Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Mandy Aftel and Natural Perfumery - Essence & Alchemy

I'm sure a lot of you will be familiar with Mandy Aftel, the name and perfumer behind Aftelier, for whom she creates entirely natural perfumes. This post is not about Aftelier perfumes, which I have not yet sampled, but rather, about a book that Mandy wrote in about 2001, called Essence & Alchemy, a Book of Perfume. For someone who is so interested in perfume (and I do read a lot generally) I am surprised that I haven't read more books about perfumery and perfumes. Our local library does not stock a great selection of perfume-related books; in fact they stock only three, one of which is the book by Mandy. If you have not read this one yet, I would urge you to give it a go if you are at all interested in perfume, particularly if you are curious about natural versus synthetic perfumery. Now, I want to make it very clear that I do not have particularly strong feelings for or against one or the other, and this is a real minefield of a topic. I should also state that it is only the first chapter, entitled The Spirit of the Alchemist: A Natural History of Perfume, that really goes into the natural versus synthetic issue in any great detail. The next five chapters cover essential perfume basics and then the construction of a perfume using the base, heart and top notes, with some very interesting discourse on the various materials, their origins in perfume and how to make some of them workable in perfumery. There is a very interesting chapter called Perfume and the Boudoir, which discussed sexuality and perfume, particularly our obsession with the smell of our genitals and other body parts through the ages, with some choice input from famous people like Napoleon, Henry Millar, Baudelaire, Walt Whitman and Casanova. 

I found the following excerpt from the book particularly interesting and enlightening: Mandy is discussing some of the finer points between natural and synthetic ingredients when she moves onto the subject of Kirlian Photography and states, 'discovered by the Russian electrical technician Semyon Kirlian in 1939, Kirlian Photography is a technique of taking pictures by means of electricity. An object is placed directly on photographic paper or film laid atop a metal plate to which a high-voltage current is applied. This records the energy field that surrounds living organisms, which appears as bright colours or halos surrounding the objects. A photograph of a freshly cut leaf reveals a colourful aura that diminishes over time until the leaf dies. A strong energy field that radiates outward is also visible when pure essential oils are photographed on a blotter strip. The energy field takes distinctive shapes that correspond to people's descriptions of the scents - heavy, soft, sharp, bright and so on. The field, which is lacking altogether in photographs of synthetic essences....' That is certainly food for thought, no?

There are quite a number of other interesting comparisons between naturals and synthetics, but I do not have the space of time to mention them here. However this paragraph above about the 'life force' of natural essences, as opposed to the 'dead' image of the synthetics has really made me think about naturals in a slightly different light. The other thing this book has got me thinking about is the attraction of home perfumery. I can't say for sure that I will purchase my own home equipment and sets of essences to carry out some Dr Frankenstein DIY shenanigans, but my curiosity is piqued. 


  1. 'Dr. Frankenstein DIY shenanigans' - I love that! This could apply to many things, actually. If you get the urge to get adventurous with essences, I'll be interested to know what you discover!

  2. Thanks Josephine. My main limitations are my already strained budget and time (young kids) but it does interest me.

  3. I've read Aftel's book too (see upcoming post on Persolaise.com) and I agree that it's as good a place as any to start.

    And as for trying to make your own perfume, the first thing I'd say is: proceed with caution! It can be a VERY expensive hobby!

  4. Persolaise, that is very true, I'm sure, and that is why although I am sort of keen, I'm not sure I have the financial means at present to make a hobby out of it!



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