As promised, here is the transcript of my (long) conversation with Mandy Aftel ... there are lots of gems in here, grab a cup of tea and get comfortable for a good read, a sip, a sniff, and a think!
THE THIRD THING
Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
but there is also a third thing, that makes it water
and nobody knows what it is. - DH Lawrence
I wonder what your perfume interests were before you got involved with perfume through research?
Well, I wasn't specifically perfume oriented, I would say that I was more sensually oriented. I like food, aromas, I like to touch things, I used to weave, I like ethnic things from foreign countries. I had an interest in the sensuality of material culture ever since I can remember. The experience of beauty that comes in through the senses was, and is, absolutely fascinating to me, and by extension perfume was one of them. What do you really think about when you are approching making a perfume? Do you think in perfume, do you translate your ideas and feelings into perfume? Yes I do think in materials. My materials are very important to me. There are two things that need to connect simultaneously whcih motivates me to want to create a perfume for me; materials and feelings. I very intentionally keep my line of fragrances small; for me, they are like chapters in a book.
So each perfume is actually in relationship to the other perfumes?
In its class, yes. Within the liquids and solids and body oils, I try to have a kind of offering that covers a lot of different experiences. I love that you call them "experiences" instead of just the material sense of Perfume. Are the "chapters" about your relationship to your client? Well, it is also about my relationship to myself. It's very complex, I don't like to repeat myself. A perfume will start from the relationship between two essences I am interested in and want to work with. So it's not like your approach is just that I am interested in this material and I know that this other one will play well with it, rather you are interested in creating or discovering the relationship between two materials that you are drawn to. All of my perfumes can be traced back to two ingredients. But primarily I am interested in a feeling. I am interested in what is ineffable in human life, and what you can't really do with words, because if you can do it with words, I don't really need to make a perfume about it. So I'm looking to create an experience, first for myself, and secondly to put it in that bottle and give it to somebody else. It's a kind of an experience of and a relationship between between two materials, which is how everything starts in my mind, and then I go on and create from there. There's a feeling and imaginative component about human life and there's a kind of friendship between two materials, and that friendship, in my mind, dictates absolutely everything else that will go into the perfume.
Can you talk about Cepes and Tuberose? There are the two ingredients right there in the name and it is endlessly fascinating ... It is such a strange and magical and perfect combination .... so you had the idea of those two materials and you were going to see what happened when you worked with them?
Cepes and Tuberose is a perfect example. I spend a lot of time smelling essences and thinking about their aesthetics without any goal of creating a perfume in mind. I just smell this with this and this with that. I see the oils as having very distinct personalities that are embodied in their smells. So I like to see what they do with one another on many different levels, and one day I must have put the Cepes with the Tuberose, I must have had the caps in my hands, I smell things in the caps a lot. I like to smell things in their undiluted state, which is what I love to do. Things can smell so weird in their undiluted state .... Yes, I think that most people work with things diluted, but I never do.
Me: Well I think you like weird smells .... Mandy: I more than like weird smells, I LOVE weird smells!
And you have an excellent imagination so you know what it will smell like diluted .....
Perfume IS always a dilution of the material. In a perfume the essence is diluted and modified, and I love the full bodied intensity of the material, that is a real turn-on to me as an artist, I love that they are so intense and have so much going on in them, and I will walk around with them on a scent strip for a long time. So with Cepes and Tuberose, I don't remember why I was smelling them together, but I was, and I noticed the Tuberose had this very earthy component that I had never picked up on before, but when they were together I noticed that they kind of locked down at the base, there was an overlap there, which was very un-Tuberosey and kind of interesting. (Me: Which is why I love it so much, because it IS so un-Tuberosey...) Then I thought I would like to see what happens with them.
So that particular Cepes -- and everything for me is really related to the particular material I have, I am really attached the exact ones I have chosen (which is also a source of terrible anxiety because I never know if I will ever be able to get it again, but that's all part of it) -- has a very high odor intensity and it can make a perfume incredibly muddy. And I wanted to still have it be beautiful but with a different kind of beauty. I made that perfume a very long time ago, and it really is, in a way, a simple perfume. Everything else in it is what I call fillers, everything is in service to those two materials, there is not another strong personality in there. When you said that the essences have personalities, do they have personifications? Do you think of them as actual humans who you might have known, or is it the idea of a certain personality type? They are definitely not people, and they have several identities to me but first they have their utilitarian identities, where I know what they are going to do, which is probably the most important thing in working with natural materials. I know the blending capacaties of each essence, what they do, how they function, which is knowable only to a point, which makes it both worthy of study, and completely unknowable, which I really like, because I love the mystery.
Because it's so volatile, does it unfold right in front of you as you do it?
When you put two personalities, two essences, together and you add a third, you're off. Every time you add something else into it, on your way to ultimately getting something you call a perfume, you are changing the way those other materials interact and they way they relate to one another which I find quite interesting. The specificity of working with these materials dictates how specific it is in my head, like "use bitter orange, don't use blood orange, don't use wild sweet orange, maybe yellow mandarin, no none of that, those are all sort of similar smells". I find the nuances of differences between odors that are similar absolutely thrilling.
Me again: Do you ignore the the map of a perfume you have in your head sometimes and go off in another direction? Mandy: I am always going off in another direction!
So your intent starts with those two essences but what happens after that is the trip?
