An Interview with Perfumer Mandy Aftel

Elisa Isaacson

Meeting natural perfumer and The Possible artist Mandy Aftel in her element, you’re convinced she was born to work with scent. Her home and studio, in a classic Berkeley brown shingle house, is classroom, laboratory, library, and museum. Not surprisingly, layers of fragrance pervade the air (“I just finished up a workshop,” she says). The shelves are lined with books and glass vials and bottles. Mostly self-taught, she has become a guru in the field. Her first book on perfume, Essence & Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume, is accepted as a seminal text, covering the basics (base notes, heart notes, and head notes, and the tools of the trade), and also addressing topics such as “perfume and the soul.” She collaborated on a cookbook with celebrated Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson, which explores the connections between food and fragrance—and she has a new book out in the fall of 2014. Her deep knowledge and passion for her subject, and her talent for personalizing fragrances, have made her one of the most sought-after custom perfume makers in the world, but she has also partnered with companies like CleanWell to create hand sanitizers sold at Target.

Mandy designed an exhibit that is part of The Possible Library, and on April 13, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., she will conduct a public workshop at BAM/PFA as part of The Possible series of Sunday workshops.

Tell me about the new book, which you’ve described as a study of the five rock stars of scent.

Yes, it’s the story of five iconic scents:

Cinnamon, which was important to the spice trade and represents the search for things exotic.

Mint, which embodies what’s common and is about home. There is a big American industry around mint.

Frankincense, which is a resin that comes from trees, and is connected to our spirituality.

Ambergris, which is an animal scent, from the sperm whale, and is related to our sense of curiosity.

Jasmine, which is about perfumes and beauty.

The five essences are deeply connected to us as human beings. They reach so far back in our history and have so much to tell us and teach us. I could have chosen five others, but these really speak for their class.

How did you become a perfumer?

I was a therapist for artists and writers for many years. At some point, I wanted to write a novel, and I made the main character a perfumer, because I thought that would be an interesting occupation. I began experimenting with making perfume to get information for the book—and found out I was good at it.

I like making and doing things myself. I’m passionate about the ingredients, and I’m interested in the materials of scent-making. I have a library of more than two hundred books on perfume, and I collect old essential oils, which I often buy from estates.

Mandy_Aftel_Cabinet.jpg Mandy Aftel’s Cabinet of Curiosities, an installation featured as part of The Possible Library. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro

How do people experience your perfumes, what are they buying? Are scents accessories, experiences, or something else?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year [in context of the book]. I think it’s about pleasure. Scent makes people happy. It is both a good—a commodity—and an experience. My perfumes are not intended to last on the skin for more than a couple of hours, whereas commercial perfumes made from synthetics are designed to last a long time.

When I make perfume, I try to capture an experience, what another kind of artist might put into a poem or a painting. I hope to communicate about life, about emotional life … and some people actually do experience through the perfumes what I’m trying to express. It’s thrilling, and an honor, to feel I have a place in people’s lives that way.

How do you find your ingredients?

I look all over the world for scents. I don’t actually go anywhere, but there is a worldwide network of people who sell oils. They come to me. I look for the best ingredients I can find. I buy really expensive stuff. In the commercial, more mass-produced perfume industry, they can’t afford to buy such expensive ingredients. I like looking for things that are special. It’s not a streamlined business, to put it mildly.

Can you tell me a story about how you located a particular fragrance?

A recent one is gardenia. I was introduced to the world’s best gardenia seller by a friend. The seller didn’t really care if I bought his oil. He sent it from Tahiti. You have to be on top of it to get these things to pass through customs. We had a very nice FedEx woman who helped us get the oil labeled properly. It took a while, but it finally got here. I was very inspired by it. I wanted to do something new for Christmas at the time, and I thought a lot about how to showcase what was beautiful about the gardenia, what it might go with.

Do you have any favorites among your fragrance collection?

I love them all. Together, they’re useful to me the way paint would be to a painter. It’s like music—they work in relation to one another. It’s not that they’re not quite gorgeous by themselves, but it’s how they interact; that is the art.

Actually, there’s one I actually didn’t like initially: Eucalyptus. It’s too caustic. But I found someone who had a different way of rendering the oil so that it smells more like a forest—the roots, the whole tree—and less sharp.

Your investigation of scents crosses boundaries between the senses. You’ve related scent to color and to music, and you’ve collaborated with chefs. Can you talk about the connection between smell and taste, for instance?

I don’t claim to be an expert on the science, so I research carefully before I talk about it. But I can say that flavor is by definition the combination of smell and taste. If you couldn’t smell everything you tasted would be very flat. A typical, wonderful experience is drinking a cup of tea, smelling it as you bring it up to your face.

How do you relate to the premise of The Possible project, and what can visitors expect at your workshop at the museum?

I’ve very interested in what other artisans do. It’s what I do and where I want to stay. I like to feel the maker’s hand and talent. I like to be part of a cycle: making stuff and putting it in peoples’ lives, and using things that other people I know have made. My house is full of things other people have made.

At the workshop, I’ll try to bring alive the five essences from the book, and others, as well. We’ll pass things around to smell, to educate our senses. We’ll compare the natural essences to the synthetic versions and talk about the differences. It will be interactive.