Thirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.
Today marks the launch of Series Two of Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series. There will be five, weekly instalments in the new series, featuring perfumers Mandy Aftel, JoAnne Bassett, Andy Tauer, Ellen Covey and Shelley Waddington.
You can catch up with Series One of Thirteen Thoughts here.
Today, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes answers the thirteen questions. As Mandy is such an iconic figure in the perfume world, I hardly need to say very much about her. As many of you will already know, Mandy makes the most wonderful natural perfumes and scented wares, as well as the Chef’s Essences range of food flavourings, and organic teas. Mandy is also a perfume educator, and is the author of several key, influential texts about perfumery and the sense of smell, including Essence and Alchemy, Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance (co-written with chef Daniel Patterson), and Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent.
The intention of Thirteen Thoughts is to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, let me introduce you to…
Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes
Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.
I remember being struck by, and very interested in, the impolite smells of my own body… I liked them, and found it fascinating that they were made by me.
What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?
More than 20 years ago I wanted to write a novel, and for no particular reason decided the protagonist should be a perfumer. I imagined a character with some mysterious, sexy allure, but knew next to nothing about the profession, so I began to research it in my usual obsessive way. Besides collecting over 200 antique books about perfumery, I took a solid perfume class at the local aromatherapy studio. I was completely smitten by the absolutely gorgeous natural essences, they spoke to me in a way, and I made such a wonderful perfume in class that a friend who took the class with me said we should start a perfume company. We founded Grandiflorum Perfumes and started selling in Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman’s. So I actually fell into it quite by accident, and never did write the novel.
Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?
I am entirely self-taught, inspired by the magic of the natural essences — and old books about perfumery. I am heavily influenced by Bob Dylan; the whole way he’s done his art and life are a complete inspiration. I love that he’s so gifted with words, but goes after a particular kind of sound that’s in his head. I can feel that from his music, all the different ways that’s been manifested. It informs my own efforts to express — through scent — things that are locked inside my head.
Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?
The only perfumes I really follow are the ones that are made by my students, and I especially enjoy watching both them and their perfumes develop over the years.
Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.
The first company Grandiflorum Perfumes came to a bad business end. Now I love being able to combine my love of research, writing, and flavors & aromas into creating perfumes for my own line, Aftelier Perfumes. I find my creative inspiration in the natural perfume materials — I totally enjoy the hunt for the best versions from around the world (I actually enjoy everything about my business!).
I think of my perfume line as a whole work in itself, almost like a book to be edited and fit together chapter by chapter. I consider the relationship between my fragrances, trying to complement and diversify the emotional experience that people can have with my perfumes. Sometimes I myself get bored with some part of my line and look for the experience that is missing or can be done better.
How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?
My main goal is to capture a memory or experience I’ve had and share that through scent – like a poet would do with words. My perfumes start as a conversation between two ingredients; that wouldn’t be obvious when you smell the finished perfume at the end, but that’s the way it starts in my head. I’m always trying to solve some aesthetic problem that’s just beyond my comfort zone, so I’m always learning something new on everything I make, which I enjoy.
What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?
I’m pretty ruthless about my work, I don’t pay attention to what people think or what’s fashionable. I don’t think about the past or the history of perfumery — maybe because I use a natural palette and there’s so little history to go on, or maybe it’s just my nature.
I am inspired by food, color, and good writing — also by the quirky beauty of the past, I need some of what I consider beautiful every day. I cannot believe my good fortune in working every day with materials that are so gorgeous, diverse, and historical.
What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?
Every new perfume presents a creative challenge – that just comes with the territory as part of it, not something new or special. I relish the hunt for the materials – both completely new essences and better versions of ones that I already have. Over the years I have bought an astounding amount of stuff that turns out not to be any good, and I have to throw it out, but that’s part of the challenge that I love. I get bowled over by my good fortune at making perfumes that speak to me and please me, and that miraculously have found an audience with other people; it’s quite gratifying to do something that other people believe in. I love creating a handmade product, so I’m actually not facing any challenges about growing or increasing my production or distribution. I’m not interested in being in stores; I love the personal connection of selling directly to the customer. If it weren’t for the internet, I couldn’t do it this way.
How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?
Well, I like the funk, in the perfume and period. Having such a wide palette of natural aromas to work with has increased my awareness of the smells from doing gardening, or just being out walking – I’m aware of how vibrant they feel to me because it’s my métier. Smells are very personal to me, not so much about identifying things individually, but to learn the subtle differences and variations between smells. There is such a glorious panoply of fragrances in the real world.
Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?
Because I like odd things… I think frankincense would be interesting to cook with (I already use it in my perfumed tea). Or finding some way to cook with patchouli would intrigue me.
If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?
I’d love to see the turn of the 19th century, when most of the natural perfume materials were in play. It was just on the cusp of thinking of perfume as an art form, and before it became so dominated by the synthetics. But honestly, I’m very thrilled to be working in this period, it’s a wonderful time where I can choose from a wealth of very high-quality natural materials, create a perfume that expresses my personal aesthetics, and have a direct relationship with my customers.
If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?
Well, this isn’t very complicated, but what I want most right now are some really really beautiful — like sculpturally beautiful — perfume blotter holders, to keep the scent strips organized while creating a perfume. I like every part of the perfume-making process to be beautiful (I’ve already invested in letter-press printed, all-cotton heavyweight perfume blotters).
What is the purpose of perfume?
I make perfume, and people wear it, as a vacation from reality. It is a place — an ideal place — that you can visit without traveling. It is restorative and it makes you feel good. It has no practical purpose whatsoever; we wear it as a personal adornment like jewelry. It simply allows us to inhale bliss and however briefly, stop time.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first instalment of this second series of Thirteen Thoughts with Mandy Aftel.
I want to thank Mandy for taking time out of her very busy schedule creating and travelling to answer my questions. Mandy has been a delight to communicate with throughout this process, and so friendly and approachable! I really enjoyed reading her very personal and considered responses.
I will be writing a feature article on Mandy’s Chef’s Essences flavour sprays in the coming weeks. Stay tuned, or follow Perfume Polytechnic so you don’t miss reading about these fabulous food flavours and how you can use them in your cooking.
For those of you who want to learn more about perfumery, the sense of smell, the history of perfume and/or how to use essential oils in cooking, you can read more about and purchase some of Mandy’s books on these topics at the Aftelier website.
Stay tuned to see how perfumer JoAnne Bassett answers the thirteen questions in Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series.
All interview answers and photographs were provided courtesy of the perfumer, and remain their intellectual property. All interview questions remain the intellectual property of Perfume Polytechnic. Please do not reproduce interviews or images without permission.