I was working as the Marketing Manager at a beautiful retail boutique in Oakland a few years ago.
Surrounded by incredible designers, sumptuous fabrics and a little dog named Peanut, is where I first heard the name Mandy Aftel. After, her name would surface when I searched for books on the senses on Amazon, when I Googled looking for the best artisan perfumes and when I would talk fragrance with knowing makers around town.
It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I really began to realize what a scent master and fragrance icon Mandy truly is. After devouring her website, and since she had a new book coming to shelves on none other than my favorite topic (the senses), I knew that I had to chat with her here on The Girl Who Knows.
Mandy is a fellow midwesterner but has called California home for many decades. She is an award winning author and perfumer who creates custom scents for well known performers, artists and literary luminaries and was called the “angel of alchemy” by Vanity Fair Magazine. Her work has been featured in countless publications from Vogue to Bon Appetite to National Geographic and she’s lectured and taught about scent at universities and culinary institutions around the country. She has authored multiple books on scent with her latest being published today!
In Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, Mandy takes us on a journey that expertly bridges the past and present, showing us the beautiful history of fragrance and how it has shaped our lives today.
She touches on the incredible ability our sense of smell has to offer us pleasure, comfort and to fully bring our noses (and other senses) to life. She goes in-depth with five major essences: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris and jasmine. The history of each scent is fascinating, the stories that Mandy weaves together are riveting and indulgent. The book is a like a well crafted piece of fine art, or a gourmet meal. You want to savor every single word on every single page.
However, the book isn’t overly cerebral or inaccessible. Mandy’s style of writing is fun and her passion for fragrance practically jumps off the page. She kindly includes a variety of edible and non-edible recipes so that readers can experiment on their own with aromatics. And hopefully begin to open up to the treasures that aroma can add to our lives.
I couldn’t be more honored, humbled and downright giddy, to bring you this exclusive GET TO KNOW Q+A with the lovely Mandy Aftel. I hope you enjoy it!
Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background and a bit of your personal story?
I was a psychotherapist, catering to creative types, for 30 years prior to working with scent. I am also a storyteller and writer and often used story and narrative as a metaphor for life in my therapy work. In the early 90’s I launched my first perfume company which was sold at Bergdorf’s and Neiman Marcus. After that company came to an end, I turned back to writing and researching and finally launched my own line, Aftelier Perfumes in 1997. I absolutely love fragrance. I feel so grateful that I get to do what I love.
How did you come to perfume + scent? Tell us about that pivotal moment that changed everything for you.
I was researching an idea for a novel many years ago. I wanted to make the main character a perfumer, and in researching her decided to take a class where we were to create our own perfume solids. It was immediate (my connection to scent). It felt like I had discovered an old friend. I fell in love with the way the natural essences and oils smelled – they carried me away. I knew this was what I was mean to be doing — working with aromatics.
And so I dove in, collecting over 200 turn of the century books on scent and fragrance and sourcing the best natural essences from the far reaches of the world. I wrote a book (Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume) in 2001 that introduced people to aroma in a new way and after the success of that book, I slowly developed a perfume line in small batches. It evolved very organically. And now I’ve been doing perfume for over 20 years and have now written four books on the subject.
In your opinion, why are the senses so important (and specifically our sense of smell)?
The senses are the richness of being alive. They are so full of pleasure. Our sense of smell in particular is a joy. Things can smell weird, funky, beautiful, and alive and interesting — it’s fascinating. We use our sense of smell very intimately when we’re in the kitchen, so smell is hugely tied to comfort (the comfort’s of home). We live in a busy world and a lot of times we don’t value what is right under our noses (literally). Scent brings you into the moment, and allows you to engage with your life in a more present way (as all the senses do).
You mention in the book that anyone can regain an authentic connection to their sense of smell. How can they do this? Why is this so important?
I think the simplest way to regain a connection to scent is to start shopping with your nose. When you go to the market, and you’re looking at a fresh tomato or a bunch of herbs, or a ripe peach, hold it in your hand, feel the texture but also smell it. Put each item up to your nose and inhale the aroma. I test everything before I buy it. When I’m deciding what tea to buy for instance, I take my time and smell the aroma of each tea. I let my nose guide me. If you have a rich experience with the items you buy from start to finish, it could lead to a much more meaningful experience of life (without spending a lot of money).
Speaking of the concept of life’s luxuries, I often have to explain to people why I believe luxury is a necessity in our lives. I love how you describe the role of luxury vs. status on in the book. Can you talk more about this distinction?
Oh yes, this is really important and speaks to one of my core values. Things that are luxurious aren’t always expensive. Something as simple as a cinnamon roll can be life changing. A little luxury like a fresh ripe peach during the summer months, can offer a wonderful moment and is very, very luxurious. Being in touch with all the little luxuries in our lives, is a piece of waking up to our senses and to life. I like to think of it as status vs. luxury. Status is so from the outside and luxury is from the inside (and the senses can help you get there).
You talk about the world being on the cusp of a fragrance revolution. Tell us a bit more about this revolution.
I’m very active on Facebook and social media and I’ve seen a movement happening online in the last several years, of a return to artisanal, small batch products. I get to hear from my customers too, who are just as passionate about this movement as I am. I see people being turned on to scent either in their experiences with cooking and food or via these smaller, artisanal perfumeries selling small batch scents. It’s really exciting. I see my own perfume as a little message in a bottle. I impart a piece of myself into each bottle I create. My emotions, feelings, desires – I’m communicating something about life through the scents.
