During the last couple of weeks I have mainly been wearing two solid perfumes from Aftelier, Muse and Parfum Privé. Wearing perfumes by Mandy Aftel is so different from other perfume experience that I tend to wear them in phases, not mixing with anything else for a few days or weeks.

I am not sure exactly what it is that creates the particular feeling, if it is Mandy’s hands or the carefully selected and treated (few) ingredients or like in these two cases – that they are solid. Probably a mix of these aspects. It creates a perfume experience that is just…different. Genuine. It has very little to do with the feeling of applying for example a commercial fashion brand perfume regardless of how nice it would be.

Solids are quite unusual. This is unfortunate, if you ask me, because to me a solid feels more intimate, more integrated with my skin. The application feels sensual and somehow, the word that comes to mind is diachronic. When applying a solid with my fingertips I feel like I am repeating a ritual that has been performed during thousands of years. There is something ceremonial about solid perfume and it evokes that feeling of a bond between scents and health. Like its an ancient ointment that will save and seduce at the same time. Add to this feeling the particular notes in these perfumes: lime, clary sage, labdanum and rosemary absolute in Muse – and bergamot, pink pepper, orange flower, osmanthus, pimento leaf, ambrette and ambergris in Parfum Privé – and you should be able to imagine the combination of sensual base notes and something that feels like it was made to cure practically anything a long time ago.

Could this be made by anyone other than Mandy Aftel? I don’t think so. After having read Mandy’s book and slowly discovered several of her creations I am starting to see what links them. There is just no other perfume like it. There are many amazing perfumes, but something that has been made by someone so dedicated to their craft, with their hands – becomes unique in the best sense of the word and very real. Dynamic. When I have worn these perfumes I always miss them when they start to fade.

And they make me want to listen to Regina Spektor and learn how to dance like Rachel Brice.

Today I am wearing Sepia. And I am listening to this (if you don’t have Spotify try this), ‘How to Organize a Lynch Mob’ by Diablo Swing Orchestra. Let me tell you why.
About ten years ago I embarked on a plane to Florence. I had been studying Art History for a year and was profoundly disappointed with courses, teachers and exams that had almost entirely killed my passion for art. I got on that plane with a promise to myself, or two actually: to come home and speak Italian and to restore my love for striking angles, composition and color perfection. After a week or so I found myself on a train from Florence to Venice (ok, first I accidentally got on a train to Napoli but that’s another story) with the mission to see a painting that I had seen on posters on my way to school in Piazza Santo Spirito. Actually, it was not the painting per se that I wanted to see, it was the red color of the scarf that a woman in the painting was wearing. Most of that day was spent going to and then from Florence. I was in Venice just for a couple of hours but I did see the red color and it was one of the best and most important moments of my life. 
But my most mind-altering art experience in those months was not this painting. It was seeing Michelangelos unfinished giants. This experience will always be what really made art part of me and I have no idea if I will ever feel as many intense feelings in relation to art ever again. I hope I will, but I am not sure. Experiencing art is very personal, the places it shakes in our minds, the references it awakens. The exact details of why I was affected aren’t really that relevant to anyone else. But I will share one aspect of it with you and you will understand why I am writing about this here. It is sometimes said that there are two types of sculpturers, those that mold an object into an idea that they have, and those that carve out something that is – or not – in the stone. Michelangelo was one of those that perceived the stone as having its own predefined potential for some shape and he was just the person who brought it out. The giant unfinished statues are an example of this process. The stone did not allow him to do more. Watching them for the first time I was struck by how it was hard to tell the exact place where statue became stone and vice versa. I sensed beauty as well as frustration, strength and pain. I also felt a sort of dynamic that I have rarely perceived. As if the process was ongoing. 

A week or so ago, I received a collection of samples from Mandy Aftel’s Aftelier. I read Mandy’s book of course. Not read, read in the present tense as this is the only way that feels right. I read it slowly, as if I am having a slow conversation with it. I underline, go back, return… I have been curious about Mandy’s perfumes for some time now but in a way that I cannot quite explain, I have been waiting for the right moment to experience them. And I knew that I would know when it came. Because this is something entirely different than most olfactory experiences, and definitely different from most perfume experience.

