eyeliner on a cat

eyeliner on a cat
beauty, scent & style scrutinized for pleasure

Friday, August 19, 2011

Perfumer Interview Series: Mandy Aftel

Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes is known for having the soul of an alchemist that deftly guides her hand in the creation of her perfumes. Her aesthetic is mesmerizing and her taste uncompromising; Aftelier final products typify of artisan luxury, from concept to execution. Her work can be summed up in one word: sublime. In addition to what she does every day, each summer, many people come to visit her at her studio in Berkeley, California. I'm grateful that Mandy was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview with me and to help me kick off my perfumer interview series.

CM: You have some strong feelings about what luxury means, can you describe them? And how do you bring luxury into Aftelier Perfumes?

MA: To me, luxury includes the following values that guide my work as a perfumer: handmade, unique, attention to details, sumptuous atmosphere, not made industrially, exquisite craftsmanship, noble materials, sensually memorable, great beauty. Luxury is an internal experience; status is an external one. I hope that my perfume creates a singular memorable transcendent experience of refinement and exquisiteness for the person who wears it. I use the finest essences in the world because I really can't make the perfumes that I want to make without that quality of essence. Luxury is impossible without the finest materials, worked by hand, by a talented artist with a singular vision.

CM: When you set out to create a perfume, do you have the consumer in mind from the start, or do you just go where your creativity takes you and see what happens?

MA: I really never have the consumer in mind, I make my perfumes for me. At the heart of each of my perfumes, there is always an aesthetic problem that I'm trying to solve. I think of the perfumes in my line like chapters of a book that fit together to create a world, like a novel. This is why I may retire a perfume, even though it is quite popular, the story is constantly changing and needs to remain alive and interesting to me. 

custom Parfum Prive solid perfume

CM: What are some of the things that inspire you as a perfumer?

MA: My greatest inspiration is the beauty of the essences themselves: the complexity, beauty, range, texture and shape of the natural essences. I happily spend large chunks of time sourcing materials from all over the world. When I get a new essence in my hands, I'm always thinking about how I can bring it to life in a perfume and find my way to understanding each essence from the inside. I am completely in love with my essences- I think about them day and night, pine for them when away, they inspire what I create. I also create from wanting to capture some vague feeling or experience from my life. There are many fleeting feelings that are so rich to me. I am particularly inspired by what Virginia Woolf was doing with her fiction. I think the first way I have of understanding the world is through my feelings-- but that often doesn't match up to words. The world of feelings is so strong in me that the only place that I can capture them and put them down is in a perfume. 

CM: Are there any natural materials you just don't like working with, or have trouble working with? Conversely, which are your favorites?

MA: I like the challenge of creating perfumes from essences that I don't particularly like or think are difficult. Several of my perfumes were created to see what I could do with a challenging essence: Parfum de Maroc- cinnamon, Cepes and Tuberose- cepes, Haute Claire- galbanum, and Tango- choya and coffee. My favorites change all the time but right now they are: castoreum, costus, sarsparilla, jasmine (always), poplar buds and ethyl phenyl acetate. 

CM: What are your favorite scents in the whole world? They can be anything, not necessarily elements of perfume.

MA: White lilies, sweet peas, oolong tea, dirt, my husband's neck (up close), and skunk (at a good distance).

 Mandy Aftel's garden in Berkeley, CA

CM: Some people may not know that you do everything with Aftelier Perfumes yourself, from creating the fragrances to bottling them up- you are very "hands-on" with your company. Can you explain a little bit about why this is? 

MA: I love what I do, and I find the process of actually making the perfumes deeply satisfying and I would never want to entrust it to someone else. I like having my hands (and nose) in the materials. I will allow my business to grow only up to the point where I can still do everything myself. When you work exclusively with natural essences, the final perfume often needs some subtle tweaking because the aroma of the essences can vary from crop to crop. I love this aspect of it, that it's alive and not static. For me, to be able to make the perfumes that I want to make and have people love them is thrilling to me. 

CM: Why is it important to you that you work within the constraints of natural materials only?

