When the door to Mandy Aftel's resplendent home opened, we were at once greeted with the comforting and somehow familiar smell of history. A careful collector with a clear love of story, Mandy's hub for Aftelier Perfumes holds an impressive array of curatorial oddities from antique essence bottles to a staggering vintage book collection. Her organ, which is the heart of her fragrance process hosts a luscious assortment of essentials from all over the world. Advisor, author and aromateur, join us in a walk through Mandy's garden of earthly smells and inspiring tales.... Plus hear the music that gets her creative blends mixing, in the link below.
Nativen: Where are you from?
Mandy: Detroit… Detroit, Michigan.
Nativen: Do you think growing up in Detroit had any influence in your decision to pursue perfume making or fragrances in general?
Mandy: You know I don't know… I've lived in California much longer now than I lived in Detroit. I came to California in 1970, so I've been here forever, and I loved California the minute I saw it. I just ... I thought Northern California was the most gorgeous place I'd ever seen.
This will sound strange…. I find I'm very attracted to winter, which they don't have here... and snow. The seasons, things that are very intangible, but you don't know you've experienced them, which is what I think of about scent. I think some of the experience of growing up in that cold climate and what it looked like and that time in Michigan has had a huge affect on me.
I also was a product of the sixties, so it's hard to disentangle all of that… but I was always drawn to things that were sensual and beautiful, from long ago.
Nativen: That's lovely too, a little romantic.
Mandy: Yes, very.
Nativen: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue fragrances as a career? Was there a specific event in your life that influenced the decision or was it some kind of gradual thing?
Mandy: I had a long life as a psychotherapist for artists and writers. That was what I did for 30 years. I liked it, too. I liked helping people and I liked knowing about their lives. I was very interested in other people and their lives and how they put them together. They were like little novels to me. I really loved what I was doing. I had written a book called "The Story of Your Life", which is about plot narrative in fiction and in life.
From there, I got this idea ... I have no idea how, but it's very typical of me, that I would write a novel and make my main character a perfumer, which I didn't know much about. Then I started to do all this research and collect old books, which I did know about. I had collected and researched a lot of anything I fell into.
I knew, somehow, that perfume was synthetic and I was very interested in earlier perfume. I started to read books. I went and I took a class at an aromatherapy studio around here, and I just fell in love. I'm not a person who has a plan. I was so excited and wanted to pursue it. I had a little bit of talent from the beginning, to blend, and a friend who said, "Lets start a perfume line." She said, "I'll do all the business and you'll do all the creating."
Nativen: That's a great arrangement.
Mandy: So, I did ... and it was a complete nightmare.
Nativen: Oh no.
Mandy: We launched though at Neiman Marcus and at Bergdorf’s and got a lot of attention. Then, I lost the business. It came to, kind of, not a good end. After that, I had all the books. I had all the stuff, and no perfume business. The person I had written the book, "Story of Your Life" for ... She wanted me to write a book on perfume. That was 20 something years ago and I wrote this book "Essence and Alchemy" which is credited with starting off a lot of people in artisanal natural perfumery.
Very slowly, after I did my book, I thought, well I'll just do custom perfume. Then I thought, well I will have one perfume. This is the "not having a plan" approach, until I had perfumes, I was working with chefs, I'd written three more books… But, it was all kind of organic, out of my pursuing what really turned me on. That’s how I ended up where I am now, but pretty organically.
Nativen: It sounds like story collecting in a way too. Fragrance really does that for people as well.
What do you love most about Berkeley and do you think it's integral to your work in any way?
Mandy: Yes. I really love Berkeley... I wrote about it some in my last book, "Fragrant". I think Berkeley is so beautiful, physically beautiful. I love the arts and crafts houses and touches around. I love that so many people have beautiful gardens in their front lawn, so when you go for a walk, you see all these very beautiful plants. You can feel the artist's hand in Berkeley, in so many charming ways. I love being here. I feel very inspired being here.
Nativen: In Berkeley, do you have a favorite restaurant?
Mandy: Yes, I don't go out very much, but we go to Poulet. Poulet, which is down the block and has been here for a very long time. It's a deli, but they have take out food. It's run by Marilyn Rinzler, who I know. We get our dinner from there a lot. She's been in business like 30 years. She just has very interesting food.
Nativen: How about a hidden gem? Do you have a hidden gem in Berkeley?
