“Everything I’ve done, I’ve just followed what I’ve been interested in. I’ve never had a plan, I have had no plan about any of this.” – Mandy Aftel
Mandy Aftel started making natural perfumes almost 30 years ago. Her passion and artistry have won Aftelier Perfumes many awards and accolades. She’s been featured in countless magazines and blogs from Vogue to Forbes, Now Smell This to Bon Appetit. In 2003, Mandy launched Chef’s Essence, which supplies natural flavor oils and sprays to chefs, mixologists, artisanal producers of fine chocolate, ice cream, candies, and baked goods.
Here at Aromatica Poetica, we love Mandy’s books on natural essences & perfume that include: Fragrant, winner of the Perfumed Plume Award, which explores the connection between our sense of smell and our appetites and desires through five iconic materials—cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine; The Art of Flavor, a cookbook written with Michelin-star chef Daniel Patterson; And her now-classic, Essence and Alchemy, which has been translated into eight languages, won The Sense of Smell Institute’s Richard B. Solomon Award, and has influenced countless natural perfumers.
Mandy was kind enough to speak with me by phone from her studio in Berkeley, California, home also to her museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents.
Aromatica Poetica: I suspect that one of the reasons why your books are so wide-ranging is because you have an interesting story to your road to perfumery. Would you mind telling how you became a perfumer?
Mandy Aftel: Yeah definitely. Well, it was a long time ago on a distant star… I’ve been doing it for so long now! For probably almost 30 years. I had been a psychologist—a therapist for artists, and writers, and I had written a book called The Story of Your Life, which is about plot and narrative in people’s lives and in fiction. And I am a person who loves to do research—to do a really deep dive into what I’m interested in. I had also done a biography of a rock and roll star—Brian Jones (from The Rolling Stones)—where I did all the oral history. and then the book on narrative and plot. I read so much literary criticism, which I loved.
After that, I wanted to write a novel, and make my main character a perfumer—I kind of don’t know why I thought that—I followed my instincts, but I don’t know why. So I started to do research, which was just wonderful to me, and I started to go to book fairs and get old books from the turn of the last century—I did know most perfume was now synthetic.
This was before the internet, so you had to go to the book fairs and give them a little list and I started reading and just totally fell in love with the descriptions of the plants and the materials and the histories and then for my novel, I thought I would do some more research and I would learn how to make something.
I went to an aroma therapy studio here in the Bay Area, and I made a little solid perfume. I went with a friend and the materials just spoke to me right off the bat. I fell deeply in love, which hasn’t stopped. And she said, “Oh let’s start a perfume line together,” which we did—before Aftelier—and that story didn’t have a great ending. And it had a soon ending and before I knew it, I wasn’t in that business anymore.
We had sold the first natural perfumes (that I know of) at Bergdorf Goodman and neiman Marcus. I made everything and then the business disappeared. But because I’m obsessive about what I like. I had, I don’t know, maybe fifty or a hundred antique books on perfume, I had essences, I had stuff… and I wanted to go on, but I didn’t really think I would go on as a business.
So I had all these books, I had all this interest I had done all this learning and my editor and best friend said, “Why don’t you write a book for me on natural perfume.” So, I wrote Essence and Alchemy many, many years ago. I wanted to share what I knew, and it kind of started things in a lot of ways.
From there, everything I added very slowly. I was only gonna do custom perfumes, and then added maybe selling one perfume, and very, very slowly got back into the marketplace. I kind of had these different things I did when I began that I’m still doing—not that much has changed for me.
AP: So when you first started making perfume, you were still working as a psychologist as well?
MA: Yes, it was very hard for me to leave my practice. I worked in both for quite a long time and I finally couldn’t do both and I ended up going toward perfume, but for a long time, I was doing both.
AP: So are there any remainders From the world of psychology, that help you in making perfume? I would think it might help in making bespoke perfumes?
MA: Well, I use it a lot when I teach for sure. I teach a very tiny class four times a year, eight people. It’s very interesting to teach that art practice to people, very deep. I certainly use that to make the class as good as I can possibly make it.
I think more of the essences as having personalities. So when I do bespoke perfume, I don’t do questionnaires and I don’t ask questions. I do it in a particular way that is focused on their immediate and deep response to the essences themselves. So I think I’m applying most of my psychology to the essences .