MA: For me, nothing is as incredibly beautiful or diverse as natural essences. I love the range from funky stinky to drop-dead gorgeous and everything in between. They intrigue, inspire, fascinate and thrill me. I love holding in my hand the essences that have been used since the beginning of time in every culture across the planet. Their intense intrinsic beauty has sustained their preciousness through the ages, and I feel their aromas contain all the stories ever told about how they were discovered, why they were valued, where they came from and what they were used for. 

CM: We are hot off the heels of your most recent launch, Haute Claire, which has been getting a lot of attention for its uniqueness. Do you have any other fragrances in the pipeline at the moment?

MA: I am working again on the Letters to a Fellow Perfumer series on Nathan Branch's blog- this time with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. We are talking about doing a classic floral. I'm very interested in creating an interpretation of florals in my own quirky way. I always find it hard to describe what I am trying to create with words-- it is just an intuitive feeling of something that is new and fresh to me. I am in love with some natural fruit essences I recently sampled, so will be very interested in including them, if they will play well with the florals I have in mind.

CM: You have worn many hats in your life thus far- therapist, author of several books, teacher and perfumer... many people daydream about shifting gears in their lives like that, but are so hesitant to do it out of fear of the unknown. Do you have any words of advice for someone who might be in that position, ready for a change but scared to take that leap?

MA: I have always thought that people have more regret for the risks they didn't take, than for the things they tried that didn't work out. Failure was never that frightening to me. I was always surprised when something succeeded.

CM: You have carved out a unique position for yourself in the world of perfumery- you've managed to bridge the seemingly ever-widening gap between natural and traditional perfume for many people. Why do you think your work as a natural perfumer is becoming so popular with those who had not previously liked or been exposed much to natural fragrances?

MA: I am deeply grateful to the incredible perfume bloggers (like yourself) who have championed my perfumes and written such beautiful words about my work and have really understood me as an artist and what I was trying to do. This has helped that people who think they don't like natural perfumes be willing to give mine a try. I am thrilled to be thought of more as a perfumer, and not simply a natural perfumer. 

       Mandy's cat Stan "the Steve McQueen of felines"

           [all photos courtesy of Mandy Aftel]


  1. Terrific Interview! great questions Carrie!
    "At the heart of each of my perfumes, there is always an aesthetic problem that I'm trying to solve. "
    Mandy- I love that line and I love that that is what drives each perfume..You are so right- Your collection is like a character-driven novel (with the essences as characters, obviously..:)..When I first wore Tango- the singular feeling I had in the beginning was of two essences colliding and barely missing,almost as if they were people.

  2. I meant, not exactly 'colliding', but 'heading for a collision'- sort of coming closer and closer as the intensity of the notes increases.

  3. I love the line "I really never have the consumer in mind, I make my perfumes for me". That's why they are so great, not trying to please everyone else and thereby loosing their souls. Perfumery needs more of that kind of spirit :)

  4. It is good to know how you work. The interview, the way it was conducted, made us know a bit more about such an interesting person as Mandy Aftel. Pleased to meet you both.

  5. Lavanya: thank you for your comment. Looking through this post again, I am so struck by the colors and textures in Mandy's work, and how the words she uses to describe it just broadens the scope, like finding a new vista to observe a scene of natural beauty.

  6. flavourfanatic: I agree, if artists create for themselves, they are trusting that others will be attracted to their individual aesthetic, and that certainly is the case with Mandy.

  7. Ane: thank you for stopping by to read and leave a comment, pleased to meet you as well!

  8. Carrie - this was an incredible, amazing interview! Mandy Aftel is truly and completely one of a kind, which is why her creations are, too! She is one of my three greatest discoveries of this year - and certainly one of the greatest in my life, which never has been the same since I stuck my nose in a sample vial - and that's ALL a good thing!

    I think it's very telling that she creates her perfumes for HER...in the sense that the genie in the bottle goes so far to bedrock it transcends the purely personal and becomes universal - and that is MY definition of ultimate art, as well as an ultimate artist - which she will always be for me!

