What started as research for a fiction book soon turned into a love affair that, like a 21st century scout, would take her across the globe in search of the world’s finest and rarest natural perfumery ingredients.
Mandy Aftel doesn’t say yes to a lot of things, so I was honoured when she agreed to not only be featured in my upcoming book, but to also have an in-depth and delving discussion with me.
Read on to discover fascinating facts about Mandy, the fragrant world she lives in, and why she’s determined to stay independent and niche, in a world filled with conglomerates who, like Moby Dick, are eager to swallow her up.
*Melanie Jane's questions and statements are in pink.
A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH MANDY AFTEL
Is it true that perfumery piqued your interest when you were writing a fiction book with the main character as a perfumer and then you got carried away with the research?
Yes, and I never wrote that book!
When did you realise your natural gift for making perfumes?
I had it right off the bat, which I’m sure sounds odd, but I did. When I researched that book, I took an aromatherapy class with a friend and when I got near the essences, I just completely fell in love, and I felt I could find my way. It wasn’t the stuff I make now, but it made some sense to me that I was very surprised by, and I was so blown away by how beautiful they were.
We launched a perfume line in Neiman Marcus, but it only lasted a while. I was pushed out early on, but it was very clear to me how much I loved the whole thing and from that I realised I didn’t want to do business in that way. I learned a lot about myself and after I lost my business things were difficult. So, slowly, after I wrote Essence and Alchemy, I built up, almost to the letter everything that I do today.
“I feel very connected to my customers.”
Do you personalise each perfume with a little note?
I do always put a note in the package. I feel very connected to my customers and even more during COVID where people wrote notes back to me, really lovely notes about what my work meant to them, and it felt terrific to have my work be so appreciated. It was like a windfall of wonderful stuff; I feel very lucky. The things you get when you become bigger are all very unappealing to me. And also, if you stay small when something changes or I grow or develop, I can make those moves. I don't have to be stuck in something that's not growing with me.
I change things a lot here along the way. I do a lot of work that a boss wouldn’t let me do, because it’s not remunerative.
Have you had offers to buy your company and turn it into something much more commercial?
I’ve had a lot of opportunities to be bought out by huge companies, but I have no interest in that.
Is it because you’d have to compromise too much?
I don’t really want to be bought out; I don’t want any of the things that come with getting bigger. It’s not enticing to me, so it’s not like I’m uncompromising. I’m just not interested.
I don't want to be so big that I couldn't make everything myself or couldn't do my classes the way I do. I like things in a small way; I like it all.
Are you a control freak?
I don't know if I'd exactly call myself that. I'm very detail oriented and I have very intense feelings about what I like and don't like. I don't like a tonne of things, so the things I do like are very important to me. I think every small business is very detail oriented, with their vision driving it, so there has to be that element of control.
“I’ve been lucky to do what I love doing. It makes for a very happy life.”
You speak of being satisfied as a small business and want to stay that way. With your psychology training, do you think we're living in a world where so many people are so dissatisfied with what they do?
Yes, there's no question. I think too many people are unhappy with what they're doing. When I was a psychologist, I’d work with artists and writers who were deeply connected to what they did, and their work was meaningful to them. And that made for me a more interesting life, because they were following what they loved, they had that experience of being in love with what they do, and I thought was great.
You recently said, “There's very little truth in the perfume industry, and luxury is being able to tell the truth." Which you do quite often, even if it ruffles feathers.
I feel that varies; the perfume industry has a very long history of not telling the truth. But the truth in perfumery is a beautiful thing, so there's just no reason to avoid it.
I feel very grateful there's a place for me in it, with my values and the things that I love to do. It's much different now, I started over 30 years ago and when I wrote my first book, Essence and Alchemy, there was nothing like that, and nothing like me out there.
Things have really changed a lot over that period. It was a miracle that book ever came out and had such an effect, because that whole field wasn't there in the world of perfume when I began.
“The perfume industry has a long history of not telling the truth. But the truth in perfumery is a beautiful thing, so there's just no reason to avoid it.”
Do you like teaching or creating, or both equally?
I love teaching; I love making a new perfume; I love writing my books, and I really love my museum. I couldn’t say what I loved the most. I just love it all.
Tell me more about your museum.
We’ve had thousands of visitors; I just love watching people. I go out and say hello to each person and answer their questions; I love sharing that world of natural aromatics, the history and how beautiful everything is.
They are transported by the gorgeousness of the materials and the artefacts. When they come in the door, they do not know what to expect and they’re blown away.
It’s a happy place and we have an incredible perfume organ with hundreds of bottles for people to smell. They get six scent strips to dip in the oils and take them home. Plus, I wrote a guide for them at the organ, so people are very involved in choosing their scents.
“There’s something very familial about spending time here.”
It’s interesting to see people’s reaction when they smell the real deal isn’t it?
Exactly, I have a natural and synthetics exhibit, so without preaching, people can smell natural and synthetic rose, vanilla and jasmine.
That’s the difference between naturals and synthetics. Naturals are such complex structures in themselves
Absolutely, and visitors understand that right away. I see the world opening up for them; they take in as much as they can at first, then come back. At least half our visitors are repeaters. There’s something very familial about spending time here.