It will take me some time to try all the samples because I want to get to know them thoroughly. Contemplate, go through different thoughts and pay attention to every detail. I am not sure what I expected. But I will tell you my first impression because it was undeniable and very concrete. I sense the care that has been invested in these perfumes. The thought, the poetry, the hands that have blended them. And then this: they feel alive. Not in some mumbo-jumbo metaphysical strange way. They just feel alive. Like those sculptures. They are not being blended anymore, they have been put in tiny adorable little containers and shipped to Sweden and nothing intervenes with them… but when I put them on my skin I have absolutely no idea what will happen. Or if the same thing will happen the next time I wear one of them. They seem to play with my skin and change constantly and I am not sure if I am choosing the perfume or if it is choosing me. If I am discovering it or if it is discovering me. Of course, I am playing with words here… What I am trying to convey is that feeling of an ongoing process.

A few years ago I worked with a theatre director on his communication and brand platform. He taught me something that has been very valuable and essential to me ever since. Apart from his work with the theatre he held courses and workshops with corporate clients from all sectors using the methods that the theatre uses to create teams. One of his key messages was that an ensemble is not about separate stars, it is about being an ensemble – and that – is created not through the excellence of one person or the other but in the space between the individuals. I think about this often. The importance of space. In communication, in relationships, in creativity. The process is not what is delivered from one point to another, the process is what happens in between. And that process is free, and unpredictable and redefines itself every second. Something happens when I wear Aftelier perfumes, and it just keeps happening for hours.

The piercingly beautiful string arrangement in ‘How To Organize a Lynch Mob’ with Diablo Swing Orchestra’s cello master Johannes Bergion gives me that same feeling. As if it is played live every time I hear it, and I need to listen carefully because next time it might not sound the same. If you ever get to see this band live, cancel all your other plans and go. This ensemble sums up everything I have written tonight with their music.

The art of making something that has been captured… feel constantly unexpected. Space?

Growing up, she would make me smell everything – newspapers, flowers, the earth and grass. It was a general training to make me aware of what was around me, rather than to learn specific notes.”

Just recently I wrote this post on scents and memory. I am deeply fascinated by the power of scents to create and recreate feelings, to enhance our perception and to guide us into the future as well as into the past. It is striking how many perfumers are children of perfumers, we should all learn from that. The awareness of scents and smells is something that we learn when we are children. The confidence to trust and cherish our senses is one of the most important things we can give a child. The encouragement to discover life and the world with all kinds of curiosity.

Yesterday I read Mandy Aftel’s story about her mother’s mink and Joy. Today I found this story from Camille Goutal, daughter of Annick Goutal.

If your soul connects to scents you have to read this, every word. Promise me. This interview, from The Perfume Magazine with Mandy Aftel by Dana El Masri is a masterpiece. The answers describe the beauty and infinity and sensuality of scents so well. Mandy Aftel’s answers paint the big painting, and at the same time describe details in the most beautiful way. Now you already know from my previous posts that I am a big Mandy Aftel-fan. I am fascinated by her way of representing the finest things about scent creation while also making this world accessible to many others. Her book, Essence & Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume, for example is perhaps the No 1, intro course globally for anyone interested in learning more about perfume. This combination between artistry and guidance in itself is extra-ordinary. But what makes Mandy Aftel so interesting is her devotion to natural ingredients which makes her creations even more seductive and exquisite. All this you can read more about on Afteliers website.

But this interview is not only about Mandy. You can sense immediately when looking at the questions that they are asked by someone who truly gets…feels…this topic. The questions are precise, sublime and they lead the reader to a magic place where you can understand a professional’s fascinating process of creating perfumes. So I was not suprised, but enchanted to find out more about Dana El Masri at the end, and I hope to encounter her name many many more times.

