Making Scents

An afternoon with Mandy Aftel and the ineffable magic of natural perfume

But the beauty of Essence and Alchemylies in Aftel's eloquent appreciation of the quest for scent.

"There's no way to describe how ungodly wonderful these essences are," says Aftel, who discovered her own olfactory passion while doing research for her first novel. "It's a profound experience, but people have to discover it for themselves. It's like a gateway, just waiting. I know how that sounds, but you just have to see for yourself."

Aftel sits me down inside her warm kitchen, which overlooks a sprawling flower garden, and passes over two flagons of perfume she recently designed for a client.

"A natural perfume interacts with your skin," she says, pulling out large wooden boxes filled with tiny essence bottles. "It will smell different on you than it does me. Different on a man's wrist than on a woman's. Different over time. It clings to you and changes with you as move through the day. It does not envelop you; it becomes part of you."

I sniff the delicate variation, noting the high floral note and the underlying musk. She offers me a custom perfume based on the essence of chocolate that smells like no confection I have ever known, then pulls a number of tiny essences from the refrigerator -- blood orange, bitter orange, tangerine, pink grapefruit, and bergamot -- all gorgeous, delicate fragrances that must be kept cold.

"Pick the ones you enjoy," she says, dipping blotter strips into bottles of pink grapefruit and bitter orange and arranging them on the top tier of a copper drying stand.

We move down to bass notes, viscous essences that cling to their bottles in deep, sludgy hues of gold, brown, green. I inhale, waiting for inspiration from the woody, resinous, balsamic, earthy, green, edible hues. My favorite is the smoky essence of oakmoss; it is like nothing else I've ever smelled. None of them is. We fill the bottom tier of the stand. When my nose fails, which it does frequently, Aftel encourages me to inhale through a wool scarf; soon the fragrances leap from their bottles once again. Next, we explore "heart" notes -- the most expensive in the perfumer's collection. I sniff a small, $800 bottle of boronia from Tasmania, ylang ylang with its lotuslike brevity, and an antique bottle of cassia -- sweet, light, lemony brightness from the turn of the 20th century. We move on to the top notes: grand fir, fresh ginger, rosewood -- spicy, flowery, dry, citrusy odors that dance like sprites behind my eyes.

Aftel brings me back to Earth with a whiff of essence of black pepper, an accent note that is unexpected.

"Each scent is like a color in an artist's palette," says Aftel. "Some of them may seem strange at first, but they work as a whole. Like the green in the face of a van Gogh."

I am slightly startled when Aftel's daughter enters the kitchen to wash strawberries.

"Do you want to open a window, Mom?" she asks helpfully.

Both Aftel and I shake our heads. Aftel brings out unique fragrances created for her boyfriend and her daughter -- black spruce, costus, blonde tobacco, tonka bean, cedar, antique cassia, pink grapefruit, essences selected over the course of several hours and lived with for several days before they were transformed.

It is the same process in which all of Aftel's clients take part (for the moderate perfumery price of $500). After the dry-out, when the scent dissipates and mellows, clients are asked to rate all the odors again; the most pleasing three to five notes in each level are given over to Aftel's care. Some time later, a small quantity of perfume is delivered, which must be worn for a month; with blotter strips in hand, the client may request the heightening of certain notes, the mellowing of others. The outcome is inimitable and peerless, a completely tailored olfactory fantasy that is your scent forever. Aftel records all the formulas in a small, leather-bound book, along with impressions of newly acquired essences.

As she talks, I peer into the drawers of her apothecary case: tiny bottles, tiny bamboo scoops, eyedroppers, antique pillboxes for solids, velvet pouches, labels, and scent strips, and in the bottom drawer a very old leather carrying case fitted for two beautiful antique essence bottles. She invites me to smell them -- but only after warning me that spillage is punishable by death. It is a deep, dark, salty, rose smell, but much, much more than that. It is unworldly and very worldly. It is Aftel's one secret.

A list of Aftel's classes and information on the perfumer's guild can be found at

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