“The world doesn’t need another bad perfume!”
Do you feel consumers are not connecting with the ingredients; they’re connecting with a fantastical marketing myth.
I feel marketing is slightly creepy, so I’m glad I can offer a different experience for them to not be marketed to, but to encounter this great beauty. It’s really delightful to be a part of that. So much marketing is just a turnoff for people.
You once said that your perfumes are not for everybody, but you don’t want them to be. I think that’s where many new indie perfumers make mistakes. They want to appeal to the mass and constantly release ill-thought-out perfumes, hoping eventually they’ll please everyone.
The world doesn’t need another bad perfume! There’s enough of them.
I don’t understand why anybody would want to spend their time doing that. I think they have stars in their eyes. It’s just such a pleasure to do something you believe in and build it up gradually. It’s a very different dynamic, and if you can get people to go in that direction, that’s such a more meaningful way for them to spend their time and money.
I think people lose sight of what they’re doing and why. I get approached for advice on how to make a fast buck and I can’t with good conscience encourage that, because there’s no artistry or passion in their intentions.
From my perspective, in the long term, that doesn't seem to work.
It's a lot of smoke and mirrors, but it's great you're in a position to be able to guide people away from that, you can't blame them for thinking that's possible, but other things are possible and that’s one of the reasons I'm eager to talk about my experience, so people have another model for that, they just need to be pushed along the way.
That, and to realise that success isn't an overnight thing.
Yes, nothing good happens overnight and you must enjoy the actual work you're doing.
Does your family help you out?
My husband Foster and I do this together, and our son Devon manages the museum and fills the bottles of the botanicals we sell. I source everything, which takes an ungodly amount of time. I take the lead in terms of figuring out what the next perfume is going to be, or the new book that I'm writing, but I don't make any moves without going over it with both of them.
What's your new book about?
It started to be about the museum, but it's morphed since I started working on it, so it’s also about the materials in there.
I taught myself how to paint, so it'll be an illustrated book about the essential oils and the plants that they come from, and that beautiful world that springs up around them.
I love putting together a book and I've had wonderful experiences from my writing, and I love to learn from the materials.
Do you think your psychology training has helped you to be more inquisitive?
I think I was always like this, and that’s how I became a psychologist.
I like delving deep, I’m an introvert, I enjoy working on my own. I enjoy learning in a deep way, whether it’s about a person or an art practice. Through my work, I gravitated toward things that were right for my soul.
“People CAN create very artful natural perfumes. I’m a living example of it.”
When I started out in 1998, I felt uninspired by the available aromatherapy blends and how they all smelled medicinal. What’s your take on that?
I’m not trained as an aromatherapist, but I feel that much of aromatherapy suffers from not considering the aesthetics of the blending along with the therapeutic aspect of it, and often there is that medicinal aspect to the aroma, which many people may like, but it didn’t appeal to me.
For me, aromatherapy and natural perfume aren’t the same, and synthetic perfume and natural perfume aren’t the same. I feel like they have things in common, but each one has different strengths, weaknesses and aesthetic concerns.
I’m not on a soapbox about naturals or synthetics. I think everybody should do whatever calls to them.
But for me, I loved the naturals and wouldn’t want to work with anything else. I love the complexity and the personality of the natural ingredients. It’s so rich to me and I love working with something that has been used by humans for hundreds of years across the globe. It just feels special in my hands. I feel connected to all of that, not in a way I can put into words, but I can feel it. Plus, I think they’re gorgeous and fascinating.
What do you have to say to people in the industry who state that “It’s impossible to make a good natural perfume?”
I’ve been hearing this for 3o years! I think working exclusively with naturals to make a perfume is harder than working with synthetics. I’ve had people with synthetic perfume lines come take my class and tell me how much harder it is, because essential oils and absolutes have so many facets that hook up with each other. It’s not like working with strands that you can control.
But I can only say, I’ve had a natural perfume line for 25 years and you can make them, I’m making them, and people are buying them. Many other people are making them, and I don’t understand that statement. Maybe that person can’t make them, but certainly people can create very artful natural perfumes because I’m a living example of it, so are my students who have very successful natural perfume lines.
“The naturals are the bedrock of where things started, and it’s a different time we’re in, with the big corporate perfume houses.”
What are your thoughts on IFRA and other regulations severely restricting or banning the use of naturals like oakmoss and rose in perfumery?
Oakmoss is unbelievably beautiful. It’s so rich and has such a transformative effect on other materials.
I wrote an article on it for Fragrantica entitled, ‘The funky smell of over regulation.’
I think that they make it quite impossible for people to work with heritage natural ingredients, and that’s in someone’s interest, you must follow the money.
There’s a very famous book about the world of perfume, mostly about how you can make perfumes for less money.
Some independent perfumers are very deeply on the IFRA bandwagon and are very vocal, so it's complicated, and people’s agendas about it are, once you look more closely, pretty transparent.
It’s all about money. I put that in my last book, having the juice cost a dollar, the packaging cost $4, and then charging $100 for the perfume.
