A Journey into the Craft and
Mystery of Making Perfume.
Some years back I’d read Mandy Aftel‘s book, I was struck then by her link to the presumptions of aligning alchemy and the making of perfume. Theoretically, it works — but, in her application, the spirit of her investigations are authentically interlaced. In my college years, I’d originated an alchemical study group, Al-Kimiya. I was interested in the history of technology, but more so, the link between action and spirituality.
Tinctures and essences from Mandy Aftel’s Studio
Alchemy draws its etymology from Greek, then later, more formally, Arabic, Al Kimiya. It might be suggested that alchemy and chemical history are closely aligned — reaching back in time, the mystery of chemistry wasn’t simply about formulating compounds, but reaching into spiritual values — the combining of baser elements, newly combined, to formulate higher composites. The notion of gold wasn’t just about the value of the metal, but appropriating a higher spiritual journey of self change. It might be said, too, of perfume making — that it’s “just putting essences together and hoping for something that smells good” — but it reaches deeper beyond compositing essential sympathetically aligned ingredients, resins and other botanical or chemical distillates, to reaching into the soul of scent, materiality and memory.
Milagros of the Nose | Mandy Aftel’s Studio
The mystery of scent lies in the deepest points of memory; people recall their experiences of fragrance as tantamount to their sensation of experience. Not precise, most people can’t tell what they’re scenting, but still — the gathering — is emotionally profound:
“What is the smell of place?“
“This smells like my Dad, takes me back.”
“This scent reminds me of a field that I walked in,
a sunlit memory, by the sea.”
“I recall this old street in Paris, the fragrance of a flower shop and
the wet stones of its flooring.”
Ever thought of any moment, when the holism of that experience comes back to scent — nearly like a channeling of the holism of the moment?”
A Chez Panisse Invitation | Mandy Aftel’s Studio | Scented flavor consulting to chef Alice Waters
According to scent scientist, Avery Gilbert, it’s because that part of the mind and memory is one of the most powerful, even considering the simplicity of “smelling something.” It’s a deeper sorting of recollection.
Gilbert points out that it’s [the sense of smell] not infallible, but it’s trainable, to heightened accuracy,
like the smell and taste sensitivities of a sommelier.
But it gets deeper, to spells, spirit craft and a magical transformational art – smelling, and making perfumes, can be more to a magical design. It will always be about insight, practice, meditation and chemical knowledge — but the magic happens in the mystery of combining notes of fragrances, ingredients, in unexpected dosages — one ingredient layers on another, and another, in another — and like a story well told, it’s not just the one telling, but the layering beneath and below that builds the richness.
Ambergris from Mandy’s Studio
In my experience, Mandy, as an artist, lives more in that space than any other perfumer I’ve met, from talks with Pierre Bourdon and Pierre Dinand in Paris, to artists in other parts of the world — Bali, NYC, and Tokyo. Mandy works the old, knows the older craft of the perfuming world, and brings that a scent stride that is laden in history, scholarship, a collection of rare books and an avid collecting instinct — from the notion of the cabinet of curiosity, to the industrial recipe books of the 19th and 20th century.
Only one other perfumer, that I know, that speaks this magic language, Christi Meshelle, Matriarch. But I’ve not worked with her, nor spoken to her in the detail of my encounters and longer sharing, with Mandy.
A journal of perfume notations from the 19th Century | Mandy Aftel’s Studio
A journey into
A collection of Perfume books, receipt journals,
bottles, seals and sigils,
printing seals —
the array of the Aftelier Perfume Organ,
Frankincense in the hand
Part of the Mandy Aftel Library
The proposition of alchemy is a quest, a spiritual journey to create gold from the common place — something magical crafted from the baser understandings; it is a hand-born titration, the maker’s art, of wonder found in the story, on story, in the layering of the notations of the rarest of the rare.
TIM | Girvin Studios | San Francisco, CA
STRATEGIES | BRAND, STORY & SCENT