Q&A: Perfumer Mandy Aftel

Excerpt of my interview with Mandy Aftel, originally published on Greenopia.com

Perfumer Mandy Aftel’s love of natural essences drives her business. While most commercial perfumes are made using synthetic scents, her Berkeley-based Aftelier Perfumes is focused on making artisan natural perfumes. She’s also written books on the subject, including Essence & Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume and Aroma: Cooking with Essential Oils (co-authored with Coi chef Daniel Patterson).

Best part of your job?
I love smelling new natural materials and creating with them. I love all the different ways they smell—it’s amazing. For instance, I love the difference between Moroccan, Indian, and Egyptian roses. So, I would say the best part is creating and using those materials.

Is there a particular environmental non-profit you support?
Alice Water’s Edible School Yard.

What’s your favorite vacation destination?
I love to go to cities with great art and where great literature has been written, like London and Paris.

What’s your favorite weekend outdoor activity?
Gardening. I have a wonderful garden. I grow the stuff I don’t have the essences for. I love lilies and I grow a lot of roses.

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
I’d be a fir tree because I like the way it smells. It’s kinda jammy, like strawberry jam in the forest.

Describe your path to green. How and when you became eco-conscious.
I would have to say my passion for natural essences is behind it. You cannot help but be in awe of nature when it makes such incredible smells. Barks of trees and flowers—this rainbow of smells is so extraordinary. It’s hard to not be in awe of nature and to want to preserve it.

Smell It, Taste it: Mmmmm, Chocolate

I read a report today that Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld loves chocolate but does not eat it. (This immediately brought to mind the story of Peter, AKA No Coffee Guy, whom I met during a weekend at Fire Island. Before going out one night, Peter’s housemate was brewing a pot of coffee and Peter commented about how good it smelled. But when I suggested he grab a cup, he replied that he didn’t drink it. He loved the smell, he said, but didn’t drink it. Then he added that he had never tried it. Loved the smell but had never tasted it? He could not provide a reason why and I was puzzled. Not trying crack? I get that. But coffee? That was the first sign that Peter was going to be a drip. Yes, pun definitely intended!) Back to Mr. Lagerfeld. He is quoted in W magazine as saying that the smell of chocolate is enough for him, that he can eat chocolate with his nose. Puzzled again. Barring a serious health issue, how bad can chocolate be when consumed in moderation? Mmmm, rich, dark chocolate. I consume some every day and savor every bite, even if it’s only one tiny piece. Lagerfeld finished by saying he would love a perfume based on chocolate. Someone should send him Cacao, the beautiful perfume already made by Aftelier Perfumes. As with all of her other amazing scents, Mandy Aftel uses only natural ingredients (no synthetics), and this one has a base of chocolate and vanilla with citrus and jasmine sambac top and middle notes—all to make it absolutely intoxicating and, well, delicious.

Nature’s Inspiration: Pink Jasmine

The jasmine is blooming on the porch and I get to breathe in the rich and sweet blossoms before leaving for work in the morning and when coming home at the end of the day. I love the deep pink buds that hold the delicate white flowers. It’s like the pink of my don’t-leave-home-without-it lip gloss, Jane Iredale’s Cosmo PureGloss. So when I find myself having to refrain from gobbling up the flowers because they smell so good, I put on a little gloss and dab on some of Aftelier’s jasmine solid perfume, another makeup bag staple that comes with me wherever I go.

Hitting the Right Bottle: Perfume



I’ve loved perfume since I was a little kid. In chronological order, I wore Love’s Baby Soft, L’Air du Temps, Eternity, Flowers—then, well, then I went wild and crazy and divided my devotion among a collection of dozens of fragrances. I visited perfume blogs and ordered samples, always searching for magic in a bottle. I never left the house without a spritz or dab of something.

So when I learned a few years ago about the dangers that lurked in those bottles—to find out that something that smelled so good could be so, well, bad—it was disheartening. I’m sure a lot of others are feeling as dismayed after reading a report released this week from the fine folks at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance.” In short: the news stinks. Testing shows that popular perfumes are filled with chemicals that can hurt you and/or the environment. Oh, and some of those toxins aren’t even listed on the ingredients labels. (I’ve published a blog post on the topic at the Care2 site.)

So here’s the thing. No one likes to hear that something they enjoy is dangerous. I don’t like to be a Debbie-Downer, but I believe it’s important to be informed and pay attention to this report—and to try to lobby for change in the industry. Loopholes in the law to let companies hide ingredients from labels? Come on—there’s nothing acceptable about that.

But if there’s nothing enjoyable about telling someone that the perfume they love contains hidden toxins, there’s something delightful about talking up the alternatives out there. When I was faced with giving up my own beloved perfumes (ouch, it really hurt), I went on a mission to find scents I could wear without sacrificing my health. I had low expectations and resigned myself to settle for safe but second-best.

Boy, was I wrong. I started with pure essential oils, followed by blends. Then, when I worked at a website about green living, I had the pleasure of writing a story about Mandy Aftel, a perfumer who makes fragrances out of pure essential oils for her Aftelier line; she wrote a book on the subject that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in perfume: Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. Her passion for the art of perfumery is impressive and she is committed to creating only scents from pure sources—nothing artificial, nothing toxic. Spending time with her in her Berkeley studio (pictured, photos of her studio) was an absolute treat. I recall speaking to her about a recent hike and describing the smell of the wet fir when she pulled “Fig” off the shelf for me. Bingo. (It has become my go-to scent.)

I am now devoted to Aftel’s scents, along with others from perfume makers who don’t use nasty chemicals or hide what they use in their creations—so I can smell pretty without worrying about what my skin is absorbing. (Consult the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website for results of personal care products they test, including perfumes.) Best of all, I don’t miss anything I gave up.