The best perfumes transport you to other worlds, filling your mind with images or memories. Vanilla Smoke, the latest release from Mandy Aftel, did precisely that for me, recalling bygone times in a way that made me smile. I once lived in places where there were four seasons, where autumn’s passage into winter was marked by piles of red-gold leaves, and a frosty chill in the air. One of my favorite things was that first winter fire, building layers of logs, kindling twigs, and old newspapers in the fireplace, the aroma of burnt paper as the fire licked the outermost edges of the pile, then the scent and crackle as the red-gold-black flames crept inwards, charring the wood, and heralding a night of snuggling warmth ahead. Ms. Aftel’s Vanilla Smoke brings all of that back to me. Eschewing the typical refrains of caramelized or sugar-coated vanilla, her vanilla is built around the heart of a winter fire, with a good slug of Bourbon drizzled on top to really bring home the cozy comfort aspects.
Close your eyes, and imagine a morning walk through the country on a summer’s day. You start in a small forest glade where moss creeps up ancient trees and their gnarled roots. Leaves lie damp under your footsteps, crushed into earth that is dark, loamy, and a little sweet. Tender green shoots and fresh herbs climb out of the ground, peeking their heads around the moss, joining the forest’s morning song. The sun glints through the trees, seemingly half awake and still a little pale, but it quickly shakes itself to shine brighter and warmer, moving rapidly over the turquoise sky.
Your walk quickly takes you to a meadow on the other side where clover and soft grasses form a soft, downy blanket covering the lands. You find yourself a tree at the edges, near an adjoining field of hay and a farmer’s small herb patch filled with sage and thyme. You place a blanket and pillow on its mossy roots, lie back, and let the country’s summer pageant engulf you. The sun has woken fully now, shining warm and bright, enveloping you in its soft embrace. It’s a reverie of greenness that feels infinitely warm and happy without ever losing its innate, ineffable sense of elegance.
We all start somewhere when it comes to perfume, even masters of the craft like Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes who has been making fragrances for more than 20 years and is the indisputable doyenne of American natural perfumery. She, too, began somewhere, and she graciously took time out of her busy schedule to talk about her journey, as well as how she learnt about the building blocks of perfume-creation, her methodology, her favorite materials, her books, the world of food, and more. I’m extremely grateful for the glimpse into her world, and cannot thank her enough for patiently answering some very long questions. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
- I’m very interested in people’s perfume journeys, particularly what it was like for a perfumer when they first started, especially someone with such vast knowledge as yourself. You were originally a therapist with degrees from the University of Michigan in Psychology and English. A 2005 profile article on you in SF Gate says that your practice “specialized in helping musicians, writers and artists realize their creative potential.” You even wrote a book in 1982 on one of the Rolling Stones entitled, “Death of a Rolling Stone: The Brian Jones Story.” Then, in the early 1990s, you started making fragrances. Was there anything beyond a general interest in scent and aromas that triggered the leap from being a therapist and published author to creating perfumes?
This has been a good year for perfume releases. For all that I sometimes grumble about the generic nature of fragrances put out these days, 2014 actually had a number of scents that really impressed me. Last year, I could not find a full 10 new releases for my list, and refused to simply include things for the sake of round numbers. This year, I have 15 scents that I actually think are good representations of their genre and were done very well, along with a few Honourable Mentions.
As I always emphasize, perfume reviewing is subjective and personal by its very nature, so winnowing fragrances down to some favorites is even more so. My criteria for selection varied. A number of the fragrances were not really for me, personally, for various reasons (a particular note or genre that I struggle with, discreet sillage, or something else), but were chosen nevertheless because something about the particular scent was either interesting, luxurious, evocative, complex and/or, as noted above, an extremely good example of its genre that also happened to be done in a very elegant manner. A handful of perfumes are on the list for the most subjective reason of all: I either bought full bottles for myself, plan to get them, or would love to do so if their price were not a consideration.
Ranking things is an utter nightmare, but the Top Five are firmly placed in accordance with my feelings. The remainder of the scents are ranked within one to three slots, plus or minus, of where they are in my estimation at the present time, though keep in mind that perfumistas are a fickle bunch who can change their mind from one month to the next, and I’m no exception. All of these fragrances were released in 2014. The problem is that some of the names that I would love to have on this list (like SHL 777‘s O Hira and Black Gemstone) technically debuted in very limited fashion in 2013, before being released globally this year. As a result, what I’ve decided to do is to write a separate list of my 30 personal favorites of 2014, things that I’ve covered this year but without regard to their official launch date. I’ll update this post with a link when I do. There is some overlap between the two lists, but not a lot.