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Making Scents 

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

Wednesday, May 8 2002
It is said that a human being can recognize 10,000 separate smells, one-tenth of what we are offered, and yet there are few words to capture and quantify fragrance. We have color wheels and musical scales, but there is no such chart for scent; we are left with vague similes -- it smelled like smoke, ammonia, peaches, mildew, grapefruit, hot concrete -- that only hint at the real experience. Deciphering and illuminating scent becomes even more difficult within the deodorized, and re-odorized, homogeny of modern climes. In my mind, the smell of freshly cut lemon has become inextricably associated with the notion of Pledge furniture polish. I say "notion" because the "lemon-fresh" scent of Pledge immediately conjures memories of my grandmother's furniture -- unapproachable antiques that were never used but were religiously polished; every time I squeeze lemon into a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea, some small part of my brain returns to that strange, cold house in Michigan and to all the emotions it entails. And that is part of the unknowable nature of smell. Of all the senses, smell is the most primordial, the most intimate, and the most emotionally evocative. Smell is the first thing a baby recognizes and the last thing a lover forgets. Unlike sounds and images, smells are fired directly into the hypothalamus -- the ancient, almond-size portion of the brain that houses pleasure, pain, sex, and sleep. Fragrance completely forgoes the brain's more analytical routing stations, so it's little wonder that the elusive, intangible quality of scent has prompted poetry, passion, and elaborate religious rites.

"The world," writes Mandy Aftel in her superb volume Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume, "was discovered in perfume's wake."

Truly, as early as 4000 B.C., precise combinations of fragrant herbs were being burned by holy men in China, Arabia, and Egypt to carry messages to the gods. Egyptian murals in Queen Hatshepsut's temple depict lengthy journeys in search of mystical myrrh. The somewhat homely Cleopatra was considered a great sorceress of scent, a skill of which certain Roman officials were highly appreciative. The Roman Empire indulged in essences as no other civilization before: Romans slathered their hair and clothes in scented oils; they bathed in exotic bouquets gathered from the farthest reaches of their empire; they rubbed their horses with perfume. Not to be outdone, the Arabs later turned entire cities into rose gardens and mixed musk into the very mortar with which they built their palaces and mosques. Nutmeg nuts were exchanged as currency in the ancient world, not because of their flavor but for their aroma.

After the fall of Rome, the use of personal scent diminished in Europe (though it remained an integral part of religious services) until the Renaissance, when the perfumed gloves of Catherine de' Medici captured the imagination of the Continent. For centuries, perfumers, like alchemists, had clung to the shadows of their darkened ateliers, coaxing forth the essence of natural materials and guarding the secret contents of their apothecaries; it was widely rumored and accepted that de' Medici's perfumer offered sorcery as much as sensory delight by making use of esoteric formulas to curry favor and repel enemies. It seemed to work. By the reign of de' Medici's son, Henry III, the use of perfume and other beauty products had become an obsession bordering on madness. The obsession has yet to ebb.

Today, international perfume manufacturers spend fortunes on scent hunters, trained "noses" who troll the world for the next big smell; when one is discovered, say, in a smoke shop in Katmandu, scientists take samples of the air, and then attempt to chemically re-create the odor, note for note. Rather than draw fragrance from a dying flower or leaf, scientists use a process known as dynamic head space chronochromatography to chart the actual molecules that make up the living scent, and then replicate it. Mood-connection researchers then use magnetic resonance imaging to chart the brain's reactions to each scent; psychological profiles are worked up to explain, in detail, how different types of consumers respond to different scents; all the resulting data is then given to a perfumer, who begins mixing smells until a new scent is born.

But this is not the type of perfuming that seduced Mandy Aftel and led her away from her full-time psychotherapy practice in Berkeley.

Aftel reminds us in her book that Carl Jung believed psychotherapy was heir to alchemy's spiritual quest (just as chemistry was heir to its science). Aftel believes natural perfumers are heir to both of alchemy's aims, but she doesn't believe in the secrecy that always accompanied the dark art of the attempted transformation of ordinary materials into gold. Her book offers step-by-step guides to understanding the tonality and composition of natural perfumes, as well as numerous formulas and a current list of suppliers for everything from natural essences to antique perfume bottles. She exposes the great mysteries of perfumery -- among them, ambergris, the mythic amberlike substance that floats on particular oceans after being expunged from the belly of sperm whales, and indole, the magical odiferous ingredient in some flowers that is also found in human feces -- and the nature of primary ingredients.

But the beauty of Essence and Alchemy lies 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

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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