The two essences are connected to a feeling that I want to capture, often from my own life. It comes out of things I have experienced when listening to music, or looking at art, or a certain emotion or just being alive. Something that I can't put into words but it is deeply felt experience that I have no interest in putting into words (even though I am a writer:), I want to put it into the bottle. It's always something very deep for me, it could be sad or beautiful or anything deeply felt.
So it's not always about beauty or the sublime, rather it can go off into other directions? I mean can you translate any feeling into scent, like anger or love?
I think I feel a wave of inspiration and a wave of a feeling when I first read Virginia Woolf and she would write about the consciousness of the day and the things that went through your mind and how you felt about it. I feel like we are doing that all the time, and perfume gets interlaced with those experiences and I love the idea that I make things that they go into the living of someone else's life. I just love the way my perfume can be a part of someone's life. It doesn't feel like a good or a commodity, it feels like an intimacy with my customer.
So as a perfumer you are giving someone else an actual experience of a feeling, a totally nonverbal communication, which is really the only way to describe what your perfume is doing, isn't it?
What I love is that the perfume goes along with my customer and becomes a part of the experience they are having in their life. It is the biggest turn-on for me as a perfumer that this could be happening, which I would really miss if I weren't a small perfumer, making everything myself. Making perfume isn't the only thing you do with your materials, you really seem to make the most out of your beloved essences on many levels. I do a lot of different things with essences. I am working on several custom perfumes, and I have lots of involvement with food and flavors, there are many things I am interested in doing with the materials, and I have to say that the materials are the center of everything for me. And this is why I work with naturals, because I absolutely love them. The beauty that is right there ready to be smelled is so incredible for me, working with such astoundingly beautiful materials.
One of our connections is that we both love the material world, you just love "stuff", right?
I love stuff that has a history, when I can feel the depth and the backstory of it, that is the thrill for me, the fact that I can use what I consider to be the absolute finest materials that have been around throughout history. I feel like they carry that inside them, I don't always need to get into all of it, but it's always there.
Remind me of when the perfume moment hit you, was it through old books or through essences?
I used to be a psychotherapist for creative people, which I did for 30 years, and I wrote a book, which I am still very proud of, called The Story of Your Life. It was on plot and narrative, in life, not in books. I realized that everything was about a story, people had to tell me a story and I had to enter into that story to understand their lives. So I got very interested in how stories were created, either verbally or on the page. When I wrote that book I read hundreds of books on plot and narrative, and I decided I knew so much about it that I was going to write a novel. For some reason, I have no idea why I decided that my main character would be a perfumer .... so since I like research so much, I went out and started to collect (this is way before the internet) old books on perfume, because I knew, and I have no idea how I knew this, that most perfumes were synthetic, and that was not at all interesting to me, intellectually or aesthetically.
So I began to collect turn-of-the-century perfume books and when I started to read them I fell completely in love with them. They were so charming, to me they seemed to be Medieval Manuals with recipes for so many strange things that I just loved. So my editor friend who I had written The Story of Your Life for said "why don't you write a book on perfume?" So I started to write Essence and Alchemy, and at the same time I realized that I was bad at business and that I would only do custom perfumes. This way I wouldn't have to have a business or a line, or make things over and over again, and lo and behold people started to come to me! So I very slowly grew organically into what I do now. When I went on my book tour, I realized that people didn't know a lot about materials, people thought that a lot of things that are synthetic were natural!
Because of where I live, I knew a lot of people in the food world too, so I ended up writing Aroma with Daniel Patterson. At first I just had one perfume that people really liked, which I made over and over again, my Jasmine solid perfume, which I still make. I also made Alchemy perfume for the book and people kept asking about it so I decided I would have those two solid perfumes, period. Then the Internet happened, which is perfect for someone like me! I had this incredible opportunity through the internet to deal directly with people who like my things, so I didn't have to be in any stores.
Do you have a thing in your head that is a combination or a feeling or a perfume that you keep trying to get to but can't really figure out?
Oh yes, I have a lot of oils that I cannot get to the bottom of. I feel like I try to get them to unlock their secret to me when I am working with them and it is entirely dependent on who they are with. It is so much like life, it's totally fascinating. Like the essence Fire Tree, I have never gotten to the bottom of it, ever. And I have worked and tried and put it into a lot of stuff, and I am sure that someday I will figure it out .. .There are other materials that I have here, right now I have this incredible Gardenia called Tiare that I got from the grower in Tahiti, and I can't wait to work with ...
Correct me if I am wrong, but I think you really aren't trying to come up with Strange things, but a lot of what you love is Strange, and it comes out in different ways, some Strange and some Not So Strange.
No I am not trying to do Strange at all. I am expressing something very deep inside of me through this medium, and I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to do this every day, which is such a joy for me. But I do find that there is something about how the strange smells, along with the beautiful smells kind of wake you up to life.
I think it is an opportunity that you have created, by being so completely true to yourself in everything you have done.
Well, working with an essence is like this, I have this precious thing to work with, and I want to highlight its incredible beauty. Sometimes I think am I crazy to tamper with it. It has been around so long, carrying so much mystery, and here it is in my hands. This Transcendent grace and beauty is in objects, it's in people, and it's in life. There is something so extraordinary about that aliveness and that beauty, the fecal in the floral, the good and the bad, the intensity in the materials is symbolic of what life is like. It is all inside these aromatics, that stretch so far back into human history, all around the world, and through every species, and it feels like a very rich medium to be able to work in.
THE END ;-)