AP: That sounds like a book in itself!
MA: It’s an odd twist of mine. I feel that people relate to the sense of smell, not through language and not through their conscious mind but more through their unconscious. So any questionnaires are more about lifestyle and presentation in the world, which I do not find is where any of this takes place.
AP: Do you still have that pull of being a novelist, or do you think that your storytelling impulse has come through in perfume-making?
MA: Oh for sure. Each of my perfumes are built around two essences in conversation with each other, and a feeling that I would like to capture. Like if I was a poet, I would write a poem, or a painter I’d make a painting. So, each of my perfumes has a kind of a feeling that it’s trying to capture—and that’s how I teach perfume as well. So I feel like there is always something very deep and kind of narrative—but the materials themselves are the things that have the narrative for me.
AP: Yes, and you do such a wonderful job—in fragrant in particular—In telling the stories of these materials.
MA: Thank you so much. I loved doing the research for that book. I could have never ended it, I just was captivated. I had like 20 times more material than went into the book.
AP: How did you come up with the idea and then how did you finally narrow? I would imagine you could do another book, and choose different materials with a whole different set of story lines?
MA: Well After Essence and Alchemy, it took me a long time to figure out what I had to say that wasn’t Essence and Alchemy. First of all because it was a very successful book—it got published all over the world—and it was a hard act to follow. I did do some other books about flavor in between. But for me to come up with a concept that was an aesthetic whole, like fragrant was, it took me a long time. I had a lot of false starts, and a lot of things I just gave up on along the way that I didn’t like.
Then I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and met Michael. And I thought, “Oh, I could see that Working for perfume, you know, for fragrant materials.”
So then the idea was to do a deep dive into five iconic, rock-star-type materials: what would they be… How would I do it? I had four of them in my mind early on and I wanted them each to be tied to a deep human concern, like they were sort of the talisman of that concern.
Jasmine was about beauty, in particular, a kind of wabi sabi beauty—beauty that ages—that relates to how perfume kind of comes and goes, disappears. Frankincense was about spirituality and incense and trees. I did a lot of reading on trees—I love our trees!
And then the animal ingredients, centered on ambergris, was about curiosity but it took in all the animal ingredients. And I got to do a lot of research about all of them and even discovered so much about onycha (seashells), which I had just learned about. So there was a new ingredient. I included the ethical concerns about animal ingredients, but also the very rich history.
Cinnamon came from a talk I gave at the Museum of Natural History in New York on the Spice Route and I did a lot of research to give that talk and I learned that cinnamon was kind of the queen of the spice trade and had this incredible history, and I learned about the spice, so I was very excited to write about spices with cinnamon being the main one.
I was going to do those four, and then I was speaking to my coauthor of my flavor books, Daniel Patterson, the chef, and he said, “Well you’ve got to include something green!” And so I went through a lot of the herbs and leaves to think about what I would use. When I started to read about mint, I was just blown away by the things that I found. That’s where the book of secrets comes in. It’s this old amalgam of very hodge-podgey recipes for all kinds of things that date all the way back to Medieval times, the role of mint in culture and in old mythology. It was such a rich vein. I was thrilled. And so mint was the last one to get on board.
AP: and mint I think would be the one that we would tend to associate more with flavor, but it is something that you would use as well in perfume, as an accent?
MA: It’s a high-intensity note, mint. And it bears the burden of being very recognizable, which I teach in my classes. So you have to be creative when you include mint in perfume or somebody’s just gonna turn right off and say, “Mm, gum,” “Mm, toothpaste.” But what it is—when you isolate it aesthetically and really think about it—is a bright, green, uplifting, clean scent that works beautifully with something like vetiver, which is grassy and dank. So you use it like a paint—you use it for its aesthetic possibilities counter-balancing something else.
AP: The fragrance world, as well as the flavor world, has become so secretive—
MA: It always was –there’s no news there! Secretive and dishonest.
AP: Right. We have a passage on Aromatica Poetica from the Victorian perfumer Septimus Piesse, and in it he sort of laments the secrecy, like, “What’s with all this secrecy, this is not conducive to artistic elaboration.”
