Mandy Aftel is a woman of many talents and achievements. She has written “Essence and Alchemy- A Natural History Of Perfume” which is essential reading for the perfume enthusiast and contains fascinating insights into raw materials and perfume structures as well as excellent contextual history with wonderful historical illustrations. She has, among other things, written about Brian Jones, set up the Natural Perfumer’s Guild, and composed and launched her own line of liquid and solid natural perfumes under her Aftelier label.
We spoke on the telephone across the ocean one Thursday, evening for me, lunch time for Mandy. I am especially grateful for her continued good humour when we spoke later than arranged due to my failure to properly check the time difference.
Walker: Is perfume just about smelling good?
Mandy: No! It has to be about that and other things, though if you miss that mark, I think you have missed the main one. I think perfume resonates much deeper with people, given sites like Basenotes and Sniffapalooza and people’s passion for it. I think it is more than smelling good – I think it has to do with how you feel; how you feel about yourself and how you connect with nature and smells. I think there is a great depth that people experience when they fall in love with a perfume.
Walker: What differences should a fragrance enthusiast accustomed to mainstream perfumes (i.e. not natural) expect when they encounter natural perfumes for the first time?
Mandy: I think it is very important for people to understand the differences between natural and synthetic or mostly synthetic perfumes. I think the whole way they smell and interact with your body is different. The biggest hallmark between the naturals and the synthetics is how long they last on the body. The naturals last two hours, they are not going to last all day and they have a different kind of evolution on the skin and interaction with the body chemistry. They fade and merge with the smell of the body in a different way. The notes themselves are very multi layered; the top notes lift off and then the middle and then the drydown note in a succession....
Walker:...do you think the layering of notes is more distinct with natural perfumes than with synthetic ones?
Mandy: ..I do think so yes, because they try to make the synthetic ones last for a longer period of time, which makes the layers blur and they sometimes make synthetic perfumes linear so they smell exactly as they do in the bottle throughout their time on the skin. Another difference is that natural perfumes can smell very strong when you first smell them, stronger than the light veil of synthetic fragrances. They fade soon, but they could have a strong initial “hit” and then begin to evolve. With the synthetics, they may well smell the same from beginning to end.
I think another hallmark of naturals is the drydown note. The dry down note with naturals, if they are well made, is extraordinarily beautiful. It is very soft, very mysterious and very individual. For me, as someone who doesn’t favour the synthetics, I sometimes find a different quality of that drydown note with them; a little tinnier, a little thinner, a different kind of note. The drydown on the naturals is rounder and softer from my perspective.
Walker: You give your perfumes no gender classifications. What is your opinion of gender classification in perfumery? Are all perfumes unisex?
Mandy: I’m not so interested in classifications at all. I won’t usually say something is a floral or a fougere unless I feel I need to so as to connect with other people who think that way. I don’t think male/female either, I just think of what has inspired me and what I think is beautiful. A few of mine are very floral so I do tend to think of them as more feminine, and some are very intense and strange, I think of those as more masculine but I don’t find it ends up working like that with my customers. Males and females buy all over the place, often not how I thought it would have gone.
Walker: Is natural perfumery in the developed world counter culture or a luxury niche for the wealthy elite?
Mandy: I’m not positive that those are different. What I think of is a buyer who is interested in luxury. I think natural perfume is for a buyer who is conscious of what they are buying, who is sensuous and who has real attention to detail. This person is not so swayed by a major launch or advertising, but makes a more careful, idiosyncratic purchase. It could be a hippy; it could be someone who is wealthy. Natural perfumes usually cost more because the materials are expensive, though it is possible to spend a lot of money on synthetics too. The buyers may be more artistic, artisanal, bohemian. They are interested in real luxury and like their purchase to be really meaningful to the sensual way they relate to the world.
Walker: Is natural perfumery necessarily Esoteric?
Mandy: Define esoteric for me?
Walker: I’m thinking of the association with alchemy you make in your book and also that it seems to be often tied up with mysticism or different ways of looking at the world which are outside the conventional norm.
Mandy: Not necessarily, no. I think it has a wonderful rich history in that vein but that aspect is really a cerebral issue. A well made natural perfume should hit you emotionally and aesthetically like a wonderful meal or a beautiful piece of cashmere. It doesn’t really have to have all those other resonances although for some people it clearly does. Having those resonances doesn’t substitute for having an inspired, artistic, beautiful natural perfume. I think sometimes there is too much focus on that instead of the side which has to do with the real art of perfume. I do think it is wonderful that natural perfumes have that rich entangled history with mysticism and ethno-botany, it gives more layers to my appreciation of them, but I also think you can just simply like them. For example, you could have a wonderful artisanal goat cheese and find out exactly how the goats live and how it was made and that can really enrich your experience of it, or you can just eat it because it tastes terrific.