Social media is really great and a big part of helping to start this revolution. It has allowed me to connect to people all over the world. I do my work here in Berkeley, then it goes out to my customers. And because of social media and email I get to see and hear about the life these perfumes live once they leave my studio. It’s a really exciting time and ripe with possibility.
I’m curious, how you, as a scent-master indulge all of your 6 senses. What are some of your favorite things?
I love music. I always make my perfumes to very loud music. I take a lot of what I understand about life through the lyrics of my favorite musicians and songwriters. I’m also a voracious reader and indulge my sense of sight and intuition with books. I absolutely love sensual fabrics. Long ago I was a weaver, so I have great appreciation for quality materials and fabrics.
And I very much love food and tea. Everyday, 3 or 4 times a day, I take my time and make a pot of tea and slowly sip it from one of my many beautiful cups. It’s like a mini daily ritual. My teas and all of my food is extremely aromatic, I use essential oils in them and indulge my sense of taste daily. Everyday I go for a walk in my neighborhood in Berkeley and take in the beauty, the smells. It’s very stimulating to me. I actually do a lot for my senses and I’m very aware of it.
You mentioned taste and food, so I have to ask: you’ve written a book with Michelin-starred chef, Daniel Patterson, so you’re clearly a lover of good food. Tell us about this merging of food and fragrance.
My studio is directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, so I’ve always thought about the aroma and food. One day I decided to look for a chef who was interested in aromatics and got introduced to Daniel. Through our conversations, we both stumbled into using essential oils for flavor (which is a concept that is 100s of years old). After this exciting discovery we decided to collaborate on a book called AROMA: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.
Daniel is an amazing chef and understands aromatics the same way as I do (even though my medium is perfume and his is food). We speak the same creative language. We’re actually working on a second book together, all about flavor. Flavor is smell mixed with taste. If you hold your nose and eat, you don’t get the flavor. It’s fascinating and we’re really excited to explore flavors in depth as we begin writing together.
Also, in my book FRAGRANT, there are several recipes for flavor that are fun to experiment with. I always think the kitchen is a great place to start playing around with scent. The kitchen is like a lab. You can get inside the ingredients and really understand them from the inside out. This holds true for food products but especially for spices and essential oils. The smell, the taste, the part its played in history. Start to learn more about the ingredients you’re using and they will undoubtedly start to take on a new life in your dishes.
How do you stay motivated + inspired in your work + in life?
I get a new oil and I’m kind of off and running. I’m always looking for new oils. I feel like I’m Cleopatra on the spice route looking for new treasures. I recently got this new Gardenia oil from Tahiti and it was nearly impossible to get my hands on. I like the adventure of finding a new book, a new oil, researching — I wake up excited, go to bed excited — it is not an issue for me to be inspired.
My work is always driven by how much I love the essences. I’m really in love with the materials. I spend a lot of times sourcing materials. I look for the rare and hard to find and I love the voluptuous sensuality of really beautiful smells and creating with them. I also love that my aromatic creations are in people’s lives in such a profound way — that is very inspiring to me. Truthfully, I’ve never been so excited to be alive. I’ve found something that I truly love and that I want to share with other people, and that keeps me going every single day.
Finding something you love and doing it, makes you so happy and fulfilled. It’s such a privilege to follow your heart and do what you love. I also know that we all need beauty. I seem to be able to find it on a regular basis. And I believe everyone can have that and be inspired by the world around them.
What do you know for certain?
Love is the most important thing. There’s nothing more important in life than loving people and having them love you back.
Any parting words or final thoughts to share with our readers?
I feel very lucky. I’ve been fortunate to have such wonderful support for my work. To be able to do these things that I love so much. I hope that people will read the book and find some small little things, some takeaways, that they can use to change their lives. I want everyone to feel the sense of joy that I get to feel all the time.
What an absolute pleasure to have this conversation with Mandy. It ranks among the most meaningful conversations I’ve had here on the site.
Thank you Mandy for chatting with me and for sharing your talents and gifts with the world. You are such an inspiration to not only me but countless others. Thank you for doing what you do!
Because Mandy is the kind and beautiful soul that she is, she is offering. You guys, this is INCREDIBLE. We will be gifting one lucky reader with .
A bit about the companion kit . . .
The Fragrant Companion Kit was created to allow you to “smell along” as you read about Fragrant’s main characters – cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. The cinnamon and mint essential oils are not for wearing, but can be used in food by diluting them – for instance, use a drop or two to flavor tea, whipped cream, olive oil, or vinegar. The frankincense resin can be rubbed between your fingers to release its fragrance, and along with the diluted ambergris and jasmine tinctures can be worn directly on your skin – you can layer them on top of each other to create your own perfume.
I mean, how incredible and delicious does that kit sound?
If you’d like to enter to win this scentsory giveaway, check out the raffle form below. You’ll find multiple ways of entering the contest.
Select one or all of them.
The more you select, the more “entries” you have to win.
You can also tweet out a message once per day (see below) until the contest ends. Yaaay for bonus points!
CONGRATULATIONS to Irina for winning the giveaway!
We hope you enjoy your scent-sory goodies!! xo