MA: It’s very interesting—I do have every single one of those books in their original form. And they were onto this a long time ago—it’s not new—including adulterating, pretending, and trying to pass things off. It’s very interesting how old the information is… Though it wasn’t then like it is now. It wasn’t as market-driven or concerned about bottom line prices—that I am intending to write about. There was a very strong shift over time—the concern about how much everything costs, and having a very low bottom line, which drives so much.
But yes, it’s very old. I wrote some about that in essence an alchemy. I happen to have these catalogs from Schimmel and Co.—all of them from 1888 to the 1920’s. They were the main purveyors of essential oils. And you can see them talking about adulteration. You can see them trying to convince people to use synthetics. It’s all in there.
AP: It seems like the secrecy of The Alchemist kind of turned into the Commercial need to hide formulas, about trade secrets.
MA: I’m not positive it’s so much to hide things, because you can do a GC [gas chromatography] analysis and find a lot, and that’s why there’s all those knock-offs. I think sometimes it might be to just hide poor-quality ingredients.
AP: ah yes, they make a story of the ingredients, even though there’s basically hardly any of the actual ingredients in there.
MA: Yes, the natural ingredients in the large brands are all for the marketing story. There’s no story without naturals.
Spectrum of Fragrance
AP: do you ever feel limited by exclusively using naturals—either because of sustainability issues or artistically, or are those good limitations?
MA: Well, no, I don’t feel limited at all. There was a very well-known and highly regarded perfumer who would always say to me, “Well, Mandy, are you still only working with naturals?” I’d say yes, and he said, “Don’t you feel limited? Isn’t it frustrating?”
No, not at all. First, I use natural isolates—
AP: could you explain what an isolate is?
MA: They make synthetic isolates and natural isolates. And it was the discovery of how to do isolates that led to the discovery of how to make synthetics—I think that was all the way back in the 1860’s when that began.
For natural isolates, they pull out one molecule from, say, an essential oil. So if they have tonka bean, they can isolate coumarin , so you can just have the coumarin—like pulling out the yolk from an egg. So, once they could isolate, they learned to make it synthetically. And when you buy them, you can buy them naturally or synthetically. You can buy vanillin that’s synthetic, or you can buy it from wood, or from cloves, which is what I buy it from. And when you buy natural isolates, they’re slightly contaminated, because they don’t get them out totally purely, which, to me, makes them infinitely more interesting. So when I use isolates, I’ve usually sourced a lot of different versions of them to get the one I like the best. I only buy naturals and they’re more expensive. Isolates allow for a certain kind of sheerness because they’re less complicated.
Besides isolates, I use essential oils, CO2 extractions, absolutes, concretes… There’s such a wide range of natural materials to use—and they’re all slightly different. For example, lavender. Lavender concrete is very thick, pasty and it smells a lot like soap (in shorthand). Lavender absolute is a middle note, it’s a beautiful turquoise color, and smells much more floral, like the flowers on a lavender Bush. And lavender essential oil, which is a top note, is very camphorous, a little bit medicinal. That’s the One people are most familiar with. So when I’m working, I have a choice of putting lavender in the top, the middle, or the base, and which smell. So I could never make it through all the stuff I have!
I don’t have a boss, I choose to remain very small, and I spend a lot of time sourcing materials. A lot of small perfume companies buy from me because they like what I buy.
AP: I think it’s an interesting concept to think about the difference between the dominant isolate and the original source material—lavender, for example, would it be linalool?
MA: Linalool and linalyl acetate—it shares those with bergamot, but lavender doesn’t smell the same.
AP: And that’s the interesting part, right? That the natural materials come with all these different chemical constituents, and so I think that a lot of the perfumers that are trained in standard practices—more chemistry-driven methods—don’t like all that extra stuff, because it can muddy the formula.
MA: Yeah, it is difficult to work with all naturals. It’s more complicated, and to me infinitely more interesting. But yes, it’s different. Some of the protocols that I put together for teaching, come from really looking at it as an art form. How to find your way through it to make something really beautiful how to understand structure and balance and how the materials work with one another. And how to edit your work—like you would in any other art form—it’s not just putting a lot of beautiful essences into a beaker together.