Dana El Masri is an aspiring perfumer and scent blogger. When Dana first opened the pages of Tom Robbins’ classic “Jitterbug Perfume”, she knew she had found her calling – to create authentic and whimsical perfumes. Since then Dana worked at the niche fragrance house, L’Artisan Parfumeur and decided to pursue her dreams further at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France. During her studies, Dana’s recreation of the scent of luxury was chosen as the winning scent of the year. Her personal collection blends melodies of the past and the present through scent and music – crafting a playful symphony of fragrances. Now back in Montreal, Dana continues to grow and evolve as an aspiring perfumer while sharing her love for music, culture and scent on her blog

Thank you to you both, Mandy and Dana for this precious rendering of things that are not easy to capture with words. You both gave me an injection of inspiration and bedazzlement, and the story you tell together just captures it all so very very well. 

Despite there being a huge global online perfume community I have seen very few examples of perfume houses that really excel in social media. A few web sites have tests where you can get help in finding your fragrance type, some web sites are extremely well-designed (favorite: Le Labo), some are strikingly generous and informative (for example Mandy Aftel). But social media – general impression is that there is much work to do. The most interesting communication is created by the perfumistas rather than the perfumers, is my impression. If you have examples that contradict this statement – please share!

My favorite right now web-wise is By Kilian as this perfume house creates nice links between information, shop, customer care and exclusivity. Everything is also very well-designed and has a tonality that fits the feeling of the fragrances. By Kilian has a facebook-page that actually does stay active and a part of is it the Kilian Club which gives you access to aming others things – samples delivered straight to your home. A couple of months ago I received a very elegant whole kit of samples and it really felt like getting a treasure.

So today I would really like to compliment By Kilian on their way of staying in touch with fans and also their generosity. Really really nice.

You can see just looking at the word that it has to be something a bit nasty, can’t you? It sounds like a place on the human body that is geographically located in an angle that only very close allies ever visit. 
As we know, the poetic world of perfume would not be so seductive and mysterious without the mysteries and oddities. Just like a perfume wouldn’t. Perfumes that are just easy and sweet are… boring. Just like people who are just easy and sweet can be. And then we have those who use perfumes like Mandy Afteliers Secret Garden (also has natural civet as Mandy Aftelier is known for her use of natural ingredients), Cuir de Russie and Antaeus (of course…) from Chanel or Labdanum 18 from le Labo. 

Castoreum, comes from the castor sacs of a mature North American or European beaver. Both males and females have castor sacs located in cavities under the skin between the pelvis and the base of the tail. Together with the urine, it helps the animal to scent mark and mate. The secretion has a bitter and strong-smelling odor (as if you expected it to smell like roses…). To create the castoreum resinoid that is used for perfumes it is dried, ground and put into alcohol. The dried sacs are generally aged for two or more years for the harshness to go away. The scent it then gets is compared to dried leather.

Castoreum is not only used in fragrances but also in food. You can find it in alcoholic and other beverages, baked things, frozen dairy and ice cream, chewing gum, candy, meat products and gelatin. In Scandinavia it used to flavor a schnapps called Bäverhojt. A few months ago some people went rather ballistic when Jamie Oliver brought up castoreum at David Letterman. Interesting, since quite a lot of parents feed their kids artificial crap without any moral dilemmas. The vanilla ice cream and ”beaver glands ” appear around 2:30.

I get this question these days:

I would like to buy my man/woman/wife/husband/someone perfume for Christmas, do you have any recommendation? Which perfume should I get?

I love the idea. In theory. But my answer is: no, I don’t have a recommendation for a specific perfume for your partner simply because I have no idea how your man’s/woman’s/wife’s/husband’s/someone’s skin smells like, feels like, what temperature it is, if they sweat salty or sweet, where they put on perfume, when… what makes them laugh or blush or swear… and a million other things. So my general recommendation is: buy something else.