Perfumers in the mid-century who were working primarily with synthetics, loved naturals, it wasn't as bottom line oriented. The perfume world has changed, and they weren't thinking that way then. They were interested in quality, whether they worked with naturals or synthetics. They weren’t just concerned with making as much money as possible and putting out laws to make things as difficult as possible.
When I started, smaller firms were making it possible for little farmers to grow and distil very interesting materials, but now it’s moved in a completely different direction.The naturals are the bedrock of where things started, and it’s a different time we’re in, with the big corporate perfume houses. I think they’re losing customers because they’re tired of being lied to. It’s why independent and artisanal perfume is doing well.
I discuss synthetics in my natural perfumery course because people are interested and want to understand the differences. I'm not hiding anything, and I let them decide which direction they want to take.
Exactly, it increases the palette. It’s a rich landscape when you can work with isolates, CO2s, essential oils and absolutes. Lavender as a concrete, an absolute, and an essential oil. They’re all different things.
What do you love more about Lavender absolute?
The essential oil is more camphorous and pointy.
The absolute smells to me, like the flowers on the stem. It’s round and warm and blends well with other florals. I’m also a complete sucker for the turquoise colour.
You think you know what lavender will smell like, but it says, ‘Hey, there’s a world of unexpected beauty here.’
Can you please tell people, that ambergris is NOT animal cruelty?
Oh, for sure it’s not. It’s animal waste that floats on the ocean and people pick it up on the beach. No one is killing Whales to get that.
There are so few whales that have it, and if they’re in a situation where they’re creating ambergris, they need to get that out of their body, for them to be sustainable. It’s this magical alchemical animal waste, and people have the wrong idea about it.
What rare book or item do you really want to get your hands on for your museum?
I have this incredible herbal book called the Theatrum Botanicum in German, but I would love to have it in English because it’s fascinating and my visitors could dip into it.
“There’s a delirium that I get into when I’m creating.”
In a recent interview you said, “Some days I make an amazing perfume, then when I smell it again the next day it’s absolutely awful,” is this because of the maceration process?
Some of it is the way the materials have hooked up with each other and things change by the next day. But some of it is how I’ve changed too. There’s a delirium that I get into when I’m creating, and then when I’m more clearheaded, I look at it differently. I get things settled, or my intention changes, so it’s a process over time, of me refining what I’m making and really zeroing in on it.
Sometimes in my sleep, I get an idea of something that I should have tried. Part of my creative process is to try absolutely everything, in a very controlled way that is possible in my perfume. I’m a big revisor. Sometimes it’s something as simple as having the right essences in there, but in the wrong proportions, or it needs a counterpoint.
“I’m building an Oudh exhibit with an educational movie and pieces of fantastically beautiful wood. I’m setting up a display in a way that will be meaningful to people.”
“When you start with great ingredients, you have a running head start to make something good.”
Does the sustainability of naturals concern you?
I’m very involved in the sustainability of where I buy and get things from, but I also tend to look at sustainability through a larger lens. It permeates everything that I do, and I do nothing big. I don’t buy things I don’t need.
It’s a whole sensibility about being attached to what I have, like having things that are meaningful and beautiful to me. I really don’t want the rest.
I got my hands on Ylang-Ylang Super Extra direct from the farmers in the Comoros Islands because I have a great relationship with a contact there. What’s your experience with Ylang?
Oh, lucky you! I love ylang-ylang and all the banana facets in there. They’re all so different.
About 25 years ago someone sent me a sample, and I thought it was the best ylang-ylang on the planet. I wanted to buy a kilo, because that’s my max, but when I went back, someone from Morocco had bought the lot!
So, I said “Could you see if they could just let me have one kg?”
This was in the days when you could act like this, and no one thought you were out of your mind. They asked their customer who said, “If you take five kg you can have it.” I said, “I’ll take five.” Which I did, and I still have one left!
Do you think people underestimate the importance of quality materials and good sources in perfume?
Yes, but they do (not underestimate it) about food. If they have a vine grown tomato, that’s a terrific variety at the peak of ripeness, that tomato salad is going to be better.
They don't think that of a perfume, because leaders of the industry are thinking about the bottom line. Most people don't know that, but here we are, we're telling it.
When you start with great ingredients, you have a running head start to make something good, so get good sources.
So many students are afraid of failure. What would you say to beginners who are afraid to try because they want to make a perfect perfume right from the start?
I say in my class all the time, ‘Anybody can make a good perfume…once, but that's not what this is about. The goal of the class is not to make a good perfume, so please let that go. If you make something good, it's a fluke.’
I feel like the onus on people to make something good is wrong. The path to making good things is making bad things. That’s where the learning is. If you’re not making some bad things, you’re not being honest with yourself. I always say too, ‘all your friends are going to tell you it smells good, don’t believe them, it doesn’t smell good.’
“I couldn’t say what I loved the most. I just love it all.”
100 years from now, how do you want to be remembered?
I hope people would remember my museum and that it would still be around, providing joy for people about this wonderful world I stumbled into, because I see the joy it brings to them, just like it does to me.
Aftel Archive of Curious Scents
Treat yourself to a signed copy of Mandy's book 'Essence and Alchemy.'