Artisan perfumer Mandy Aftel is a fragrance tour guide, guiding you on a scent journey through history, filled with cultural touchstones and alchemy. The backdrop to the aromatic adventure is what Mandy calls the five “landmark scents” from around the world: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris and jasmine.
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent is Mandy’s exploration into a world of mystery, power, medicinal practices and the pure pleasure of perfume. The author, who is also the creative force behind Aftelier Perfumes writes, “Lands have been discovered and conquered for the sake of perfumed materials.” According to Mandy, mankind has a common desire for the exotic, the familiar, transcendence, the curious and beauty. As she writes, “Scent is a portal to these basic human appetites.”
I spent time with Mandy one recent afternoon at her Arts & Crafts home in Berkeley, California that serves as her perfume atelier. She embodies the eclectic, bohemian spirit you’d expect to find here. “I love love research,” she exclaims. “I’m a maniac in the research department.” That is evident in Fragrant, which is full of quotes on the power of perfume or the role it has played in society over the eons. There are historical drawings she’s found, showing the art of perfumery going back to the earliest of civilizations.
Talking to Mandy, her passion for all things fragrant just exudes from her. She speaks with such enthusiasm and energy. “Have you ever smelled real ambergris? Oh you just have to smell this!” When she talks, it is as if there is so much in her head she wants to tell you that she can’t get it out fast enough.
On this day Mandy’s excited because she just received the final version of the book, and she loves how the book’s jacket turned out, which is rich and textured. It’s done in purple ink (her favorite color) on a red background, inspired by an engraving from 1575 of harvesting cinnamon bark from a tree on the Moluccan Islands in Indonesia.
In Fragrant, you get the sense, so to speak, that the old world was a much more fragrant place than our modern world. Mandy says in many ways we’ve lost our sense of smell, thanks to industrialization and being more in tune to our others senses of sight, sound and feel. True, the world wasn’t always a great smelling place, and perfume was definitely used to mask foul odors. But for centuries, fragrances were prized not only for their aromas, but also for their uses in medicinal cures, as flavorings and for sheer indulgence.
It is fascinating to look at cinnamon as the “queen of the Spice Route,” commanding high prices, when today, it’s more common now a synthetic aroma and flavor. Mandy writes that cinnamon was a symbol of luxury. A king had a crown covered in cinnamon and gold. Myths about how it was guarded by bats and other creatures sprung up around it.
“Mint is the opposite of cinnamon,” Mandy says.”It is the familiar.” Mint is native to everywhere, but according to Mandy’s research, very American. Mint played a large roll with western pioneers and the peddlers and “weird carney shows” that developed as culture of their own. This fragrant herb is a symbol of hospitality. In the Middle East you are served tea; in the United States we offer gum or mints. Mandy says mint is a reminder of home, “what is a familiar and underfoot.”
“Frankincense is about man’s appetite for spirituality, transcendence,” Mandy says. Burning frankincense replaced the blood in human and animal sacrifice. Ambergris, the sea-cured vomit of the sperm whale, with, believe it or not, an alluring animalic aroma, satisfies man’s hunger for wonder, for the curious. You can only imagine how the first chunks of ambergris floating on the ocean waters was found and how it became such a prized ingredient in perfumery.
Mandy relates the story of how home curiosity cabinets were the precursors to the modern day museums of natural history. “Wealthy people long ago would collect these odd specimens of nature, including stuff that smelled,” she says. Mandy equates this to Pinterest today, where we display an odd collection of things that interest and delight us, with no explanations. We just put it out there to show and share.
Finally, jasmine is all about beauty. “Jasmine grandiflorum,” Mandy writes, “is arguably the world’s most important perfume material.” Jasmine is floral yet has an earthy, almost dirty, fecal underlying character that makes it irresistble. She uses jasmine as a way to talk about “being an artisanal perfumer and the importance and beauty it administers to the soul and how important it is to have beauty in your life.”
“I’m hoping all these ingredients will come alive for people, that they’ll get turned on by knowing the history and the provenance and the special stories,” Mandy says.
Each chapter concludes with food and fragrance recipes, and Mandy encourages readers to explore each of the five fragrances in the book. In fact she created a companion kit of all five aromas, so you can smell them while you read. It’s better than scratch and sniff. She encourages you to add a drop of the mint essence to tea, or using the cinnamon essence to create a homemade “Coca-Cola.” And yes, you’ll actually get to smell real ambergris too, in a liquid form called a tincture.
“For me everything I do is based in my love of materials,” Mandy tells me. “My work is based on my love of materials and how I want to share that with people.”
One way Mandy is sharing that love is through her newest perfume, Palimpsest, which was inspired by her research on Fragrant. She came across books from Italy called books of secrets. “They were an amalgam of magic, scent and sorcery medicine,” she says.
Mandy also took inspiration from a type of manuscript called palimpsest, where older text is erased and written over. Some of the old text is still visible under the new text. “You can see the old writing coming through from the back like on a scroll,” she says. So she layered Palimpsest to create a similar effect, of the base notes of the perfume coming through the top notes seamlessly.
Palimpsest unfolds in a lovely, fresh bouquet of florals. As time goes on, the aroma transforms into something more exotic, warm and heady, thanks to the base of real ambergris.
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Perfume comes out on October 16. Mandy will be doing a series of personal appearances and book signings, which you can find out about here. I’m looking forward to Mandy’s upcoming discussion at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco on November 5th with noted Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson, with whom Mandy co-wrote the book Aroma. She and Daniel love exploring the role of fragrance in flavor. They’re also collaborating on a second book, focusing on aromatic flavors.