Mandy Aftel: Perfume Maker
MEET PERFUME MAKER MANDY AFTEL
CURATOR BRISEIS ONFRAY | INTERVIEW WITH MANDY AFTEL | PHOTOS FOSTER CURRY for AFTELIER PERFUMES | COUNTRY USA
Mandy Aftel is not your average artisanal perfumer. She is ranked in the top seven of natural perfume makers in the world by Forbes. She was recently invited to collaborate on a ‘multi-sensory’ project led by GOOGLE. Her nose has been appointed to recreate a perfume for a 2000 year old, Egyptian child mummy, and… Leonard Cohan asked her to create a signature perfume for him.
Sight, sound, taste, touch and our sense of smell all play on the most primal responses for human existence. They are our self-influencers that impact the way we think, feel and respond to everyday situations.
The alchemy of perfume is a tradition as old as the history of man. And blending and wearing scents is a universal ritual that has evoked mystical connections between humans for centuries.
WHEN IT COMES TO NATURAL PERFUME, YOUR NAME IS ON THE TOP OF GOOGLE’S NOSE, LITERALLY. WHAT DO YOU THINK HAS STIMULATED THE RECENT GLOBAL TREND BACK TO ‘NATURAL’ vs ‘SYNTHETIC’ PERFUMES?
Natural aromatics are restorative and bring us close to the great beauty of nature. People are immersed in natural aromatics when they are cooking and gardening. These aromatic activities are ones that give us great pleasure, and it only makes sense to use the essences from the natural world to create fragrance.
YOU ARE CURRENTLY BASED IN CALIFORNIA WITH YOUR OWN PERFUME RANGE ‘AFTELIER’. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN THERE AND WHERE ARE YOU FROM ORIGINALLY?
I was born in Detroit, Michigan and lived there for the first 22 years of my life. I have lived in Berkeley, California for almost 50 years now. I love northern California.
WITH MORE THAN 25 YEARS OF SCENT BLENDING YOU ARE CONSIDERED A MASTER OF THIS HEAVENLY TRADE. WHAT INSPIRED YOU INITIALLY AND WHERE AND HOW DID YOU LEARN TO BECOME A PERFUME MAKER?
I originally got into perfume from reading through my collection of 100 year old antique perfume books, which were all about the lore and use of botanical essences. At that time I thought I would write a novel and make my main character a perfumer and was reading for research. I fell in love with the lush world of plants and aromas. I then took a little solid perfume class at a local aromatherapy studio to further research my ‘novel’. It was there that I was introduced to the smell of many natural essences and immediately fell in love. There was no turning back! I learned how to make perfume from experimenting with the essences, paying very close attention to how they interacted with one another.
WHERE DO YOU BELIEVE THE ALCHEMY OF PERFUME BLENDING AND WEARING ORIGINATED?
The alchemy of creating and wearing fragrance is as old as the history of man. It is universal and timeless. It stretches back to the beginning of history and across the globe. It is what links us together as humans. People have a continued appreciation and deep connection with grooming their bodies with an alluring scent!
IN 2005, YOU WERE INVITED TO COLLABORATE WITH THE ROSICRUCIAN EGYPTIAN MUSEUM IN SAN JOSE AND THE STANFORD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, TO RECREATE A PERFUME FOR A 2000 YEAR OLD CHILD MUMMY. WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY REQUEST. HOW DID YOU GO?
The perfume I made for the child mummy ‘Sharit’ was a very simple perfume, based on resins in Maringa oil. It was a thrill to make it and re-create a scent with such ancient materials. And I loved touching and smelling the little mummy that was the size of a yard stick.
YOU HAVE AN OVERWHELMING COLLECTION OF PRECIOUS PERFUME INGREDIENTS SHELVED ON YOUR ‘ORGAN’ FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD. IT MUST TAKE YEARS AND A VERY GOOD NOSE TO REALLY KNOW A SCENT BY SMELL. HOW MANY SCENTS DO YOU HAVE NOW AND WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO RECOGNISE OR RECALL A SCENT’S UNIQUE PROPERTIES?
I have around 500 scents on my perfume organ. Most of them are contemporary, but I also have a huge collection of antique essences from over 100 years ago. The best way to make friends with a particular aroma is to close your eyes, shut out the outside world and be entirely present with that aroma. Let it wash over you while you are experiencing the complexity of that natural smell. Take a moment to identify the facets of that aroma. For example, the smell of grapefruit is fresh, bright and tart, but it also has a strong pine facet.
AMBERGRIS HAS PLAYED AN INTRIGUING YET INTEGRAL PART IN THE PERFUME INDUSTRY. IT IS AS RARE AS IT IS A MOST UNLIKELY INGREDIENT. (AND MAKES FOR A FASCINATING CONVERSATION WHILE BEACHCOMBING TOO). CAN YOU CLARIFY ITS HISTORY AND PLACE IN THE PERFUME INDUSTRY TODAY?
Ambergris is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful aromas I have ever encountered. In a perfume, it functions like salt in cooking: it vivifies the beauty of the other essences and gives them a shimmering quality. Most extremely expensive natural essences, including ambergris, are not used in the commercial perfume industry today. The use of exquisite, natural essences in commercial perfumery started phasing out about 100 years ago, with the availability of cheap synthetics in their place. Now is a very exciting time to be an artisanal, ‘natural’ perfumer because we are able to use these beautiful natural essences in our perfumes.
THERE IS SOMETHING SACRED AND LUXURIOUS ABOUT OWNING A PERSONALISED BLEND. HOW DOES ONE CHOOSE A SCENT TO SUIT THEIR DOSHA OR LIFESTYLE? AND WHEN MAKING A CUSTOM-BLEND, HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE INGREDIENTS TO RESONATE TRUE TO A PERSON?
I don’t actually think that a person chooses the perfume to reflect their lifestyle. Having blended custom perfumes for over 25 years, allowing my customers to choose what goes into their perfume essence by essence, I have learned that a person’s presentation in the world has nothing to do with their preferred smells. Our sense of smell is so unique and an animal aspect of our being. A place beyond words. We choose aromas in a wordless instinctive way, particularly when we can choose the individual ingredients and not a finished perfume.
ROOT, RESIN, BARK, WOOD, LEAF, FLOWER OR ZEST EXTRACTS, LAYERED BY THEIR BASE, MID OR HIGH NOTE PROPERTIES INTO A LITTLE, GLASS BOTTLE. THERE MUST BE INFINITE PERFUME COMBINATIONS, BUT WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A PERFUME SMELL SOOOOOO GOOD?
Great perfumes are dependent on the talent of the perfumer making the perfume and their intimate understanding of essences. It also helps to use the finest and most exquisite specimens of each aroma. When you start with drop-dead gorgeous essences it really gives you an undeniable advantage in creating a beautiful perfume.
AND WHILE ON A HIGH NOTE, LEONARD COHEN WAS ONE OF YOUR CUSTOMERS WITH HIS FAVOURITE PERFUME NOW IN THE EXISTING AFTELIER RANGE. WAS THIS CUSTOM-MADE FOR HIM AND THEN CONTINUED INTO THE COLLECTION? AND DID LISTENING TO HIS MUSIC INSPIRE THE RESULT?
The perfume that I made for Leonard Cohen is Oud Luban and I have included it my line of perfume. He loved it and he wore it every day. His music has inspired so much of my perfume work and I listen to it full-blast when I am creating perfume.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST LOVED CUSTOM REQUEST?
My most beloved custom perfume was one I made for a husband and wife’s 50 year anniversary, to be given to them by their daughter. I essentially created a scent portrait of each of them based on the daughter’s scent choices for them.