Everything Old is New Again: Sepia & Haute Claire by Aftelier Perfumes
Two new fragrances from Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes have captivated me recently. The most recent launch intrigued me as soon as I learned of it because of the idea behind its creation. Mandy Aftel has long been fascinated with the old abandoned ghost towns of California, and her goal was to create a perfume that captured the essence of the dusty old buildings slowly returning to the earth and their sense of history. This concept really spoke to me, since I grew up in northern New England, where historic buildings are everywhere, and I have always loved old wooden barns, both for the way they look and their wonderful smells; the sweetness of hay and straw, an echo of the animals that once lived in them, the smell of old farm machinery, and of course the ancient wood itself, aging to silver grey and bearing witness to decades or even centuries of hard use. Sepia is a loving tribute to artifacts like these, their usefulness long gone, but still they stand and gradually wear away in the elements until their ancient beams finally give way, their shabby beauty living only in faded photographs. This is not the sort of thing that comes to mind when most people think of making a fragrance, but then Mandy is not most people.
Sepia teases the nose at first with bright notes of mandarin and grapefruit, which quickly segue into the amazingly rich aroma of blood cedar, from the heartwood of the tree. Cedar can sometimes go very wrong on my skin and get harsh and sharp, or smell like pencil shavings, but this is nothing like that; it’s nothing short of majestic in its deep and vibrant character. It then does a slow fade, but I don’t mean that in a bad way, because this perfume has really good longevity. It simply ages, just like a weathered building, but in a time-lapse span of minutes instead of years. The heart notes of florals, coffee, cocoa and strawberry act to mute the woodiness of the cedar, and then its voice is further deepened by base notes which include tobacco flower, cépes (mushroom) labdanum, ambergris, oud and indole, the latter two of which adds a truly authentic element to the fragrance, a faint aura of decay or perhaps the trace of muskiness left behind by a wild animal who found shelter in an abandoned shack. I tested the Eau de Parfum, so I can only imagine the depth of the pure perfume version. Either way it’s a wonderful fragrance for either men or women to wear.
Of course, Sepia does not actually smell like an old wooden building, it’s a real perfume, not a novelty act. However, if it did, it would be an idealized version of one, constructed from the most beautiful vintage wood and looking impossibly romantic. The best barns in the world (in my admittedly biased opinion) are in Vermont at the historic Shelburne Farms, and I have long coveted them, especially the majestic Farm Barn. Smelling Sepia, I can close my eyes and imagine I am there, with sunlight streaming in through its high windows, every inch of its elegant structure in perfect harmony with its surroundings and the sweet aromas of old wood, hay and contented animals lingering in the still air.
I had missed out on trying Haute Claire when it was first released, but I was fascinated by the story of its development, as documented by the “Letters to a Fellow Perfumer” series hosted on Nathan Branch’s blog. (Sepia’s development was also documented in this series, with perfumer Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio.) Mandy and Liz Zorn of Soivohle Perfumes were both involved in sharing their creative process of making a perfume that contained both galbanum and ylang ylang, which was a tricky proposition as these two notes are not often found together; galbanum is sharp, green and icy cold while ylang ylang is a soft tropical floral with an almond-like sweetness. How could a wearable perfume be constructed using such disparate materials? I have not tried Liz Zorn’s fragrance, but I can attest to the fact that Mandy really pulled it off here.
Haute Claire opens with a buoyant greenness and the galbanum is immediately apparent, although not as sharp and dominant as it is in many other fragrances, and it’s joined by zesty lime and orange. There is a hint of floral sweetness which steadily unfolds until it seems that the rich, hazy ylang ylang and sweet honeysuckle is overwhelming the top notes and taking over the place. Yet there still remains an extension of the opening because of the presence of clary sage and vetiver, so the transition is seamless all the way down. I will be the first to admit that clary sage can be problematic, since I have grown it in my own garden, and its pungent herbal intensity can be a bit much in close quarters, but it is well tamed here and adds a lively character to the mix. I imagine that pairing it up with ylang ylang and the vanilla in the base was as much of a tightrope act for the perfumer as the galbanum. (Indeed, the very name of this fragrance is taken from the ancient Song of Roland, as it is the name of the sword of the character Olivier, said to have had a golden hilt embedded with crystal. This fragrance rides the fine edge of balance and makes it look easy, though surely it was not.)
Haute Claire has amazing tenacity too, and it’s still going strong twelve or more hours later, by which time the rich vanilla and floral notes have become as one, lightly leavened with vetiver and fused to the skin. At this point it seems a shame to have to bathe and take it off since it is so beautiful in the far drydown, so the only sensible thing to do is apply it again the next day and repeat the process.
Image credit: the beautiful Farm Barn complex at Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont via origamidon’s flickr photostream by Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.
Disclosure: The perfumes samples were sent to me for testing at my request by Mandy Aftel. The fragrances are available for purchase at www.aftelier.com .