AP: Can you tell us a day in the life of a natural perfumer?
MA: Oh God! Well, every day is so different. It depends on if I have a project—right now I have two: One, I’m not allowed to talk about, Because I have an NDA about, and another is I’m working with a fantastic chocolate-maker. We’re making a flavored bar. He just sent me the bar that we both love, and I love chocolate, so that’s like, right up my street!
You know, I stay very deliberately small—I don’t want to be big. I like doing everything myself, so my business is, myself and my husband Foster and my son Devon. And we run the museum, we do everything here. I write notes to everyone who shops with me. I pack the packages. I spend a lot of time sourcing materials, we seem to constantly run out of things and It’s not clear whether I can get the same stuff.
And I upgrade a lot—things that I think, “Oh, this could be better”—which is how you know I don’t have a boss. We spend a lot of time and money trying to make something better than it was before. I redid my face elixirs—first the packaging and then the elixirs themselves last year. It took me six months to kind of fit together the different carrier oils that I thought would be an improvement. I’ve made face oils for 30 years—way before they were popular—and I’m always improving them, because a lot of materials, you can get better and better ones now. they’re just incredible what’s out there now.
And right now I’m doing a book about the museum—the museum has been a joy. So we’re all out there every Saturday meeting everyone we’ve met thousands of people.
AP: Yes, please tell us about the museum!
MA: That took us three years—a real labor of love. Everything I’ve done, I’ve just followed what I’ve been interested in. I’ve never had a plan, I have had no plan about any of this.
I have this museum and it’s in a studio, a converted garage. We worked on it for three years. First, I have this incredible collection of stuff—just the most amazing stuff about essences. I think probably the best collection in the world—of old postcards, old books, hundred-year-old oils, and then all the materials I source for my perfume (there’s a full organ out there). I wanted people to learn about the materials and the history without being marketed to.
I wanted them to have the experience I have every day.
I thought it was kind of a nutty idea actually, but I was concerned that I collected so much stuff that it would go into commerce. We started to go to some small museums. I don’t like anything very big anyway and I loved how personal They were. And I just thought, “I think I can do this.”
And so, we all—the three of us and a friend who had built my perfume studio—set out to figure out how to do it. Honestly, I think the most common sentence that came out of my mouth was, “People go to school for this, like, we do not know what we are doing out here!”
And we did some things wrong: we built the organ wrong, we built the shelves wrong, we had to redo them. But I did it like I would have liked it. I did it in a way that I could share the world that I had stumbled into with people, and they would come out and go, “Oh wow, this is really special stuff.”
I had been collecting for thirty years. If somebody had something I would buy it. Then people started bringing me stuff. I would always take it out and show it to people, and I kind of thought they looked interested. then I thought for me, it’d be great ’cause I wouldn’t have to take it out anymore.
I think this is another thing that went on a lot between us, which was: “Oh my God, guess what? It’s all still there! We don’t have to get it out. We don’t have to put it away. We don’t have to do anything, it’s there!”
We just built it in this quirky way and have a lot of interaction. We have two old cabinets—one’s an old apothecary cabinet and the other’s an old watchmaker’s cabinet, with drawers. We have the botanical raw materials there where people can touch them and smell them and pick them up. We have frankincense resin, patchouli leaves and costus root… Then everything that’s in those cupboards is on the organ. So if they like the smell in the plant form, they can get the really concentrated essence and smell that. People are very fascinated by that.
And then I have a very low-tech way to allow people to smell things, but not have any smell in the atmosphere, which is something I find oppressive—like the perfume counter at Macy’s. All the bottles have tags on them that say, “Smell me.” And so you lift the top of the bottle—the odor is in the bottle, so you choose to engage with it.
I have an exhibit that’s the major Rose isolates and Rose absolutes. You can see the different pieces of rows. I have a naturals and synthetics, with vanilla jasmine and rose. I have hundred-year-old oils compared to modern oils. I have a perfume of mine completely deconstructed—all the notes that went in and the chords. There’s a lot of kind of educational stuff out there that people can engage with in their own way. There’s no order to it, so you can go in any order you choose.
AP: And you have a cabinet of curiosities too, I understand?