There are however 5 exceptions:

  1. You are a perfumer and have created the perfume yourself.
  2. You are not a perfumer but have created the perfume yourself.
  3. The gift is a bespoke perfume. You give the chosen beloved person a session with a perfumer who will create a bespoke fragrance with them for them. Miller Harris and Mandy Aftel for example offer this service.
    Photo: Miller Harris
    A much simpler more popularized lot less expensive version is offered by the Perfume Studio. Mandy Aftel also offers bespoke perfumes, you can read more about how it works at Aftelier here. If you go to Paris you will find this helpful. 
  4. The person who the perfume is intended for has already tried fragrance x and wants it/has had fragrance x before and misses it/for some other reason really wants fragrance x. For example, if you went to Paris and she spent an hour at Guerlain falling in love with Spiritueuse Double Vanille but didn’t get it because you were in a hurry or maybe it was too expensive. Well, then of course it is very romantic if you call them and have it shipped right to her skin for Christmas. 
  5. The fragrance your buying is an icon or comes with a story that makes it an evidently interesting part of a perfume collection regardless of whether the recipient will wear it or not. It is just interesting to have. Examples of perfumes like this for women are Joy, Chanel No 5 and Shalimar. 

But generally, apart from in situations like the ones mentioned above, I do not really believe in giving perfume as a gift. The reason, is that wearing and selecting the ingredients that blend with your skin, its chemical composition and your soul – is a precious and intimate thing. Perfumes, like personalities, are not random, not generic and they are not about what is new or trendy or whose last name is on the bottle. If you think it is, that’s not very strange as this in fact is how the media talks about perfume. There are top ten lists, there are what’s new lists, there are perfume bottles that match the latest Marc Jacobs bag or Dior shoes. But perfume is not just something you put on yourself the way a garment is. A garment comes in a ready size that fits your body and the material is the same regardless who wears it. It wrinkles on you, it wrinkles on her.

Perfume is different – not just seems different – IS different on every person. It exists with you, blends with your temperature and skin.
You can guess, but you cannot predict with precision what happens to a fragrance on someone’s skin. That’s the scientific side of it. The other aspect is more emotional and profound. To discover your fragrance and your body’s own scents is intimate and sublime. Therefore if you want to give someone the fragrance that matches their skin as well as their soul you need to know that person extremely well. Who they are, who they want to be. Is it possible? Yes, I believe that one person can discover another so attentively and humbly and curiously that you can sense how that person’s soul would smell like if it was tangible. But still do not know how a certain perfume would react with their skin.

The point is, when you buy a perfume for someone you define this person. This is something that should be done with great care and tenderness. If you feel that you can do that…beautiful. It is possible that you can. Perhaps you are one of the halves of a couple like the ones that I wrote about a couple of days ago. But if you are someone who goes into a department store and asks for “something that smells nice” for you girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/mistress, and then specify it with a “yes, sexy, romantic, flowery, fresh” at most…then please just buy something else. Or accept that random generic perfumes were created for random generic tastes like yours. And you… have just not gotten at all what perfume is about. Hopefully, some day you will, and that will make your life more exciting.

There are however a number of ways to give someone fragrance without going to a department store to get some random recommendation. For example, if you know that your favorite person has a favorite perfume house but has not found a favorite fragrance – make a gift out of samples. Many perfume houses have a special gift set of samples though it might not be for sale in stores. This is a sweet thoughtful effort with a personal touch.

(And don’t even think about the easy sleazy option: some men seem to adopt the habit of letting their partner go out and getting anything they want and then they take care of the bill. So the gift is – the payment. I find this about as romantic as banana peel. If you are one of these persons please stop reading my blog. A moderated version of the above is “we will go try perfumes and then I will buy you the one you like”. Sorry. No. The only exception to this is if you are going for a weekend trip to a city where you have booked a surprise in the form of a private session with a perfumer at a prestigious perfume house and this person will guide you through their range in the search of an olfactory match.)

If you cannot or do not want to make that type of effort but want to get something that smells nice fragranced spa products like creams and lotions and scrubs work just fine – and then fragranced candles are actually a very nice option. But get one of the good ones with ingredients of high quality. Many renowned perfume houses have a range of fragranced candles. Byredo has a wide range of very VERY nice ones which you can also buy through their webstore. Another safe buy is Laura Mercier. If you’re looking for something more unusual or modern maybe try Le Labo Vinage Candles?