Mandy: Yes… We go for walks every day. We walk around and we see all these wonderful places and there is this one place that is very, very interesting; very weird and interesting. It's a village ... Normandy Village. It's very cool.
It's got little turrets and very interesting brickwork. I look a lot at the brickwork in Berkeley. If someone has brickwork ... very odd brickwork, I'm always completely impressed, or if they have clinker bricks ... Texture ... I'm very down in the weeds.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here?
Mandy: I feel so moved by the materials I can buy and find. I like the hunt. I like looking for them. I like that they disappear. I like the whole thing. I like their connection to other cultures and other places. I like them being both exotic and far away and sometimes nearby. I like, when you open them up, they're so layered and so transporting. I feel like everything that I make, comes back to the quality of materials that I'm able to work with. Also, a kind of vocabulary grammar I've developed about how to work with them.
It's kind of a wordless way of crawling inside those materials and understand how they interlace with each other, which is kind of a privilege, very thrilling to me. I'm always learning. Every time you put one essence with another, that's somewhat controllable. If you add a third or fourth, things happen. Magic happens, or putridness happens. All kinds of things. It's very metaphorical about life and I'm aware of that, as I'm doing it. When I teach, I'm very interested in deconstructing and understanding ... Getting at the mysteries of those processes of making art out of beautiful raw materials. It's like cooking.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite fragrance in your line, or something in the history of fragrance making that you feel was your greatest accomplishment? Maybe a standout…
Mandy: I am often partial to ones that are not my most popular ones. Oftentimes, very difficult to make and very meaningful to me about what they were about.
I always create the same way. I start off with two essences that I view as "in conversation" with each other. Even though that would not be obvious to anyone else. I feel very free to pick any two essences and make them work. It's about what they have to say to each other, how they interact with each other, so that's that. It's about a feeling. Like, say we were talking about Michigan. I have a feeling about when it was really cold at dusk. That was a feeling about how the air would change. I have this feeling that's not conveyable in words, so ... That's in my head when I work. I'm looking for that, to make that more vivid.
I have this perfume called Sepia, which is one of my favorites. It was from this absolute passion I have for the Gold Country here in California. I really, really like it. I like everything about the Gold Rush, even though it was a horrible time. I like these little towns. I go drive around and look at them and I realized once, looking at them, that when they had an old building and they fixed it up, I didn't like it as well. I'd see a church and then you'd go see it, they'd show it to you in this ramshackle way. Someone had gotten their hands on it and fixed it up and I didn't like it any more.
I liked where you could see the past and the present. Which is some aspect of what my work, I think, is always about, is the layers of smell, the layers of the past being in the present. I have several that are like that. Sepia was about driving around the Gold Country and seeing this past somehow underneath what was there. It smells like old wood. It smells, kind of, round and soft, but like old wood. I like that one. It feels to me like it captured that feeling.
Nativen: It’s storytelling ... Fragrance is such a huge part of memory and perception of our surroundings. It's one of those things that's so ephemeral, you can't photograph a scent, you can't record a scent, so having that kind of relationship and being able to encapsulate it into a bottle.
Mandy: When someone buys my stuff, I always feel like "Yes", we are connected. I feel like I'm this message in a bottle, being handed to that person… a piece of me that is resonated with that person. I'm very honored and touched by that kind of experience.
Nativen: That's great. It's such an intimate thing, fragrance.
What part of your process brings you the most joy?
Mandy: First, not to sound as I’m avoiding the question, but ... I have a lot of joy about a lot of the process. I don't find even the drudgy aspects drudgy. I like everything about it. I'm very deeply and meaningfully connected to the Chop Wood Carry Water, kind of piece of it. I like cleaning the bottles. I like putting them in smaller bottles. I like packing the packages. I like writing the cards. I like all of that. I think the biggest joy is when I'm creating something new. It's also a little bit of torment, too, because I'm always very unconfident and uncertain when I'm creating.
I always have this kind of thing that I'm thinking of, but it isn't it, or maybe it's getting close to it, or ... Then, I throw a lot out. I'm not a person who keeps old blends. When it clicks into focus, like in a photograph, I feel like it's clear and I know it's time to stop, and it is it, it clicks into being itself.
Nativen: The literal and metaphorical distillation.
What do you think is the greatest struggle for you?
