There has been a debate, carried on in a sporadic way on perfume blogs about natural perfumes versus synthetic and mixed fragrances. Most perfume lovers come down on the side of the classic fragrance that combines chemicals with naturals, though unfortunately, the list of naturals in scents coming out of Europe these days is growing short.
I would have agreed with that preference-a few years ago. But something has been happening in the field of natural perfumes. They’ve been improving. The muddled, compositions, stuttering crowds of EO’s on skin have thinned. Natural perfumers have learned the art of enunciation. They can produce whole sentences, paragraphs, and even short stories that are clearly articulated.
Mandy Aftel of Aftelier has of course become one of the best known natural perfumers in the US with many famous clients, and her scents are excellent examples of that change. All of her perfumes are inartificial, but none of them are rustics, who mumble, or shuffle their feet when they get up to perform on your skin. Instead they speak clearly and you catch every word of their story. Some of these stories are long and complex enough to be novels.
She sent me a number of her newer scents* and each one was distinctive. Her Oud Luban was an oud that could have passed for one of the recent Carons, it was so elegant. I don’t think I would have identified it as a natural if I hadn’t been told that OL was one. A mixture of resins, patchouli, and an orange note that I particularly enjoy because it breaks up the huddle of base notes, Oud Luban is an oud that is easy on the nose, a featherweight oud.
Cuir Gardenia was next. That has received a lot of love from bloggers and was stunning on paper, but when I put CG on skin, the scent became almost embarrassingly animalic. This is a fragrance that prefers to prowl untamed on your wrists. Ms. Aftel, has not used the usual formula for gardenia in making this either. Generally that’s: jasmine plus tuberose and a green note or two= gardenia. Instead there is tiare in this formula, and jasmine plus castoreum, a powerfully animalic ingredient, the result is a gardenia for seasoned lovers. This gardenia has been on the bush for a day or two and turned the jaundiced buff of gardenias experienced in, even cynical about, the faithlessness of bees.
Honey Blossom had me at inhale. HB is a warm morning in a field in Vermont full of clover in bloom. I once visited a bee farm surrounded by acres of such fields and the concentrated buzz woven by working bees was so dense, it was hypnotic. You smelled flowers and honey and after a while began to nod in your chair, and to forget why you were there in the first place. Honey Blossom composed of honeysuckle, jasmine, orange blossom, ambergris, and honey, makes me relive that afternoon.
However when I get to the epic part of Ms. Aftel’s work I think of Sepia and Secret Garden; both of those are true perfumes. They’re not just accords or basenotes garnished with a citrus slice. Like Shelley Waddington’s Zelda, Secret Garden is a whole novel of a scent that keeps you guessing how it will end. The dense spiciness of the perfume surrounds an animalic tinged bouquet that contains geranium and rose with touches of civet and jasmine. If pressed I’d call this Mandy Aftel’s Ode to Joy and why not? Like the original it is beautifully floral, but also has that heavy lidded bed headed aura that only a long tryst can produce. Like Joy, Secret Garden is innocent and experienced, which is a big part of SG’s charm. This is one to which a large number of people might find it hard to say no. If I were a guy and my wife or significant other wore Secret Garden, I doubt I’d forget it.
Sepia on the other hand, is a little world sealed in scent molecules. Again, you get a whole story here about maturity and cultivated pleasure. On my skin Sepia in spite of the listed notes mimicked the best Lapsang Souchong tea, only the fragrance was more nuanced and more complex than any tea I’ve come across. Taste specific, and highly sophisticated, Sepia manages to swirl cognac, oud, chocolate, coffee, labdanum, plus tobacco and ambergris around the circumference of a brandy snifter as though it were a solar system. How can you hold a lifetime’s experience in the palm of your hand, and remember that they have all been very good years? Easy: smell Sepia.
Bottom Line: Everyone should smell some of Aftelier’s perfumes. Fig and Cuir Gardenia are bestsellers, but if you want her experience narrowed down smell Secret Garden, and although Mandy does not play favorites, I loved Honey Blossom and Secret Garden both.
* My samples came courtesy of Mandy Aftel.
The artwork is Winslow Homer’s which reminds me of Mandy Aftel’s sensual evocation of the natural world.