Mandy Aftel on the new edition of her seminal perfumery book, Essence & Alchemy.

Perfumer Mandy Aftel & her book 'Essence of Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume

Mandy Aftel has been blending inspired, original fragrances from her beautiful home studio in Berkeley, CA for over two decades, where she also teaches intensive perfumery classes, writes about fragrance and hosts her incredible family-run perfume museum, the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. We checked in to find out what prompted her to release a new edition of her seminal perfume book, Essence & Alchemy, a must-read for fragrance lovers and makers alike. Thanks, Mandy!

Q. What drove you to write Essence & Alchemy initially?

A. I had a natural perfume line that launched at Bergdorf Goodman and then came to an end, and along the way I had collected around 100 turn-of-the-century perfume books. It seemed like a lost world to me, full of beauty, mystery, knowledge, and sensuality, and I really wanted to share all I was learning with other people.

I had created all the natural perfumes in the line I had, Grandiflorum Perfumes, and wanted to share with people the joy of working with natural essences to make perfume.

Q. The book has become a seminal perfumery must-read. What inspired you to release a new edition?

A. When I reread my book, I saw so many little things that had changed, or I felt that I could express better, or that I thought were wrong, as I had come to learn so much in the 20 years that I practiced natural perfumery. Also, there are more materials than ever to talk about for creating natural perfume: natural isolates, CO extractions, and rare absolutes.

All of the research I had done into the history of perfume and its role in healing, spirituality, sexuality, creativity etc. was all still fascinating and relevant.

Q. What do you consider to be the most important changes in the book?

A. I added many new pages about how to create natural perfumes: how to think about natural essences as the building blocks of natural perfumes, how to work with them, and how to revise your perfumes step by step. I've been teaching natural perfume for the last 25 years and keep learning more and more about how to teach people to make it, and I'm very excited to share that information in the book.

Along with that I have updated many of the recipes, the formulation tips, the set of essences that you should buy, and the set of equipment you should buy.

Q. How has independent perfumery changed since the book was first published?

A. When I first started making perfume around 25 to 30 years ago, hardly anyone was making perfume except the big perfume houses, and the only place that you could sell perfume was in the big department stores. Fashion magazines back then devoted very little space to artisanal or niche perfume, but over the years the entire situation with perfume has changed!

Perfumes by niche and artisan makers began to grip the imagination of wearers, and soon it was not the big corporate brands that were path-breakers with a devoted following, but the niche and artisan perfumers. Along with that came devoted bloggers, wonderful independent perfume stores like Ministry of Scent, books like my own, and people with very personal artisanal perfume lines.

The world completely changed with more and more people being passionate about not only buying perfume but learning everything about it.

Q. You've been steadfast in staying true to your creative vision as a perfumer, while also building a successful business. Which aspect of perfumery do you find to be the most satisfying at this point in your career?

A. That's a hard question to answer! I don't tend to do anything I'm not 100% behind, so I actually love every bit of my business. I love teaching more and more since I moved my classes to Zoom — now I'm able to teach in ways I had only dreamed of for the first 20 years.

I love making perfume hands-on, bottle-by-bottle, and I love that people buy it and take it into their homes and their lives. I love having a museum — people come every week and are so joyful and happy to see the history of perfume, and how its fits into people's lives across the globe and across time.

Q. How is the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents doing (we're excited to pay you another visit soon)?

A. We are so totally blessed at the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents! We have the most wonderful time every Saturday when we're open and it's so exciting to see the people that come and how happy they are to be there and how curious and interested they are in everything and so appreciative — it feels like a large community of like-minded people.

I’m so pleased to give to people the experience I had when I fell headlong into the world of natural essences and artisanal perfumery and herbal medicine and antique books, and all the exciting, wonderful, beautiful things that I've been able to collect and share with people.

Explore our Mandy Aftel Book Collection

Visit the Aftel Archive of Curious Scentsopen to the public on Saturdays only. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Location: 1518 1/2 Walnut Street, Berkeley, CA 94709 


Photos of Mandy and Aftel Archive details by Foster Curry.