Mandy Aftel: A world master of artisan perfume

Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Mandy Aftel in her Berkeley garden. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Mandy Aftel’s love of perfume is all-encompassing.

This verve is apparent in her immaculate collection of 19th-century books on perfumery that fill the nooks of her workspace in North Berkeley. Or, in the way she tends to her rose garden — plants carefully chosen and imported from Turkey — the petals smelling of winter tangerines, or the most delicate tea. Still, even, in how she slowly, gently uncorks a 100-year-old bottle of vanilla for me to inhale, its notes hauntingly deep, smoky, and complex. There is not a bone in her body that isn’t absolutely enthralled with what she does. This is what makes her so special.

Aftel — now edging into her late 60s — wasn’t always a perfumer. In fact, this career sort of happened by accident. After spending thirty years as a psychotherapist and a writer, Aftel decided she wanted to write a novel about a perfumer, of all things, and signed up for an aromatherapy class to understand a little about the art. What she thought would be a brief educational foray soon became her new favorite thing to do.

“I tend to follow in an artistic way what is deeply meaningful and attractive to me. I fell down a rabbit hole and I haven’t been able to leave,” she says, giving her voluminous ruby-colored hair a tousle. We sit in her perfumery, watching as peachy light seeps in through the windows and dances off her collection of antique perfume bottles that line the sill. “It all seemed familiar to me, like I just could find my way with the materials. It just made sense.”


Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
A bouquet of Aftel’s Turkish roses. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

After several years of figuring out how exactly this love affair could earn her a living, she created Aftelier Perfumes. Already with some street cred and with the help of her sidekick and husband, Foster, the business has grown into a full-time gig making people around the world smell great. It has also earned her significant fame. The New York Times magazine recently anointed her “The World’s Most Dedicated Natural Perfumer.” Another Times article said Aftel “could be considered the scent world’s ­Alice Waters, borrowing customs from the French in that effortless yet mindful California way.”

“I couldn’t get any bigger and do it the way I do it. And I really like it this way. I don’t want to expand,” says Aftel. “I like bringing something beautiful into someone’s life.”

It is with this tender care that she makes, packages, and sends off her liquid fragrances, edible sprays and teas, and solid perfumes that can be purchased in one-of-a-kind silver containers, engraved with things like artichokes and fern leaves.

“I spend an unholy amount of time looking for them,” she admits with a laugh.

Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Small Aftelier perfume bottles. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Silver containers for solid perfumes. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Antique perfume bottles. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

While her products are exclusively sold online, she does open up her home for one weekend each December so visitors can catch a glimpse of where the magic happens and, occasionally, get custom scents made for them. This involves a lengthy process of discovering which scents the wearer is most drawn to and figuring out how they can be expressed perfectly together.

“Even if I don’t ask them anything about their lives, usually the scent gives them so many memories that they end up talking about everything,” says Aftel, searching through her perfume organ for essences she thinks I might enjoy. “I like listening to people’s stories and helping them.”

The perfume organ is special shelf that divides the essences into top, middle, and base notes. The top notes tend to be crisper scents, lighter in color. Citruses and garden herbs, like tarragon or spearmint, make frequent appearances. In a well-executed perfume, these ones hit the nose immediately but mellow out fast, making way for heavier, longer-lasting notes. Middle notes from flowers and spices will then assume their position. Then, the base notes make their grand entrance––the most exotic deep fragrances culled from roots, barks, and resins. These are the items that have often captured religious curiosity––tucked into mummies or spoken of with revered words in the Bible.

Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Aftel’s perfume organ. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Base note essences. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
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Aftel’s collection of books on natural perfume. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Aftel brings forward a few base notes for me to try. I take a deep inhale of ambergris, a wildly expensive product excreted from a sperm whale. The fragrance is, to my pleasant surprise, immensely more soft and elegant on the nose than I expected. Then I try oud, a sap harvested from the agarwood tree after it’s been infected with a special type of fungus. This one is musky, leathery, and so alluring. I feel, somehow, primally connected to those in the past who have also been enchanted by these unadulterated, earthly smells.

She then presents me with one of her signature fragrances, called Wild Roses. It’s her rendition of the feeling of working in the garden: hands playing in the soil, the presence of leaves, fruit, and blossoms licked with sunshine. It truly smells just like that, in the best way, and I gratefully rub a dash of it on my wrist.

Mandy Aftel. 6/27/16 Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Roses in Aftel’s garden. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Surprisingly, artisan perfume is a newer phenomenon. Sure, it had it’s fame in elite circles, but after synthetics were invented in the late 19th Century, natural perfumes really weren’t a craft people thought much of. Synthetics grew in use because they unwrapped all kinds of possibilities––the scent lasted longer, and they could create fragrances unattainable in the natural world. Aftel, however, appreciates the growing trend of artisan perfumes. Not only can synthetic perfume be somewhat assaulting to those in proximity to the wearer––“It’s like a tattoo!” she exclaims––but natural perfume pairs well with each body’s individual odor, creating an entirely distinct scent depending on the wearer. It’s more gentle, special, and personalized.

With a particular inclination towards lengthy research, and a desire to reveal the true delights that natural essences can bring, Aftel wrote several books on fragrance, including a co-authored volume on food and fragrance called Aroma, and Fragrant, an investigation of five deeply storied ingredients in the world of influential smells.

“Everything I do is built from how much I love the materials,” says Aftel at the end of our conversation, the window light beginning to shift away. “The history of us as a species––our materials around the world, the different cultures––I find them like a magic carpet.”

As I walk down the street away from Aftel’s home, still basking in the ethereal realm of her happy place, I bring my wrist to my nose and revel in the last fleeting moments of wild roses on my skin.

This is the sixth article in our series on expert craftspeople in Berkeley, written and photographed by Melati Citrawireja, a 2016 UC Berkeley graduate and former Berkeleyside intern. Don’t miss her stories on textile designer Amy KeeferSt. Hieronymus Press, the workspace of David Lance Goines; Klaus-Ullrich Rötzscher and the Pettingell Book Binderycoppersmith Audel Davis; and ethnobotanist and natural fabric dyer Deepa Natarajan.

More of Citrawireja’s work can be found online at Melati Photography.

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