Walker: Are you interested in mainstream perfumery, including the so-called niche perfumes? If so what are your thoughts on the current state of play?
Mandy: I’m much more interested in niche perfumery than any other kind of perfumery because I feel that the creator has their input and their stamp on what they are doing from the packaging to the juice so it bears the mark of their artistic temperament. This is something I am deeply interested in. I am very interested in how people work as an artist in the world of perfume. I am very interested in that way of creating and shopping, if you were in my home, saw my clothes and the rest of me you would see that I have an interest in things that are personal and aesthetic and bear the human hand. I like things which are unique and individual.
Walker: Does it give more depth?
Mandy: It is a different kind of purchase. It is more personal and meaningful. I think the person buying feels different about it and the person making it feels different about it. It is a kind of transaction which seems to make sense to me; it is about how people enhance their lives with things that they purchase for themselves. That can be very pleasurable from start to finish.
Walker: It’s a much more direct connection.
Mandy: Yes, for example once a year at the holiday I open my studio for people to come and see it and shop. I am very involved in all the packaging and the displays. It is a party really, we have music and food and I feel thrilled that people will buy my things and put them under the Christmas tree for people that they love and give them to people for their birthdays. I like being indirectly involved in the pleasure and the love in other people’s lives by things I have made, it makes me very happy.
I do everything myself and I have really resisted the temptation to grow larger, despite lots of opportunity, because I don’t think I could give things the attention to detail that I really want to.
Walker: Is there a connection between natural perfumery and aromatherapy? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Mandy: Yes, I made a chart about the difference between synthetic perfume, natural perfume and aromatherapy for the fragrance foundation. Aromatherapy and natural perfumes are not the same thing. It is confusing for people because they do think they are similar. With aromatherapy the primary concern is therapeutic. With natural perfume the primary concern is aesthetic although there are some therapeutic benefits. With synthetic perfumes the primary concern is aesthetic. Natural perfumery uses similar materials to aromatherapy and pursues the same end as synthetic perfumery. It is positioned between the two, using some similar materials to aromatherapy but with a focus on aesthetics and structure like synthetic perfumery; we need to think about development and dry down notes. A typical aromatherapy blend may contain five ingredients but a natural perfume may have nine to thirty. Natural perfumery has a deep history tied to nature, ritual and alchemy and synthetic perfume is more linked to the development of chemistry.
I hope that natural perfume can exist alongside synthetic perfumery. I am not against synthetic perfume at all. It is simply not what I choose to work with and it is not what I am interested in. I feel it is important to be honest with the consumer, that they are getting what they want. They should understand if something is coming from a rose or a bergamot skin or not. There shouldn’t be any confusion about what is or isn’t a natural perfume. There is room for everyone though; there are things which synthetics do which naturals don’t and also things naturals do which synthetics don’t.
Walker: Most perfumery materials are processed in some way or another. Where do you draw the line between natural and non-natural?
Mandy: I draw the line with the materials that I use. I use just essential oils, concretes and absolutes, resins and balsams. They are botanical, they come directly from a plant.
Walker: So is it the source material which is important?
Mandy: Yes. My biggest inspiration is from the materials. Occasionally I create something around a feeling or an experience but I usually create from the interaction between two essences together. That gives me an idea of where I want to take it. It is the interaction of the materials which inspires me to create.
Walker: Can you describe in general terms how you go about composing?
Mandy: I will. I have an enormous wealth of materials, I love sourcing and looking for materials. I am always looking to improve what I have. To use the food metaphor, the final dinner can only be as good as the ingredients that go into it. So I spend a lot of time and money on my essences. For example, for a while I was using a very beautiful Moroccan rose absolute and then I found a Turkish rose absolute which was much more voluptuous, rounder and just drop-dead gorgeous. The other one began to feel thin. There is nothing wrong with it; it just wasn’t like the Turkish one. When I got it, I reformulated all my perfumes with rose because they came out slightly different. I took great pleasure in doing this.
Also, I used to use a dry ginger essential oil which ok, it smelled like ginger. Then in my sourcing I ran across this incredible, unbelievable, ginger essential oil from Indonesia. It is very light, almost citrus ginger like the grated ginger you put on food. It changed everything, and smelling it combined with other essences led me forward to compose.
I also really love stinky, smelly awful things, not just the beautiful ones. I love the foul and the fragrant. I like little bits of things that smell odd to put into my perfumes and see what happens. For me it is like a colour palette, there is no colour which is unacceptable. Stinky and beautiful; are all useful, they just need to be very high quality. The quality comes across to me in the textural quality of the smell. For me (just for me), this quality is only possible with naturals. Even in the stinky naturals, I still look for that aliveness, that texture, that sense of layering.
