Mandy Aftel, founder of Aftelier Perfumes, has been making her own natural perfume and fragrances for over 20 years. Traveling the world to find the most unique and exquisite ingredients, Aftel has been coined "the mother of natural perfumery" due to her passion for working with natural materials in an industry saturated with synthetic aromas. Below, in an excerpt from her latest book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, Aftel shares her tips and tricks for blending your perfect natural fragrance.
The Zen Of Perfume Making
Before we embark on making perfume, I want to introduce you to my basic approach to the craft of blending. Having an orderly system in place is especially important, because the narcotic sensuality of smelling natural essences can make it hard to keep track of what you're doing; in fact, the interplay of order and a dreamlike, instinctive spontaneity is the paradox that beats at the heart of the process of creating beautiful perfume.
Here, then, are the principles and practices—acquired through much trial and error!—that I follow every time I make a perfume:
The whole process should be beautiful.
The process of creating perfume should mirror the end result. You honor the materials and the process by your attention to beauty when choosing and labeling the bottles in which you store your essences and the tools for mixing and measuring them. Your tools need not be complicated or expensive, but they should be chosen with care.
Adhere to a strict "budget."
Every perfume is a blend of base, middle, and top notes. When blending perfumes in alcohol, which creates a different evolution, I like to adhere to a strict budget of drops for each register. For example, if I use a total of ten drops (a good round number) of essence to make up the base, then I also use ten drops of essence to make the middle and ten drops of essence in the top. (Solid perfumes and other oil-based perfumes evolve differently and lend themselves to less intricate combinations and allow for greater flexibility in proportions.)
The temptation to tamper with the number of drops is enormous, particularly if the blend is going well. A budget fosters creative discipline and focus, and it results in an architecturally sound perfume. Think of it like a financial budget: with only ten drops to spend, you want to make every drop worthwhile.
Write down everything you do while you're blending.
Keeping good notes allows you to retrace your steps, correct mistakes, and create variations. Never count on your memory. When you're in the throes of blending, you will be in an altered state of consciousness that is not easily recalled once you're out of it.
Experience the perfume on the skin after the addition of each new essence.
Natural fragrance blossoms on the body and should be smelled on your skin. The best way to smell a natural perfume is to put a drop or two on the back of your clean, unfragranced hand. Rub the perfume twice to make the alcohol disperse, so that you can smell the perfume itself.
Close your eyes when you smell the perfume, and focus on what strikes you and in what order. Take note of the complexity, texture, and shape of the scent. When you're composing, you will gain important knowledge this way at every stage of composition: how the newest addition has altered the direction of the blend and whether or not you like where it's going. The last essence added always dominates the mixture for a few moments before it settles back down, but in those first few moments its louder volume gives you the opportunity to understand clearly what the new arrival brings to the blend.
Smelling at every step also allows you to pinpoint where a blend has gone astray, so that you can remake it to the last good step and take a different path from there. I indicate this with the notation "GTH," which means "good to here." I find that using such a system allows me to take risks in composing, because I know I will be able to trace my way back to solid ground.
Plan on failing and redoing.
Don't count on concocting something good the first several times you make a blend. Plan on revising and allow yourself the freedom of failure. Creating a good perfume is a process.
Be real, let go.
From teaching perfumery I know how hard this one is. Time and time again, I see students have trouble admitting to themselves that a perfume doesn't work and letting it go. If a blend is bad, don't try to tell yourself it's beautiful. Dump it. You need to make lots of bad perfumes to make a good one. Be as honest as you possibly can about what you've made. The world does not need more bad perfumes.
Spend money to create something good.
Accept the idea that you will be spending lots of money on essences in the process of learning to make good perfume and that money is not wasted. Get really comfortable with that idea. It will give you the freedom to take risks and be honest with yourself.
Creating perfume mirrors life.
Budget, personalities, money, failure, honesty, and sensuality—although perfume is an almost intangible thing, it is a mirror of and a vehicle for the tensions and complexities of life.
Reprinted from Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Mandy Aftel