Mandy Aftel is an authority on natural essences and custom perfumes and can be found at (www.aftelier.com).
I create perfume–and people wear it–because beauty and art are a vacation from reality. Beauty brings about a morally valuable state in the mind of the beholder. A well-proportioned and beautiful perfume can make those who smell it long to enter a realm of such beauty and perfect proportion. The power of beauty may derive from its ability to minister to this longing. The beautiful object creates, in the mind of those who attend to it, the spiritual home that reality does not provide. Beauty sustains an inner life. It feeds us.
I find that plants have an inherent beauty that is reflected in their aromatic component. Natural aromas are richer and more nuanced precisely because they are real and simply too inviting for me to resist. I loved the complicated histories of natural essences, and their complex characters—at once delicate and harsh, fresh and decaying,—which made the perfumer’s palette so intense. I literally had to get my hands on them. The sweet, the foul, the spicy, and the fresh – I found them all alluring. I loved the way they smelled and the way they looked, some like liquid rubies or emeralds in the light, some thick and pasty, other light and thin.
The names themselves seduced me –ambergris and costus, ylang ylang concrete. Choya loban, orange flower, boronia, civet, tonka bean, champaca. Even those I recognized—jasmine, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, bitter orange, vetiver—conjured up ancient civilizations and exotic customs, long journeys and sensual torpor. The endless variations on each theme fanned my obsession. Once I discovered rose absolute, I had to try not only the Bulgarian version but the Russian, Moroccan, Turkish, Indian, and Egyptian as well.
Until the 1880s, all perfumes and fragrances were created from plant—and some animal–materials. The displacement of natural essences by synthetic materials in commercially produced fragrances began at the turn of the last century. Unlike the natural essences, synthetic fragrances were cheap, colorless, stable, and consistent, and these qualities – and their “modernn ess” made them irresistible to industry. Eventually synthetics were used almost exclusively, and the demand for the naturals dwindled.
To create with essence is to encounter the deepest nature of a thing, which is in some sense greater than the thing itself. Working with essences, you dive deep in order to touch the universal. Irreducible and narcotic, they transport you into the polymorphous intensity of the present, in all its inchoate sensuality. Essences are at once specific and collective, earthly and otherworldly.
Music is the best metaphor for capturing the way great perfume is created. Individual essences are in fact called notes and are blended together to form chords. The place where I compose my perfumes is called a perfumer’s organ: a unit consisting of a semi-circular series of stepped shelves lined with hundreds of bottles of raw perfume materials arranged by scent category.
Sitting at the organ, I construct fragrance creations in much the same way that a musician chooses musical notes and composes chords. The musical scale serves as an analogy to the perfumer’s palette precisely because its tones do not all fit together in easy consonance, but embody discord of various degrees. The same is true of the idiosyncratic traits and competing intensities of the essences. Musical concepts like tone, vibration, and harmony resonate in perfumery as well, where the relationship between essences structures a blend, just as musical structure depends largely on the relationship between tones.
Music also captures the way scent is experienced—not all at once but unfolding over time—a quality that in perfume is referred to as duration. In this unfolding lies that unparalleled power of these arts over memory and emotion. Music and scent can calm us, or they can arouse our passions–and in our ecstasies, exalt us. They seize us, they transport us to the highest realms, feeding a desire for intoxication. They alter our consciousness in a way that symbolic systems like language cannot, nor can their most transcendent effects be fully expressed by language. They are ineffable.
Mandy Aftel (www.aftelier.com) is the author of three books on natural perfume: Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume which has been translated into seven languages and was the winner of The Sense of Smell Institute’s Richard B. Solomon Award. Aroma a cookbook (co-authored with chef Daniel Patterson) which focuses on the essential link between food and fragrance and includes recipes for both. Scents And Sensibilities guides the reader through the history and creation of solid perfumes.