because you’ll probably be clicking along to Amazon: pick up the book from Mandy’s site directly and make sure you also get the Fragrant Companion Kit, which was created to allow you to “smell along” as you read about Fragrant’s main characters: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine.)
The book is (as all Mandy’s books are) highly readable, a sensualist’s journey through history, nature, ideas, and scent. Exquisitely researched, it takes you through the history of cinnamon, frankincense, mint, ambergris and jasmine, as it weaves in wisdom on her metier; reflections on culture; and even “recipes” for making various scents from the substances she talks about.
What I found so compelling about the book is that it made me think. About the role of scent in our lives. About how important it is to be interested in scent: not just whether something smells good or not, but the interesting things you smell even in things that are malodorous. About how so much of what we consider to smell good or bad is a matter of concentration, and how some of the most beautiful fragrances are a matter of layering small amounts of these malodorous, funky scents with the more accessible, conventionally attractive ones. (As true of people and aesthetics as of fragrance, methinks.)
But there’s so much more: the book delves into the world of luxury, beauty, and pleasure, at the intersection of philosophy and life. (See more of Mandy’s thoughts on luxury and pleasure here.)
Moreover, the book is a history of aesthetics and taste, and how fragrance has been such a key player. In this time of online shopping and its handmaidens, FedEx, UPS, and DHL, we forget how things used to be rare, hunted down, fought over.
For Mandy, this is all part of the importance and fascination of fragrance. “I love the experience that these fragrances have been around everywhere in the world. When you pick something up, you have in your hand this direct route back to all the people who used fragrance throughout time. It’s a rich way to feel connected to plants and other natural substances. Reading and researching about cinnamon was the ultimate exploration of luxury, this completely amazing thing that people sailed the wrong way around the world for. But how has it evolved? It’s gone from being this amazing smell to being this synthetic smell at Dunkin Donuts. It’s easy to get so people don’t have that experience with it any more.”
You can feel the enjoyment and craftsmanship that went into the book, along with a true love of the journey. “I got to write the book I wanted to write,” said Mandy, during our interview. “I’m drawn to things that have a certain depth and a certain magic and unknowable, unfathomable aspect to them. I’ll never get to the bottom of them. I’m not looking to be entertained and I’m not so easily entertained. I like things that have a depth or mystery to them. I love to dig, I love working. I love what I’m doing. I’m eager to come back to the learning that goes on in my work.”
Now if that isn’t a way to live and to be, I don’t know what is. And what a great thing to be able to participate in that journey through her book. Highly recommended.