Walker: So you find an essence or a note which you like... and then what happens next?
Mandy: I usually think in a pair. I think “how would this be with that?” For example in my perfume Cepes and Tuberose which I think is one of my oddest perfumes and incidentally I never thought would be around for long because it is a bit weird, I built it around the cepe, the porcini absolute which is earthy, intense, mushroomy, deep, dark and slightly putrid and Tuberose which is a very heady white floral. I noticed they met somewhere around this earthy note, kind of an earthy transparency. I thought it was interesting and wondered what I could do with it. The cepe is as complicated as can be. The minute you put it in a perfume you are ruling out a whole load of other things. I was challenged by it and decided to see what I could do with it. The rest of it was based on working out what those two essences were calling for. What else would fit to make the structure? There were so many things ruled out that it just began to be obvious where I could take it.
So I mostly start with two things which speak to me. I get them to lock together, then I see it as the doors starting to close, things are ruled out. Everything has to be around the aesthetic principles of that original pair.
Walker: So is it then about decorating that pairing?
Mandy: Decorating is one thing but I would say making it all cohere. My direction is to put in everything that I need and not one drop more. A perfume that was very difficult to make was Tango. That was one problem after another. I was fascinated by it. Tango was built more around a concept than the materials. I had a concept in my head of this deep, dark, sexy aroma. It was built around champaca, roasted seashells and a wonderful CO2 extracted coffee. That is already trouble, then I added tobacco which is also difficult to work with, I loved the challenge of making something beautiful out of it.
Walker: I notice that quite a few of your perfumes contain a Blood Orange note, something I have not often come across elsewhere. What is about this which works so well for you?
Mandy: I love the blood orange. I did a hand sanitiser line with that. There is one blood orange that I love, it is from Israel. It has a raspberry note in the orange. Fruits are very hard to come by in natural perfume. There is no apple, peach, plum, grape; all those things are from the world of synthetics. This orange was so rich, happy and voluptuous, so different from a plain sweet orange. Sometimes I need balance at the top and I guess I have just chosen that more often than I realised.
Walker: Another one which struck me was the fig. It is quite different to any other fig I’ve ever smelled. Most of them are quite green but yours smells sweet and dark and rich.
Mandy: There are all these fig fragrances none of which have any fig in them, so I thought I would make a fig fragrance without any fig in it too. I found this very interesting, slightly strange lavender absolute from Seville. It smelled a little bit like figs and a little like cough medicine. It had a definite figgy, fruity aspect to it. Then there is a divine fir absolute from Canada which is jammy and sweet. I started out from those two. That perfume turned out to be a real favourite with men.
Walker: In your Perfume Prive, I smell deep inedible animalic accords which give it a very solid quality. Can you tell me about that one?
Mandy: That has ambergris in it.
Walker: Yes. Is it real Ambergris?
Mandy: Yes real ambergris. It has got “break the bank” ingredients in it. There are four ingredients that are over ten thousand dollars per kilo; the osmanthus, the orange flower, the ambrette seed and the priceless ambergris. I managed to get some ambergris and tinctured it so I was very curious to work with it. I made the perfume originally for myself and I wasn’t going to put it out. I loved it and people started asking for it so I started doing little minis of it and I’m going to do some solid perfumes of it this year for Christmas again because last year they sold out and people seemed to like them. I just think it is so luxurious, so mysterious, so beautiful. Those four materials together seem to make a lock and then the pink pepper and other materials support that. I was so pleased to get some ambergris, I thought I would put it into something and people could smell the real thing. I think it is the ninth wonder of the world or something!
Walker: You said they lock together; it has a strikingly solid quality about it to me
Mandy: Yes it does. That is what I look for – the moment when the perfume locks, when it becomes itself, when it is Fig or it is Tango or something else. Sometimes I’m lucky and it happens with a few tries and sometimes it happens with a whole bunch of tries.
Walker: If alchemy and natural perfumery have a relationship (as you describe in your book) and modern chemistry and synthetic based perfumes have relationship, what is the difference in those two relationships?
Mandy: I can’t speak for synthetic perfume because I really don’t know much about it. I can only speak for natural perfumery which I know well. Alchemy is such a fascinating way of looking at the world, it encompasses personal transformation and working with materials and it has such beautiful images associated with it. I have great fascination with the whole world of alchemy and how it worked on a symbolic level as well a real level. I think perfumery possesses some of that magic which is in alchemy. It deals with essence and it deals with transformation. They have a lot in common, they “reach for the stars” as Oscar Wilde might say. I have the feeling that I am just scratching the surface, there is so much more to know and learn and that is inherently and intrinsically about beauty.
Walker: Thanks for all your time.
Mandy: Thank you
More information about Mandy can be found at: www.aftelier.com