Author Event: Mandy Aftel and Fragrant
at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, CA
A master perfumer, Mandy Aftel has been hailed as “one of the fragrance industry’s most creative thinkers, not to mention one of its most prolific talents” by Vogue. Her artisanal fragrances are created with natural ingredients and free from the synthetics commonly found in mass market perfumes. A half-ounce of her customized scents starts at $1,000! In the case of Mandy Aftel, the nose knows all about scent and how we interact with it.
The scent magician is also an author, and Aftel’s newest book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent shares her passion by following five key fragrances through history and human culture: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris and jasmine. As she began speaking about her work, an assistant unpacked bottles of each scent and prepared samples to be passed amongst the audience. Aftel would introduce the fragrance, a few scent strips dipped into essential oil given to the crowd, and she would share one or two interesting or funny stories about it.
She began with cinnamon, a spice that was once one of the most valued commodities in the world. Today, it’s so common that it’s easy to forget just how special cinnamon’s scent is. The sample she shared was warm and complex, nothing like the red candies and gum I usually think of when I imagine cinnamon. This depth of scent, Aftel explained, was due to the fact that most “cinnamon” we encounter is actually cassia, an aromatic tree that is frequently substituted for real cinnamon.
Two samples of mint – peppermint and spearmint – were passed around as Aftel talked about the research that went into the book. She’d initially expected the mint chapter to be a bit dull, focusing on herb gardens and medieval wise-women, that sort of thing. Luckily, there is much more to mint than that! Its culinary history and the preeminent role it plays in Middle Eastern hospitality make mint a fascinating topic.
Frankincense, unlike the other scents Aftel shared, is a resin. Instead of a scent strip she passed around a small basket containing little nuggets of scent, about the size of a fingernail. She invited everyone to keep a little ball of frankincense for themselves. I took one and slipped it in my purse, where it immediately disappeared. I can’t seem to locate it, but every time I open my purse I can smell the incense wafting up from the depths.
As the sample of ambergris – “whale poop”, as Aftel eloquently and bluntly described it – went around the room, she talked about a couple who found a large, stump-like object on the beach. Initially passing over the curious thing, they returned a few weeks later and took it home so that a marine biologist could identify it. The couple, it turns out, had located a lump of ambergris worth a quarter of a million dollars. Who knew that whale waste could be so profitable? In case you’re wondering, ambergris really does smell amazing.
To demonstrate the difference between natural and synthetic fragrances, Aftel had two samples of jasmine. One was a jasmine absolute distilled from the plant, while the other was created in a laboratory. The difference in scent was startling. Synthetic jasmine is lighter, sweeter, and fresher than its natural counterpart, but it is also very one-dimensional and bland. The jasmine absolute had a layered fragrance that made you want to sniff multiple times to better understand its appeal…as well as a slightly animal note. Aftel proudly pointed out that a certain chemical in the jasmine scent also appears in feces, which gave the flower its richness and depth of fragrance.
After wrapping up about jasmine, Aftel took questions from the audience. There were a lot of them! Several people had questions about allergies or synthetic perfumes that Aftel couldn’t really answer, because she doesn’t work with those ingredients. Other questions produced thoughtful discussions about the relationship between scent and memory, and the use of scents in treating dementia. Conversations continued as Aftel began signing books at the front of the store.
It was a fascinating talk. I admit, I may be a bit more interested in fragrance than the Average Joe because I spent many years peddling perfumes at Bath & Body Works and Lush Cosmetics, but our sense of smell is a powerful (and often underappreciated) part of what makes us human. Exploring scent and how it impacts our lives, even with just the five examples found in Fragrant.