Profile: Mandy Aftel

Perfume fascinates me.

No, not the perfumes advertised in the glossies. And certainly not the utterly cheesy celebrity perfumes.

I’m drawn to the mystery, the effect of perfume: the way it cuts through to our unconscious, teasing out feelings, memories, emotions and desires long forgotten or never expressed.

It’s a primal thing, and primal–with all its uncontrolled, glorious, even dangerous messiness–is what we are. And that’s very, very interesting.

I’m also fascinated by the way perfume’s so intensely personal–not just in what we like or dislike, but the way in which the same scent reacts with body chemistry to smell completely different on two different people. (It’s why perfume ads make no sense to me. But that’s another rant, er…story.)

Then there’s the way art and the science and the craft of perfume have become so oddly industrialized. Companies such as International Flavors and Fragrances hire armies of professional lab coat-wearing “noses” to create everything from those celebuscents to the more “subtle” smells that can be pumped through a store to manipulate you to buy, buy, buy.

But then there are the smaller makers of perfumes, people who don’t focus group a fragrance to death.

These are the ones who make limited batches of cult scents, the ones who create bespoke blends for discerning clients, the ones who come up with perfumes connoisseurs whisper about knowingly. These are the Perfume Artisans.

Award-winning Mandy Aftel is one of those artisans. I’d read about Mandy in places like Vogue, but then came this amazing series of letters between Mandy, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and the talented Nathan Branch. The letters chronicled the making of a perfume in such an evocative way that I became even more intrigued with what goes into process.

But was an artisan perfumer too precious to cover? Writer and artisanal taste maven Liza Dalby didn’t think so. “She’s perfect for Handful of Salt.” Agreed.

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in Mandy’s Lab. Except the lab was a wood-lined former living room of a turn of the century home in Berkeley, California, more apothecary than lab. Nary a lab coat in sight.

On one wall was what Mandy referred to as the Organ, with diminutive bottles of liquid and unidentifiable solid substances, arranged from top, to middle, to base notes. (She only works with natural essences…unlike pretty much all of the fragrance industry.) In the corner was a large glass container of frankincense. (Always wondered what that looked like.) In the window was a collection of bottles–some from the 19th century–that had contained oils and essences.

On surfaces across the room stood more lab-like beakers. Against a wall was an old Chinese bureau, filled with samples, hand-picked, antique boxes for her solid perfumes, and hand-made bags she uses as packaging. Opposite was a very enticing library of reference material, including catalogs from the 19th century.

Clearly, Mandy isn’t just an artisan: she’s a true student of her art. Unsurprisingly, she’s an author and authority: she’s written books like Essence and Alchemy, Sense and Sensibilities, and collaborated with chef Daniel Patterson on a book called Aroma, about the role fragrance plays in food. And she’s created perfume for a 2000 year old mummy. (Yes really. See Mandy’s site for more information.)

Accessible, grounded, girlish, profoundly wise, Mandy’s deeply, passionately engaged in her work, and her life.

You started out as a writer. Well I actually started as a therapist for artists and writers. I dealt with creative people, and then decided to write. Were you involved in any making along the way? I used to be a weaver. Weaving has a lot in common with perfume…perfume’s had different roles across so many periods of time…across different parts of the world. And in many cases, it’s the same role as ethnic textiles.

How did you get into making perfume? I got into this because I wanted to write a novel. I wanted to put my hand in the aromas I wanted to write about…so I took a class, and the minute I sat down with the essences, I kind of just knew what to do. Did you discover that you were a “nose”? Not really! But it was all very intuitive for me. And I loved reading the turn-of-the-century books, and touching and finding the oils. I had this ability to create in fragrance, an ability I had no idea it was there. And I was not young. (She was in her early 40’s.)

This had to come from somewhere, this intuitive gift. I honestly don’t know where this comes from. But I’m a total sensualist, and sensuality is very much a part of what I do. I’ve always been that way…

And whether it’s weaving, writing, or perfume, the interests have been similar all my life. There’s a through-line of what I’m interested in. There’s a relationship between what I think is beautiful, how it’s made, who made it, the sense of quality and refinement and a continuing interest in it getting more important, deeper.

The mark of the hand is so important. It’s even in the beakers I buy. There’s a lot of meaning in what I buy.

