Just a couple of hours after landing in SFO, I headed to Berkeley, for my long-awaited visit with world renown natural perfumer and writer Mandy Aftel. Peaking through the thoroughly-shingled house, a window offers a glimpse into the world that awaits within: several rows of antique and vintage perfume bottles, beakers and flasks. I knocked with a copper door-knocker shaped like knocking wrist, and Foster, Mandy’s husband, greeted me with a smile. Moments later, Mandy joined him welcoming me with a big warm hug.
Mandy gave me the tour of her lovely home studio, which upon entry had a distinct smell of raw natural aromatics, although not in the least overpowering and my nose got used to it very quickly. I browsed through her beautiful flacons to smell her newest creations – Honey Blossom
, which was nominated for FiFi, and smells primarily of linden blossom CO2; and Candide
, which is a voluptuous jasmine possessing both depth and light, partly I think because of the beautiful frankincense and the highlights of the natural isolate benzyl acetate (which is a very sheer, bright ester that is present in most white florals – i.e.: gardenia, jasmine, ylang ylang, narcissus, hyacinth, etc.), and even got a whiff of Haute Claire
- the new perfume she created during her correspondence with perfumer Liz Zorn
on Nathan Branch's blog
, based on a contrasting accord of galbanum and ylang ylang.
Mandy has generously let me feast my olfactory bulb on her fascinating perfumer’s organ, featuring not only unusual and at times quirky aromatics (sarsaparilla absolute
, for instance) and isolates; but also most rare, vintage oils of years past – patchouli, and twin glass bottles of vintage ambergris tincture and ambreine (an isolate) that came encased in an antique leather box.
I also smelled other rare treasures, such as her tiare absolute, blue lotus absolute (the prettiest I’ve ever smelled!) and the foody sarsaparilla (yum!), and even a rare tincture of musk deer’s pods (without the grains inside, which were scraped away before the pod found its way to Mandy’s studio). The musk tincture did not smell remotely as I imagined it would be – it was more green than animalic to my nose, almost like angelica. I personally prefer ambrette seed so much better, but than I have never blended with musk and it is likely to have an unusual effect beyond how it smells on its own, similarly to how ambergris behaves, which is why animal essences have been in such demand for centuries, and why there is still so much controversy around them. Thankfully, there are alternatives available to today’s perfumers that are sustainable as well as cruelty free and reach similar effects. Perfumers today are using African stone tincture instead of civet and castoreum; ambrette seed instead of musk; and beach harvested ambergris, which does not harm any whales in the process – and of course, mass scale perfumery would use the synthetic alternatives.
We both share a passion for tea, so I was very excited when Mandy brewed a pot of her Frankincense GABA oolong tea
. Mandy’s technique of scenting her teas is very different than mine – technically they are “aromatized” with the essences she chooses and blends carefully (where as mine are blends of teas that were often perfumed with flowers, in conjunction with freshly dried herbs, spices, fruit, etc.). I was pleasantly surprised at the delicate, subtle complexity of these scented teas. They were so beautiful and balanced. I smelled all four from their tins (linden blossom, and the jasmine & mint were both beautiful but there was only time for so many teas in one afternoon!). We started with the Frankincense GABA tea – an oolong rich with antioxidants and scented with a tincture Mandy prepared herself of an unusual specimen of frankincense that has a very smooth note. It opened feeling quite citrusy, like a light Earl Gray or Orange Pekoe tea, and the woody notes only peaked out later on as she kept re-steeping the tea. To my delight, when we were done sipping this delicate brew, she prepared her beautiful Ginger & Turkish Rose Tea
(also oolong tea), a combination that sounded strange to me when I first saw it, but smelled so delicate in the dry leaf, and just sublime when steeped. Mandy certainly has a knack for surprising scent combinations, and being able to reach a stunning balance with notes that wouldn’t normally pair too easily together.Isolates
seem to be a newly found obsession among natural perfumers, as they open many possibilities with their single-molecule purity – a quality that is so different from the complex essences we work with, often containing dozens if not hundreds of different molecules. It was not difficult to fall in love with some of the isolates Mandy picked for he palate – Benzyl acetate (jasminey), Octanol-3 (rubbery and a little like black truffle), Alpha Ionone (woody sweet candied violets), Methyl Methyl Anthranilate (grapey wintergreen), and anisaldehyde (like heliotropin with hints of licorice and green notes). I bought a few interesting isolates and oils at the end of the visit, and also Mandy generously gifted me with the very last bottle of her Petitgrain Citron, which she describes as possessing the scent of Meyer lemon blossoms!
Time flies when having fun, and sooner than I hoped the visit had to come to an end – after all, I couldn’t be late for the party Yosh Han organized for me… About which I will tell you in the next post, tomorrow!
Leave a comment with your favourite Aftelier perfume or product, and enter to win a miniature of Aftelier's Cassis parfum.
UPDATE: The winner of our giveaway is Lavanya. Congratulations! Hope you enjoy the Cassis :-)Note: All the photos are courtesy of Mandy Aftel and copyrighted to Aftelier.
P.s. The visit was on June 29th.