    An epic perfumer, an epic woman - and an epic inspiration! Always the best kind! :)

    BTW...the captcha was 'cniff' - how cool is THAT for a comment on an interview with Mandy? :D

  9. Thank you so much Carrie for thinking of these questions and deciding to interview mw. I was impressed with how thoughtful they were and I reached into the dark to find the answers in my heart and soul. Not to mention that I adore you!
    Thank you Tarleisio, Lavanya, Ane and Flavorfanatic for your wonderful comments -- this is such a raw part of my process and I feel very lucky to have all of your in my life.

  10. Tarleisio: I know how much you appreciate Mandy's work, and it's fabulous how we have all three become a part of each others' worlds.

  11. Mandy: the adoration is mutual! It was a lot of fun to do this interview. :)

  12. Kudos on this wonderful interview, Carrie, I want to read it several times, there's so much to chew on here. And I was tickled to see Mandy likes the smell of skunks- I like the very similar smell of marders (Alpine martens)- and my German friends always thought I was very eccentric for this!

  13. What a beautiful interview, I loved that peek into the inner workings of Mandy's mind and soul. What she says just confirms my deep appreciation of her art. Great questions, Carrie, you set a perfect atmosphere for Mandy. One can feel the good rapport between the two of you.
    And that gorgeous cat - oh my, I feel Stan could have been the love of my life! ;)

  14. Marla- thank you! I love the smell of skunk too, I think I fell in love with it as a child. But Mandy was wise to add "at a distance". :)

  15. Birgit, thank you for your nice comment! I'm so happy that you felt that the rapport that Mandy and I have together came through in the interview. And Stan? Yeah, he's a heartbreaker!

  16. Great questions and wonderful responses. I really enjoyed this interview! Thank you, Carrie and Mandy.

  17. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Joanne, thank you for reading! <3

  18. I was delighted to read this and would love even more from Mandy's brain and heart about the influence of place on the work as well as dreams. For me, Mandy, your work is indelibly stamped with it's origin in California. This has struck me meaningfully whether I'm there or away. What do you think? Also, your perfumes have lustrous dreamlike sense to other perfumes. Do dreams also play a role in their creation? Carrie, I want to know what changes you want to make in your life. Xo Cait

  19. I am echoing what has already been said, but thank you both for the thoughtful interview and responses. As mentioned above, there is so much here to chew on. I really appreciate the insights into Mandy's approach, and especially give kudos to her for knowing exactly how big she is willing to grow her business.

  20. Excellent interview. I really like Mandy's comment about luxury being internal. That to me is how I feel about it. It is not something to be shouted from rooftops but is quietly sublime. Thank you both so much for this.

  21. Cait- Maybe I'll get a chance to interview Mandy again, and if I do I will definitely ask her about the influence of place. Her part of the country is special to so many people.

  22. apb: that's something I really respect about Mandy, her uncompromising attitude when it comes to the quality of her products, and her wisdom to know that it wouldn't work if Aftelier went mass market.

  23. Sharryn: thanks so much for commenting. Something that starts and ends its life as luxury, such as a bottle of Aftelier perfume, has the sort of integrity necessary for maintaining that status. Not all can say the same.

  24. Carrie, I want to start with a confession: I do not like interviews and would usually skip three out of four articles of that type (not only in blogs but in regular press as well). I read this one only because it was your kick-off post in the series so I wanted to see how it would go. I loved it! I don't know whose talent it was more - yours, Mandy's or yours both, but it was so easy to read, I was involved from the start to the end and even felt a disbelief when realized that there was nothing else after the nice cat's picture (a separate thank you for it).
    Thank you both.

  25. Undina- that is SO nice of you to say, thank you so much! I'm very glad you enjoyed our interview. Mandy is very special to me, and I think that probably came through in the interview.

  26. Thank you to both you, Carrie, and to Mandy for sharing such a beautiful duet with us :)

    It was such a pleasure to read the interplay between the two of you.

    I'm really grateful to have an opportunity to read about Mandy's inner process, and her thoughts, and feelings on the way of creation, the use of only naturals, and her thoughts on luxury.

    I relate so much to the things that she has said.

    Thank you again for this wonderful opportunity to read about Mandy, and I so look forward to the next interview!