Mandy: I think the greatest struggle for me is, because I'm very honest. There is a lot of dishonesty in my field. I see a lot from where I am, that is not in keeping with the values that I have in terms of fragrance… I often have to deal with people who have wrong ideas. I'm trying to be very careful with how I explain things to them because I feel like I'm telling them there's no Easter Bunny. I find that hard. Like, if someone comes to me and they tell me a lot of perfumes that they like and they ask me if mine will last all day. I really try to be as careful as possible to explain to them, you know, we're using natural materials, how different it is.
I feel very privileged to work with these materials. It's like these very beautiful colors that are there for painters. It's like endless. I'm never going to get to the end of this. Never. I'll be in my grave, still thinking of, "I wonder how this would be with this".
Nativen: The circle of life. What's one thing you've always wanted to do but, haven't done yet?
Mandy: I’m not a person with a lot of that. I've really done a lot of stuff in my life…
I'm starting a little museum.
Nativen: That's so exciting.
Mandy: I've wanted to do that for a while. I'm very actively working on it. It's outside. It's going to be called the Aftelier Archive of Curious Scents.
I got another organ and it's going to have little exhibits about the material so I can share my love and my knowledge of how great these materials are. All the old things I've collected. I've wanted to have a place because I've collected for 30 years. I really have an extraordinary collection of the history of materials, but I don't want my things to fall into commerce. I want it to be something people can learn about as a kind of art form. It's about the materials. So, we're doing it.
Nativen: If you weren't doing perfume making, at this point, what do you think you would be doing?
Mandy: I think I would be trying to write fiction really poorly, which I might try. I'm very transported by good writing and I tend to write non-fiction. I don't think I have any talent for fiction but, I've always been really interested in it. I would be one of those people who was like working on something in a notebook forever, never made the light of day which would be absolutely terrific to me.
Nativen: Absolutely, the process is very rewarding. What destination do you want to travel to and do you think that might alter your work in any way at this point?
Mandy: I tend to go back to the exact same places. I'm very boring I think. I go to London. I love the crooked streets and the whole little decorations on buildings. I like little odd things like I like here. Love the Gold Country. Love the land in Northern California. Places I go already, I would go back to.
Nativen: I don't know if you listen to music at all while you work...
Mandy: I always listen to music while I work. I listen to deafening, deafening music while I work. I never make a perfume without listening to music.
Nativen: Is there a track or piece of music that inspires you?
Mandy: I listen to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and there's one Bob Dylan song in particular that was very much for Sepia. It's just fantastic and I must have listened to it a million times. I kind of fix on one song that is very involved in the perfume that I make. That one was for Sepia. It's called Brownsville Girl.
Nativen: What are three words that sum up your work for you?
Mandy: Three words that sum up my work for me ... Meaningful, fragrant, and Sui generis… Sui generis is one of a kind.
Nativen: Beautiful, that's a great word. Fragrance is such a person to person relationship, but I'm wondering if there is anything that you can talk a little bit more about what you do to sort of connect with your community specifically?
Mandy: I feel very connected to the community. Particularly the community of people who love fragrance. I feel very connected, and grateful of people that are living through their nose. Whether they're doing it in food, or fragrance. I feel like they're very special people who have worked out that the smelling of things is a really huge aspect of being human. I feel very connected to that, which is why I work in food and in fragrance.
Nativen: What's the most helpful advice you've received or what is some advice you might give to someone who's looking to pursue their creative art?
Mandy: To do ... To make, what you would like to buy. To do what you really would believe in. What you would be doing if nobody paid you and nobody saw you. To just do what's closest to your heart, the best way possible and then improve at it. That would be my advice.
Nativen: Do you have a hero or maybe somebody who's really helped influence your work?
Mandy: Bob Dylan, my hero.
But, he's also an example of a person who's going on and evolved through his whole life and hasn't cared what people thought. Those are all things that I admire.
Nativen: Absolutely and especially under the eye of ... The monocle of surveillance, it's so great to see people do that.
Mandy: He's been himself and I feel like that is the most important thing, plus he's so ungodly talented.
Nativen: What are three things you can't live without?
Mandy: Well, Foster... That's one. All my oils, I love all my essences, and my bathtub.
Nativen: Oh, that's a good one.
Mandy: I really like my bathtub a lot, it's really the perfect bathtub. I looked at a lot of bathtubs and we got in this one in Home Depot, the two of us (Foster and I) together, and thought this was the one.
Interview by: Lily Hetzler
Photos by: Monica Sermergiu
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen and Monica Semergiu