An Aftelier Perfumes Experience: Virtuosity Meets Alchemy (Part One)
I finally know what all the excitement about Aftelier Perfumes is all about. Yes, I am late to the party but hey, parties don’t get interesting until they are well underway, right? After having tested a wide range of Mandy Aftel’s wonderful natural perfumes, I know why she has garnered so much attention, including a Fifi Awards nomination in 2011 for her masterful Honey Blossom scent.
Perfumer, author, artist, flavorist, innovator, and gifted communicator Mandy Aftel has been busy breaking down the barriers between indie/niche perfumery and the “big boys” for some time now, and her work has been instrumental in the recognition of natural perfumery as an art worthy of the respect that the classic perfume houses and luxury brands have always enjoyed in the modern era. Before I began testing the fragrances in earnest, I read her groundbreaking book Essence and Alchemy, which not only explains many of the technical aspects of perfumery for the layperson, but illuminates her own creative process and how the lessons of the past are interwoven with modern techniques. My understanding of the perfumery process was increased exponentially and I recommend this book very highly.
Of course I had to sample the famous Honey Blossom, and it did not disappoint, but it was not what I had been expecting at all. Unlike some other honey-based perfumes such as Ginestet’s Botrytis or Roxana Villa’s To Bee, it has virtually no highly pitched sweet notes; it is a cello versus violins, and only Serge Lutens’ honey monster Miel de Bois has as deep a voice. However, neither is it as funky and heavy as the Lutens, instead opting for a quiet depth that slowly becomes apparent, after a start that was curiously flat on my skin, with a smell almost like wet Kraft paper or cardboard; this turned out to be mimosa and linden, and both of them softened up after the strange beginning. (Mimosa in perfume has always been problematic for me, since unlike most florals it does not have much “lift” on its own and it needs help in that regard.) My patience rewarded with a slow, stealthy development that culminated in a richly dark honey scent that lasted for hours. A base of ambergris and benzoin helped in that regard, and since ambergris is very rarely encountered in modern perfumery; that was a rare treat indeed. Once it settled in for the long haul I could not stop smelling myself; to me it evokes chamber music played in a Victorian parlor with the late afternoon sun slanting in and the beeswax smell of polished furniture in the air. I love honey in perfume anyway (yes, even Miel de Bois!), and I can see why it has garnered so much attention.
Smelling the enigmatic Lumiére reminded me of a friend of mine who was trying to describe a wildly multi-colored garment by posing this question, and the only possible answer: “What color is it?” “Yes.” Lumiére is multifaceted and ever-changing on my skin, and I can’t even begin to pin down what category to put it in. Is it green? Is it floral? Is it fruity? Is it musky? Is it incense? Is it sharp? Is it soft? The answer to all is, of course, yes. Who ever heard of putting green tea, lotus flower and frankincense in the same perfume? And does it actually work? Well, yes, and spectacularly. The jangle of competing sensations at the beginning gradually composes itself into some thing truly beautiful, described by Mandy as feeling like fine silk on skin, but it’s a silk with a bit of raw roughness to it, shantung rather than charmeuse. At its heart is a splendid bouquet of lotus, honeysuckle and boronia flower, and remember that all of these are naturals, so you can just imagine how good it is; no weirdly aquatic “lotus” approximation in this juice, it’s the real thing. Having tested it several times, what I am coming up with at each wearing is that it’s a smell that slowly transforms into a perfume, if that makes any sense. Of all Mandy’s perfumes I have tried, to me this was the one that best illustrated the importance of the great Edmond Roudnitska’s principle of duration as an essential component of perfumery, as explained in Mandy’s book, since without it the artistry and structure of the fragrance cannot be experienced to the fullest degree. Once Lumiére has reached its final destination, it is both gorgeous and compelling and well worth the journey of getting there.
The first Aftelier fragrance I ever heard of was probably Cépes and Tuberose, and at long last I got to smell it. This is probably the one that put Mandy Aftel on the map, so to speak, and now I know why. The idea of putting mushrooms (cépes) and tuberose in the same perfume seems truly weird, until you think about it a little; there is some overlap in the lower register of their respective aromatic profiles, since tuberose has some pretty funky, fleshy, earthy undertones that become even more apparent when it is concentrated into a concrete or absolute, so pairing it up with porcini mushrooms almost seems like a natural progression, but of course it’s one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas that only seems blindingly obvious after someone creative has actually done it. The really amazing thing about it is how it does not really smell like either one of these things. This is where the alchemy part comes in; something entirely new is created by the fusion of two disparate elements. This is no novelty trick, but a beautifully wearable fragrance that keeps me riveted with a sweet, almost confectionary character, almost like rich chocolate with cream and fruit. Rosewood, Moroccan rose and benzoin contribute to this composition, but nothing else really accounts for the overall effect save the interaction between the mushroom and tuberose, resulting in a musky and highly sensuous experience like no other. It is light years away from any other tuberose perfume yet its languid sexiness fits right in with most people’s expectation of what a tuberose fragrance “should” be. The mushroom contributes its earthiness without actually revealing the secret of its identity to anyone who might smell it without knowing what it is. I don’t think I am going out on a limb to say that this is a masterpiece.
Speaking of unexpected, the lovely floral Pink Lotus was a nice surprise; unlike Lumiére, where the floral notes are sheer and evanescent, the lotus in this one is rich and “retro” with a solid mossy base like a Fifties classic once it develops, and I really liked it a lot. It put me in mind of such womanly vintage scents as Blanchard Jealousy or Corday Fame, with an added flourish of modern freshness. Unfortunately, this beauty is being discontinued, so if you want some, better hurry. In my next review of this line, I will talk about some more of these highly original fragrances.
Disclosure: The perfumes I sampled were given to me for testing by Mandy Aftel at my request.
Image credit: Purple glowing mushroom image wallpaper from topandroid.com