Beginning with Mandy Aftel

Mandy Aftel's Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

I suppose I have to begin somewhere, right? The world of fragrance is like a forest – it’s easy to get lost. When wandering, it’s best to have a guide. When I first starting smelling all the smells (sniffing all the sniffs?) I read Luca Turin’s and Tanya Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide and sniffed along with the help of samples from Luckyscent, The Perfumed Court, and Surrender to Chance. I didn’t agree with everything that Turin and Sanchez said, and yet – by using their ideas as a North Star, I was able to begin sampling dozens, then hundreds of perfumes (yes, really, hundreds – the sampling habit became rather addictive! not that I’m sorry…), and as I followed along I understood more of what I was encountering.

Similarly, now that I’m dabbling in the world of DIY fragrance, I have to put my toe in the water somewhere, so it might as well be with Mandy Aftel. Aftel is a bit like the Alice Waters of natural perfumery – she takes French ideas, peels them back to their simplest and most essential forms, and make them accessible, natural, Californian, and relaxed. I’d had Essence & Alchemy on my shelf for ages, and never quite made time to read it – and then, when the urge to mix my own scents suddenly hit – I devoured it in a few days, then moved on to Fragrant.

So, I’ll be taking Mandy as my Beatrice, my first guide on what is likely to be a long and circuitous tour. Both books are a pleasure to read – modeled, I’m guessing, after some of the wonderfully hodge-podge alchemical texts Aftel has in her collection. There’s a lot of lore, history, and delicious information – sprinkled here and there with recipes, some old, and some Aftel’s. Fragrant in particular, structured as it is around cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine, lends itself to being a beginner’s cookbook of natural perfumery. For each essence, there is a recipe for a solid, oil, and alcohol-based perfume – so that it’s really possible to explore the nuances of each scent and how it morphs in different carrier media.

I’ll take these as a guide for conducting some of my first experiments…and we’ll see where things go from there.


How to Smell


  • the layers of a smell (one-dimensional or complex and layered)
  • the shape of a smell (pointed, sharp, rounded, dull)
  • the memories it conjures
  • the feelings it arouses

Ask yourself: If this fragrance were a color, what would it be? Allow the smell to open itself to you, and discover whatever about it is most beautiful, most remarkable to you.”  – Mandy Aftel, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

190 Proof!

190 Proof!Every journey has to begin somewhere, and it may take to you funny places. Today I found myself, a suburban mother of two, in Tony’s Liquors asking for a bottle of Everclear.

I immediately blushed, explained that it was for perfume, and then told a long rambling story about how I hadn’t thought about PGA since the ’90s when we used it for Hunch Punch. Then I was embarrassed I’d said THAT, babbled some more, blushed more, and ran out while the cashier and owner chuckled.

Outside, a panhandler hit me up for $1 (still discombobulated, I gave him everything in my back pocket) and asked what I was drinking. “I’m not drinking it, it’s for perfume!” I waggled my bottle at him and smiled as I hopped in the car, worried he’d ask for some. But instead he asked, “Cool, is that what you do?”  I paused. “Yes. I mean, it’s just a hobby.”  He smiled.

I guess this is what I do? Cheers y’all. So begin the adventures.