I am truly honoured to feature an interview with Mandy Aftel, the renowned natural perfumer based in Berkeley, California. Aftel creates scented perfumes, teas, chef’s essences in addition to fragranced products for face, body and hair with enticing names that lure you in and make you want to try them immediately, such as Chocolate and Saffron. She is in demand as a teacher, passing on her knowledge and expertise to students and last year opened the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, a perfumery archive and museum. If that wan’t enough she is also an author and last year published The Art of Flavor : Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food with chef Daniel Patterson.
Mandy very kindly sent me a beautiful box of scented treats that I have been in raptures over ever since. Right now I’m wearing her solid perfume Velvet Tuberose, a lovely take on this beautiful flower with a creamy, smooth texture and a divine scent that blends sandalwood and pink grapefruit into a heavenly concoction.
So with that introduction let’s take a sneak peek into the world of Atelier Perfumes and a huge thank you to Mandy or agreeing to answer the following questions (by email) about her work and life.
Can you tell us what you did before you became a perfumer and what then lured you into the world of perfume?
I was a psychotherapist for artists and writers, and I was a writer and had published three books.
It was pretty imaginative! I decided that I wanted to write a novel and wanted my main character to be a perfumer. Since I love research, I started out reading books about perfume from the turn of the last century and just fell in love with the whole process. Then when I smelled the natural essences I was hooked! I never wrote the novel — I guess I’m still doing research…
You are renowned for your natural perfumes. What steered you towards the natural path in your creations?
It’s really very simple for me: I just love the way natural essences smell – they are rich, complex, multi-layered, quirky, and so deeply tangled up with who we are as humans that I could not help but want to work with them.
Does the focus on natural materials flow into other areas of your life too? Cuisine, your home etc.?
I love working with beautiful materials — long ago I was weaver and I loved all the beautiful yarn colors, the textures, the fibers, the weight; I look at my perfume creations as an extension of how much I loved beautiful textiles and yarn. And, yes, I love very simple but perfect ingredients for cooking.
How do you source your materials?
I have been sourcing essences for over 25 years and have built up a very intricate network of growers that I have come to depend on. Sourcing takes up a great deal of my time and I love the hunt! Whenever I buy an essence I usually have tried perhaps 5 to 10 different versions of that essence. I find it a thrill and an education to be able to compare, for example different versions of rose absolute from different countries. Those nuances of difference open up a world of possibilities in my head.
When you create a new perfume, what is the process you go through? Is it always the same, or does it vary?
Yes, and no. Each perfume is its own universe, and each perfume has its own design problem. There is never a perfume that I have made that didn’t have some sort of design challenge that I needed to solve and that is never the same. But what is the same is that I always begin with trying to capture a feeling in a perfume — something that has happened in my life that cannot be captured in words; if I were a painter I would paint it or if I were a poet I would create a poem. Every perfume of mine revolves around a conversation between two ingredients; I could take each of my perfumes apart and point to where they started from.
What sort of feeling do you seek to create with your perfumes for your customers?
I am hopeful that the feeling I have when I’m creating the perfume and trying to capture in the perfume will be communicated to the customer. And it is a real thrill when that happens, which is quite often. Because I don’t sell in stores and because I am so intimately connected with my customers, how they feel about the perfumes finds its way back to me. I am astonished when they write me or call me and let me know that that the “message in the bottle” was communicated.
Have the preferences of your customers changed over the years? If so in what way?
Right along with me they have gotten more unconventional and playful. Amazingly enough, they are willing to blindly take a chance on something new that I’ve made.
How has the world of natural perfumery changed over the last 10 years?
When I started out over 25 years ago, there was no one making natural perfumes. Over the last 10 years, there have been so many new and wonderful all-natural perfume lines, that now I feel they have come to be another possibility on the perfume landscape. Consumers are so much better-educated about perfume, and more curious about what goes into their perfume. There’s been an explosion in smaller brands and I think that’s a good thing. I certainly see it because I teach many young perfumers, and my students then teach many other beginning perfumers.
How do you balance the creativity along with the business side of Aftelier?
I find the business side of Aftelier extremely creative, and don’t differentiate much between the creativity in business and the creativity in making fragrance. I have a very quirky business. I love the whole idea of selling things to people that make their lives happier and all the very mundane things like packing the package and writing a card are things I truly love to do. And don’t get me started about glittery ink and tiny cards, because I source for them the same way I source for essences for perfume – with a lot of enthusiasm and joy.
You teach as well. What types of training do you offer and who is it targeted at? What are the key pointers you give to your students?
I think what I have best to offer as a teacher is how to understand the essences and their capacities for structure and blending which is an endless study with natural essence. I also teach people how to edit their work — how to understand dynamically what is going on between the essences and how to then edit their blends. So I teach people about a very structured way of creating with natural essences.
You also write and your book Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume Is considered one of the bibles of natural perfumery. How do the books fit into your creative experience?
Thank you! My books are where I think through the ideas in my head and do research and learning about things I don’t know enough about – – they are as much a creative exploration as anything else that I do, and they encapsulate things that I want to learn. They’re also very personal to me — a place where I feel I can express my values.
I have to say that when I looked at your site, the Chef’s Essences really appealed and now your latest book is food related with Daniel Patterson called The Art of Flavour. What is your favourite Essence and how do you use it?
My favorite chef’s essence is fresh ginger – it is the one I would take with me to a desert island! I was blown away when I found it because most ginger essential oil is from the dried root, and this is from the fresh ginger like it was just grated from the farmers market. I love the citrusy freshness of it on almost anything. So I put a spritz of it into my tea, and on take-out food, and salad, and vegetables, and meat — there’s almost nothing that I don’t put it on!
Which perfume of yours do you feel closest to or like the most and why?
Sepia has a special place in my heart because it reminds me of the gold rush in California and how beautiful things look and feel from the past. There’s a melancholy beauty to the old wooden structures and the hopes and dreams of people who came to California back then. And I’m a person who came to California and I guess I identify with people who came out west.
How do you see your work evolving?
I would like to write a book about the museum, about putting together the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, but I would like it to be about the ideas that informed the feeling that the museum conveys. It’s a kind of dreamy idea about what has been so seductive and captivating about getting lost in the world of essences, and the incredible history of those materials. I guess it’s about beauty but a specific kind of beauty.
Thank you so much Mandy for answering these questions and reviews of a selection of Aftelier Perfumes is coming up soon so keep checking back in to find out more about these wonderful creations.
Notes : All images from Aftelier Perfumes.