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Person to Know: A Historian and Archivist of Scent

By Joie Goh

Instead of a laboratory, Mandy Aftel creates all her blend at her
 
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Instead of a laboratory, Mandy Aftel creates all her blend at her

“Creating fragrance is an art, not a science,” Mandy Aftel tells me via email correspondence. “Like creating anything else with beautiful materials, it is utterly original and shows the hand of the artist who made it. It is the embodiment of the sensibility, aesthetics and skill of the perfumer.” 

At 70 years old, Aftel is a wholly self-taught “nose”. Unlike formally trained noses, whose education include studying organic chemistry and apprenticeships and stints in Grasse, France or laboratories in New York and New Jersey, Aftel’s education comes from researching historic tomes and rare manuscripts about perfumes and their creation. She considers herself a historian and archivist of scent, adding that she preserves “both the old documents and paraphernalia involving scent, and the actual scents themselves”. 

Going into the business of smells was unexpected. Detroit-born and a graduate of psychology and English from the University of Michigan, Aftel began her career as a psychotherapist in Berkeley, California. She is also an author whose oeuvre also includes a biography of Rolling Stones founder and former leader Brian Jones (the 1982 book “Death of a Rolling Stone”).

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It was in the pursuit of writing a novel that her interest in scents was piqued. In a 2016 interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Aftel told interviewer Alice Gregory that she decided to make the protagonist of the novel a perfumer because she thought it “sounded sexy and interesting”. Her literary decision led her to research scents, collect obscure books about the subject and even take a course in making solid perfumes. 

Ultimately, what came out of that adventure was her 2001 book, “Essence and Alchemy: a Book of Perfume”, an award-winning dissertation on the history and creation of perfumes, which has since been translated into seven languages. She followed that up with “Scents and Sensibilities” in 2005, a chronicle of solid perfumes, and “Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent” in 2014, which looks at several key perfumery ingredients in greater detail. 

On the olfactory side, Aftel’s deep academic knowledge of scents has manifested as Aftelier, her own line of exquisite, handcrafted perfumes that are only available online. It is achingly authentic: each of its 22 blends is made entirely of natural ingredients, where some are the world’s oldest luxuries, including the extremely expensive (oud and Tasmanian Boronia) and the legendarily rare (ambergris, of tenuous legal status), which are available either as pure liquid perfume, solid perfume or eau de parfum. A tiny 8-millilitre glass bottle of liquid perfume ranges from US$185 to US$400 (approx. S$247 to S$534), while a small silver compact of solid perfume fetches between US$240 and US$450 — prices far in excess of most mainstream fragrances.

Foster CurrySolid perfumes can be packaged in antique cases that Aftel personally sources.
Solid perfumes can be packaged in antique cases that Aftel personally sources.

Aftel is famously militant against the use of synthetic ingredients. Synthesised fragrance molecules dates back to the late 19th century, and without the science of fragrance chemistry, we would never have had the chance to wear the scent of certain flowers like peonies and sweet pea. Dubbed “mute flowers” by perfumers, they do not produce enough oil for scent extraction, so any contemporary commercial fragrances that contain their notes (scent) are actually used as a synthetic reproduction of their smells. 

Synthetics also ensure consistency across batches, since the scent of natural ingredients can vary depending on the conditions in which they have been grown in or harvested, as well as guarantee greater sillage (the trail of a scent) that lasts longer. Natural essences, on the other hand, typically lasts only two to three hours before fading. Their ephemeral nature thus makes Aftel’s blends truly luxurious and decadent, as well as exclusive: once a batch of raw ingredient is depleted, the blend is discontinued, and will only be available as custom orders. 

“I’m just not interested in mass-produced fragrances,” Aftel declares. “Since perfume is not a necessity — it is not essential to life like air and food and water and shelter — it seems to me that it should be created from beautiful essences, and give the customer an experience of beauty that is meaningful to them in their life, and that can only be done with the best materials and best craftsmanship.”

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Since Aftel is not only a craftsman of fragrance, but also one of words, every one of her blends are accompanied by a self-penned vignette of her creative intentions. “Each of my perfumes captures a feeling or mood about life,” she explains. “If I were a painter, I would paint a picture, but since I’m a perfumer, my medium is scent. Each perfume I create is a message in a bottle between myself and the person who wears it.” 

Drawing into her bookish knowledge also informs her creative direction. “I find that knowing as much as I do about the essences, their roles in our lives as humans across the globe and across time, as well as the magnificence of the aromas of the natural materials, inspires me to create perfume,” Aftel says. “There is an inexhaustible beauty and deep inspiration from using materials that are so richly intertwined with our history as a species.” 

Aftel’s expertise doesn’t end at wearable fragrances. In 2004, she co-authored “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance” with Daniel Patterson, chef and owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Coi, a cookbook that closely studies the link between food and fragrance. On her website, chef’s essences are available for retail and are also supplied to restaurants. These, she says, can be used to replace spices with short shelf lives, and also deliver cleaner, truer flavours.

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“The essential oils from herbs and spices can be used to create flavour as well as fragrance,” Aftel says. For example, she adds, pressing a fingernail into an orange peel will release aromatic oils. “When you’re creating a flavour with beautiful ingredients, you are using your sense of smell the whole time: beginning with buying the ingredients, smelling them as you prepare and add them to your cooking, smelling the dish as it comes together, and smelling at the end when you are eating your meal.” 

Still, wearable perfumes remain Aftel’s true passion, even though she isn’t exactly reverent. She is ever aware of its inessential quality and mentions it often, once even referring to perfume as “not a cure for cancer”. However, she doesn’t deny the metaphysical connection that humans have to fragrances. 

“Perfume is a wordless experience of beauty and pleasure,” Aftel notes poetically. “Beauty is always restorative and makes you feel happier. This experience of fragrance both connects you to your deeper self, and takes you away to a wonderful place.”