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Berkeley Perfumer Makes History With Natural Scents

Three natural perfumes by scent-maker Mandy Aftel were chosen as finalists in the Indie Division of the FiFi Awards this year.

For the first time in the history of the annual FiFi Awards, the Oscars of the fragrance industry, several natural perfumes were chosen as finalists in the Indie Perfume Division. All of them, “Honey Blossom,” “Candide,” and “Lumiere,” are creations of Berkeley’s own Mandy Aftel, a natural perfumer, owner of Aftelier Perfumes and an author.

Aftel attended the awards ceremony on May 25th and reported the goings-on in real time on Facebook to her fans and friends. In the end, the Indie Brand Fragrance of the Year went to Six Scents Parfums, but the nomination itself created a huge stir of excitement in the natural perfumers’ community as messages flew back and forth online from all around the world.

Mandy Aftel works out of a studio located in North Berkeley. Looking at it from the street, one would never know that it contained a perfumer’s studio. The only hint one gets are the small perfume bottles that line a window.

Entering her studio, which she named Aftelier, the visitor is immediately greeted by Aftel’s custom-made “perfumer’s organ.” Its shelves are filled with hundreds of bottles of rare and exotic essential oils and absolutes. The oils are color-coded: yellow for top notes, red for heart notes, and green for base notes, and they are arranged roughly in alphabetical order within the note groups. I spotted some very rare and hard-to-get oils like boronia absolute from Tasmania, antique ambergris, antique civet and blue lotus absolute.

The wall on the other side of the room is covered with Aftel’s vast collection of rare and vintage books about perfumes, some of which were included in an exhibition at the University of Southern California's Doheny Memorial Library held in 2004, "The Foul and the Fragrant: Creating Perfume." The rare books and other perfume memorabilia collected by Aftel were also featured in another exhibit titled “Living Perfume: The Natural Alchemy of Mandy Aftel,” held at Henri Bendel in 2009.

Another wall holds drawers and cabinets where Aftelier’s labels and products are neatly kept, much like small drawers often found in Chinese herb shops.

Aftel grew up in Detroit, MI, and studied English, psychology, and counseling at the University of Michigan before arriving in Berkeley with her first husband, who came to study law at .

Immediately after arriving here, “I felt I belonged,” said Aftel.

“I loved the hiddledy-piggledy, the Bohemian informality of Berkeley. There’s a kind of organic authenticity here that’s not found in the Midwest where everything had a man-made order and rigidity," Aftel said. "I love the winding paths of the hills, the flowers in the front yards instead of lawns. The natural beauty of the area with the ocean and the hills and the eternal spring keeps me inspired.”

Having neighbors like and has been influential and inspirational, she said. “Quality of ingredients is very important to natural perfumes.”

Aftel first became interested in perfumes while she was researching for a novel and took a class in San Francisco at Leydet Aromatics with Victoria Edwards, an aromatherapist and author of several aromatherapy books. Aftel started making perfumes under Grandiflorum Perfumes with a partner, and established Aftelier in 1997.

Ever since Coco Chanel wowed Parisians in 1921 with a perfume named Chanel No. 5 that featured new fragrance chemicals called aldehydes, commercial perfumes have moved away from using natural fragrance materials towards synthetics, a cheaper and more predictably available alternative. Today most commercial perfumes consist mostly of man-made chemicals, or “molecules” as they are called by perfumers.

A small group of artisan perfumers, however, are committed to making perfumes using only fragrance materials derived from nature. Mandy Aftel, who has zealously promoted her passion, is inarguably the most recognized name in natural perfumery. Essence and Alchemy published in 2001, one of the three books on natural perfumes she has written, has become a must-read for natural perfumers. To date, it has been translated into seven languages.

One of the beauties of naturals is the way a scent reacts differently on different skin. Aftelier’s “Honey Blossom,” which features a lovely Linden Blossom CO2 smelled linear and boring on my skin, but it blossomed into a full, luscious floral on Aftel’s skin, while “Lumiere” featuring blue lotus was equally clean and beautiful on both our skins.

Naturals also tend to stay closer to the wearer and do not last all day; they are more personal and temporal in nature. They do not blast the entire room with a scent. If commercial synthetic perfume is a boom box, then natural perfume is Jean Pierre Rampal. To increase public awareness about natural perfumes, Aftel founded the Natural Perfumer’s Guild in 2002.

Aftel has been approached by retailers to carry her products, but, she said, “I want to make everything myself. I don’t want to grow to be a production line. I want to stay handmade. I’m interested in arts and crafts.”

While her products are available only online through Aftelier’s website and at a handful of carefully selected retailers, Aftel has followers all over the world. Several celebrities have become fans of hers including Madonna, for whom Pink Lotus was originally created. “I’m interested in getting to know my customers,” said Aftel, who worked as a therapist before becoming a perfumer.

Aftel’s latest projects have involved perfumes and food. Her book Aroma was co-authored with Daniel Patterson of Coi Restaurant, and she has appeared on various shows about food and perfumes. Aftelier carries a line called Chef’s Essences for those who are interested in flavoring their whipped cream with jasmin or vodka with rose.

Aftel is currently working on “a continuation of Essence and Alchemy. Writing is a long and laborious process for me, especially with lots of things happening on top of creating perfumes. I’m also very active on Facebook and enjoy interacting with people that way,” confided Aftel. “I consider myself very fortunate to be doing what I want to do, and bringing beauty and enjoyment in people’s lives.”

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