We’re surrounded by some amazing and incredibly rare substances, from ambergris to oud (the most expensive essence in the world). These are obviously the foundation for everything you do. I’m relentless in searching for quality essences. I spend a ridiculous amount of time sampling and trying. I have to have the best of the best. And I have different versions from different countries, jasmine from India, Egypt in liquid and solid forms.

In some sense this is what inspires me to keep my business small. I’ve had the opportunity (to sell, work for others) and it hasn’t been hard for me to say no. Nothing seems like more fun than doing this the way I do it. I can’t imagine someone letting me do what I do the way I do it. I’ll go and spend a week trying to track down the right rose. It’s not exactly cost effective!

Where do you get your materials? People will sell to me because of our relationship, my reputation, and my books. Sometimes I obtain essences directly from the growers. I enjoy going out and looking for the essences, and thinking about how we’re going to use them. And I kind of love that I can get my hands on stuff that others can’t.

There’s a lot of instability in the market, though. I don’t know whether I’l find that essence of that quality again…and that’s a piece of the thrill, the interest for me.

I love that you work with natural essences. There’s an integrity to natural essences. But what’s the difference? There’s a trade off, of sorts. Perfumes that last do so because of the synthetics, even the more niche brands that have an artist at the helm of them. I only work in naturals (a scary fortune, and they don’t last as long). Costs more, smaller bottle, doesn’t last. That’s my pitch. (Love.)

What do you think of the work you do? I like the way of being in the world and someone buying and treasuring something I make. That’s very thrilling to me. Being in other peoples’ lives that way…I love that a piece of me is in the bottles. That’s my sensibility. That’s dear to me. I have to feel good about what I put out, I have to be interested in it. I feel that way about everything I make. I feel strongly about that.

Talk about the custom work. That’s got to feel a little like therapy. Do you ask people why they choose the scents they do? I don’t ask even though I’m always very interested in what they pick. But people do tell me…they often talk about memories. Scent is a very rich, a very unlanguaged way of communicating. I love this. Some things just feel beautiful to us. They just escape the rational.

Do people come back asking for the same scents, or do their tastes change over time? One of the interesting things about the custom work is that I get repeat commissions. They’ll come back 10 years later and they’ll choose something completely different. Many times it happens if they’ve had big changes in their lives.

So let’s talk about your “design” process. Each perfume has its own genesis. Each perfume has a design problem that I’m trying to solve.

There’s been a odd genesis to the most recent scents. Oud Luban (divine) was based on the Clarimonde project, inspired/instigated by the Indieperfumes blog.  Then there’s one I made with Liza called Shiso. She brought me this powder perfume that geishas wore in their kimonos. It was based on her knowledge of the great essences that they used in geisha perfume. She picked the essences, then I added a more modern sensibility to it, and thus Shiso was born.

This is so unfair, but do you have a favorite? Always the last one. I tend to work in an intense fashion trying to make something that’s beautiful. I’m in it. Then it passes.

One of the ways your sensualist nature comes out is in the packaging. You obviously spend a great deal of time in choosing it. It’s a piece of the experience, and its in the card, tissue paper, the things I send out…I feel that all of it should come together and bring someone pleasure. I have a commitment to great materials, the work of the hand, the packaging.

Do you think that perfume is a luxury? I love luxury and I love beauty but I think they’re tired words. When I talk about luxury and beauty, I mean it in a personal way.  There’s a great deal of what is considered luxury that really isn’t, not any more.

What’s the future of perfume? Is it more and more mass, or is there a shift taking place? Oh I think there’s increasingly an artistic sensibility that’s coming to the fore. I think there are people interested in the artisanal aspects, and not sending it off to a lab to be made.

Who would play you in the movie of your life? Angelica Houston. Why? She’s got that quirky thing. I’m definitely a quirky person. I didn’t think I am, but I realize…I am so different.

And what kind of film? It would be very uplifting.  I did work that I loved (I loved being a therapist), loved writing books, love where I live. (She’s lived behind Chez Panisse for 30 years: you can see Alice Waters‘ restaurant at the end of Mandy’s garden.) I got (re)married in my sixties and I’m having so much fun.  I feel so very fortunate.

What things define you? (Mandy gets very still; her voice deepens.)

100 year old ambergris

This house

The print given to me by Leonard Cohen–the last verse from Hallelujah

My engagement ring that my husband gave me

My bathtub






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