MA: We do have a cabinet with some wild and interesting stuff in it, including two very beautiful hand-written formula books, the original Book of Secrets By Alessio Piemontese, from 1595. There’s a case made by Jony Ive for Apple—I did a class at Apple for the design team and they made a case. There’s some modern things, but mostly old. There are perfume buttons. There’s just all kinds of things that I had collected that I thought were just beautiful.
AP: Do you have a recent favorite acquisition?
MA: There’s not much for me to acquire which makes me incredibly sad. I feel like, “Please bring me something new—I have sooo much!”
I think the most exciting thing, which I acquired quite a long time ago, was from a Paris attic, I acquired this collection from Rimmel Perfumes, from 100 years ago—someone’s relative worked there. The bottles are tiny. Devon, my son, and I cleaned them with toothpicks and Q-tips and lovingly got them into this little case where you can see them. Some of them are written in fountain pen and some of them are old companies I know of many have the oil still in them. They’re just tiny and beautiful. And I have a 100-year-old ambergris—I have a little cathedral to ambergris out there with little pieces that people can see.
I’d say at least half of my visitors are re-visitors. A lot of people come, and they come again—bring somebody else with them. It’s like a big family. it’s the most extraordinary—I’m shy—it’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever done in terms of how much I love it.
AP: Oh, I can’t wait to visit—we’ll be there in December! [we will certainly report on that experience!]
MA: And it’s so great at Christmas time! It allows me to make a personal connection. If I’m not teaching, I go out and say hello to everyone and answer questions—so many interesting questions—and I go and thank people for coming. It’s a wonderful community, and I feel in that way, I can really—like with my books—spread the ideas that have meant so much to me.
AP: Speaking of your books—on perfume as well as flavor—you tend to include recipes, but you also seem to push for readers to use their own creativity. What do you think is the relationship between formulas and recipes and originality?
MA: Oh, it’s a very… A very interesting question. I think recipes are a starting point. And certainly, in my book with Daniel Patterson, The Art of Flavor, we were trying to teach people not to use recipes. And so Daniel came up with this incredibly interesting “four rules for creating flavor.” But a lot of what is in that book is how I create fragrance. We both do it the same way. He does it in flavor, I do it in fragrance. I didn’t come up with those four rules, but they’re entirely applicable to making perfumes.
So I use the rules when I teach now. It’s, in a certain way, kind of obvious, but I’d never thought of it. And so his four rules are: if you have things that are close together, you need a contrast—let’s say, two essences—you need a contrast; if you have two essences that are far apart, you need a bridge; if you have stuff that’s light—very top-notey, light and bright—you need to ground it with something underneath; if you have stuff that’s very base-heavy, heavy in terms of flavor or fragrance, you need to lift it with some light things like say spearmint with vetiver.
I see the recipes in the book as beginner recipes. It’s a place to start and learn principles, but I’m hoping people will go on from there. So the recipes in the book were always built around kind of being crowd-pleasers, you know, less quirky, things you could find, things that would be easy for people. And then going on and kind of finding your own way with your own aesthetic after that, which I think people did do.
There’s a wheel in The Art of Flavor, an urban spice wheel. And it’s part of how I teach perfume too. That long history of the history of flavor is very connected to the history of fragrance. That wheel is all about how essences or materials that are close to each other are different from each other. Like if you were making a perfume, or a dish, why would you pick allspice? Why not cinnamon? Why not clove? And that’s where the magic is, I think, in artisanal perfumery—choosing that exact right essence with the exact right fragrance facets—or flavor facets, that fit together with other pieces.
AP: And how did your collaboration with Daniel Patterson begin?
MA: My studio and my Museum are directly behind the restaurant Chez Panisse. I’ve been here for 40 years, and I have kind of one foot in the food world. I know those people quite well.
There was a woman there, Eleanor Bertino, who had been Alice Waters’ roommate in college, and when I went on the book tour for Essence and alchemy many, many, many years ago. I noticed people said to me frequently, “I’m wearing all-natural perfume”—Jo Malone or Chanel—which aren’t natural. Or, they said to me, “I hate perfume,” but they would come to hear me speak. And I thought, “I really need to work on this. I need to get together with people who care about ingredients, so I can educate people about the incredible world of natural essences.”
