May 18, 2012

Sepia by Aftelier

Photo by Mandy Aftel
Aftelier Perfumes is a line whose perfumes remind me of chapters and characters in a novel, created around the experiences and personal references of the perfumer Mandy Aftel. I know she has lived in California for quite a long time now.  In Sepia, I see the wide open spaces and  beauty of the West have sunk into her so deeply that the California landscape and feeling is expressed within her perfumes.

Her use of the highest quality fully natural materials available to build her perfumes, sourcing these precious and rare materials from all over the world, is an integral part of their character and mystique. She is so familiar with the unique qualities of each perfume substance that she can be playful with them, and can bring out aspects not traditionally familiar.

This sense of play results in luxurious perfumes in a very personal style. These perfume interpretations of place and memory and feeling are both modern yet also may plunge you into the pleasures of historical forms of beauty.

Natural perfume materials have their own deep past, and storied lore, which Aftel brings in as elements to combine with her own life experience.

The magnificence of this perfume’s material quality, combined with an imagination steeped in affection for the past is unique. This type of hand-made, highly luxurious yet very earthy and natural perfume must be directly experienced first-hand over and over to acclimate to a different form of perfume beauty than most are used to. These perfumes must be fully appreciated on their own terms.

Photo by Nathan Branch
Most Aftelier perfumes are immediately beautiful, accessible to anyone from the first try. Still, there deliberately are a few perfumes in her line that are highly idiosyncratic, which is to say, not for everyone. Sepia was made because the perfumer wanted to express her experience of the spirit of the Old West through the medium of perfume, and she did it in a way that is not how other perfumes are usually conceived. This one is not just about decorating yourself with olfactory beauty, though there is that. It’s also about steeping yourself in a particular time and place in history.

Photos from Mandy Aftel
Sepia is about the collective American memory we still hold around the beauty of the Old West, the raw strength of those who came out with the Gold Rush, who tried to make something of themselves and the place with their own hands. All that has passed away, and there is a melancholy and poignant beauty to that ephemeral aspect of even the strongest and most enterprising of opportunity among us. As we all know the only thing that remains are a few old ghost towns.

For eyes that have a taste for such worn antique beauty, those ramshackle ghost town buildings grow more and more gorgeous as they fall apart. Their essence is now part of the continual aging blasts of sun and sand and wind and the cold at night, as the elements react against wood and metal. The aging process shows the passing of time and increases their strange charm.

Especially poignant are the few ornamental flourishes that are left, from the late Victorian style we all still hold dear within the deepest part of our private hearts. Those times and people, though physically ephemeral, as is perfume, still managed to have such a big effect on our history and cultural identity. We’ve framed those extraordinary experiences within sepia toned memories about the Gold Rush and those who first tried to make it out there on their own, in the farthest of the western states of America.

Sepia, the perfume, is based on the beauty of the old ghost towns of the West. The weathering of the elements against the works of people who are now long gone, crossed with the old stories and lore that are what we have left of them. We know they were tough individualists who worked really hard in difficult conditions, drank hard liquor, loved tobacco and having a card game and blowing off steam with a fast girl and a hair trigger temper.

The perfume itself is strong, yet still wears as a sheerness on the skin, like a memory or ghostly presence, of something once vividly alive but now living on only in legend and a few physical traces, made of the strong old time natural materials, wearing down gracefully over time.

The perfume itself grew from a project where two perfumers exchanged insights and letters on their creative process with each other, online. This was hosted by Nathan Branch on his site in a series of such events, all with Mandy Aftel, and various other perfumers.  The perfumers take a theme and then develop a perfume to express it, and review with each other and the public how they do it and what they are thinking about. These letters can be accessed on the site and range across many notes and styles.

Sepia happened to involve both perfumers from California (the other was Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scents). The result for Mandy was a perfume shaped by road trips around California to the places that still show some traces of the Gold Rush. The photographs she took were reference to the perfumes, as a portrait might be based on some snapshots of a face.

The notes are unusual, and include cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit, pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, and labdanum.

Sepia might be what the Sundance Kid smelled like
For me the dark base notes are the prominent ones, and the whole perfume works in reverse of the usual way perfume does. That usual way is the first notes you notice are the light decorative citrus or floral ones, and then later the deeper darker base notes that are left clinging to the skin. With Sepia, I was immediately plunged into the dark coffee, cocoa, tobacco, oud, indole, labdanum, cepes (mushroom) ambergris tones, and then later the individually lyrical citrus and floral notes emerged.

Sepia is just one of the rich and complex Aftelier perfumes, and if you are not yet familiar with them, I refer you to the site and to her books, which are a great pleasure to slowly browse through and read.

There is a sample program where you can try small amounts at a small cost. 
1/4 oz $150, a mini perfume $45, samples $6
The sample was sent to me by the perfumer.

Above photos, top by Mandy Aftel
Second photo by Nathan Branch
Third photo set from Aftelier
Forth photo  from a site on the history of gold  
Photo of the Sundance Kid from Famous Dead Mormons

Music to listen to perfume by:
The National:  All the Wine
Mojave 3:Bluebird of Happiness - with a beautiful except from Sukarov's Mother and Son

An expertly edited version of these effusions:

"'Sepia - A Perfume of the Wide Open Spaces of the Past' was first published in the spring issue of Tugboat Magazine (  All rights reserved."


lostpastremembered said...

What a magnificent post. You make such brilliant sense of the creative process involved in the creation of a fragrance. Love the Mojave 3 as I was reading the words... it all does go together, doesn't it?

The new graphics on the site are wonderful. The pictures draw you in immediately... I could spend ages flipping them... like a tarot deck.... very cool.

mandy said...

What a marvelous review Lucy - I feel so well-understood! I appreciate your amazing ability to express the notes, mood, & context of a perfume in such eloquent prose. I am so glad to have a kindred spirit reminiscing about the ghosts from the inspired past, and the pictures & music are perfect!
xo Mandy

Lucy Raubertas said...

Thanks, I hoped to convey some of the sense of times gone past this contains in the form of scent. Daugerrotypes, saddle leather, whiskey, tobacco, mellowed out all together and worn down by the wind and sun.