And so I asked Elinor if she knew of any chef that I could connect with that might be interested in what I was doing. And she only mentioned Daniel, who had a very lovely restaurant in San Francisco [Elisabeth Daniel]. I went there and met with him, and I brought the oils with me, and he loved them. We connected right away. At that point I hadn’t been aware You could use them for flavor.
I mean, that happened during the book aroma, which we wrote a long time ago—I’m looking at it right now—it was in 2004, so it’s 15 years ago. We worked on it for quite a while.
We picked 24 ingredients. I did a body care or personal care or perfume or bath salts with that ingredient, and Daniel did three food recipes. And we talked about its aroma and its flavor. That was when Daniel got into using essential oils for flavor, and so did I.
Quite a while after that, I launched my Chef’s Essences. People were always asking me for stuff—mixologists and restauranteurs and coffee makers and chocolate makers and ice cream makers… And so very slowly, like everything else, I began to get some essential oils for flavor—not putting it on your tongue—but using it for baking and cooking.
AP: Oh yes, aromatherapy gets a little bit of a bad rap these days—essential oils are so ubiquitous. But I think it’s useful to remember that essential oils were what flavored our candies and sodas a hundred years ago. And it was like almost as soon as the soda shop came into being that things began to be synthesized and so, for example, colas went from being flavored with essential oils of spices and citrus to being flavored with “natural and artificial flavors.”
MA: Again, everything I do is on the smaller scale. And so my Chef’s Essence—oils and sprays—are more for home cooks, or restaurants—many use our stuff in their desserts. But you need an absolute miniscule amount to get these amazing flavors.
I remember I taught a class once at the French Laundry, which is a restaurant here in the Bay Area, in Napa. Very fancy restaurant, and we did a flavor, which was wonderful, with black pepper essential oil and vanilla. You could not get that flavor except with essential oil because the molecules that provide so much heat, don’t make it through distillation, so black pepper essential oil is not hot—no heat at all. So when you add it to something, you get the full flavor and aroma profile, without the dust the heat the dryness—you can just pull all that out and put it with something like vanilla, which if you wanted to get that much of the black pepper aroma and taste, it would be too hot.
AP: So what’s on the horizon for all things Mandy Aftel?
MA: I’m very excited to do this book about the museum and I’m deep into that now and I’m hoping maybe I could include scratch and sniff—God only knows how I’m gonna do that! I would like to replicate the experience—or give an experience as meaningful as—coming to the museum if you don’t come, or even if you do. So I would like some interaction with natural essences in the book. I’m trying to, but I’m not that far yet.
And then after that, I kind of wanna write a book about the history and the practice of making natural perfume, which really has not been for me adequately explored, and the history of perfume-making in general—how it got where it is now, which you can trace through the books. You can see, for example, in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when people were working with both naturals and synthetics, they were really smart, passionate people. Their palate was different than mine, but their dedication and interest and nuanced attention was amazing and there’s so much to learn from their love of what they were doing. Then, as time marches on, it’s so much about marketing and money, and there’s just a ton written about money, period. You know, in the past they’d say, use this special version of this isolate for fine fragrance but use this one for laundry. Now the laundry one is in fine fragrance.
AP: Oh my! That was sort of my wrapping-up question, but you brought up something that I think is so interesting and that a lot of consumers don’t know about, which is that the same big flavor and fragrance houses make everything from flavors for chewing gum to scents for laundry detergents to fine fragrance—obviously different people specialize, but they are all the same big four or five international houses that dominate and control so much, so I wonder how this field got so rarified that only a handful of chemists in a lab somewhere are doing it.
MA: Well, but there’s such a huge artisanal and indie movement. When I started, there was only me. And I’ve taught a lot of people and people have read my books and there’s other people out there now and consumers are more knowledgeable…
I’m very optimistic. Seeing people every week in the museum and seeing them really turn on to quality materials. There’s been so much about money and the bottom line, and the consumer I think is learning and is interested in and knows about this stuff from food and cooking and gardening and I think it’s an optimistic time for all kinds of quality practices to come forward. I think it’s just exciting—maybe not for those on high (the big flavor and fragrance houses that control so much), but for little people, like me, it’s very exciting.