Laura Albert speaks with Mandy Aftel about her book “Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent”

Dear Shaded Viewers,

Through five major players in the epic of aroma, Aftel explores the

profound connection between our sense of smell and the appetites that

move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive. Cinnamon, queen of the

Spice Route, touches our hunger for the unknown, the exotic, the

luxurious. Mint, homegrown the world over, speaks to our affinity for

the native, the familiar, the authentic. Frankincense, an aromatic

resin, taps into our longing for transcendence, while ambergris

embodies our unquenchable curiosity. And exquisite jasmine exemplifies

our yearning for beauty, both evanescent and enduring. In addition to

providing a riveting initiation into the history, natural history, and

philosophy of scent, Fragrant imparts the essentials of scent literacy

and includes recipes for easy-to-make fragrances and edible,

drinkable, and useful concoctions that reveal the imaginative

possibilities of creating with — and reveling in — aroma.

LA: What are some of the interactions you have had a result of your

scents? Have other people told you about experiencing such contacts?


MA: I create a perfume in order to pass along, wordlessly, an emotional experience I’ve had, much for the same reasons people create paintings or music. People do often tell me they’ve had a deep emotional connection to something I’ve made, that it did capture a fleeting moment of life in a bottle. The amazing aromatic materials that I create with play a big role in evoking such a personal response. For example, I created my perfume "Sepia" to try to capture my fascination with the California Gold Rush, ghost towns and the beauty of aging and decay.



LA: I have great respect for your achievements as a scientist. Has it been

hard to go from the hands-on work to the completely different hands-on

of writing it down for a book?


MA: No, it hasn’t, because my work in scent is rooted in both my imagination and my sense of smell. As I did the exhaustive research, exploring the five rock-star scents for this book, I felt like I was traveling deep inside these aromas. Even though I wrote based concretely in these materials, it was still an imaginative journey like I take every day.


For me, like my fellow scent-obsessed ancestors, falling down the rabbit hole of beautiful aromatics is to come upon a completely different universe — of beauty and sensuality — which is exactly where I found myself while researching and writing this book. I smell the caps of different essences, of say rose and ginger, to imagine how they would go together.  This is not so different from imaging how words and ideas I'm putting together on the page will alchemize for the reader.



LA: What presented the most difficulty in writing this book — and what

was most rewarding, beyond getting it published?


MA: Most rewarding was the Mint chapter; I included mint because my good friend and chef Daniel Patterson said I had to include something green. I thought this would be pretty boring, even though I saw the logic in it. Much to my surprise, I discovered a lost world of “weird old America” a period of history whose through-line was mint essential oil, and the burgeoning industries of chewing gum, toothpaste, and breath mints that took place in the Midwestern frontiers of Michigan. Little did I know that I would stumble upon medieval Italian “books of secrets,” which were an amalgam of home remedies, cooking recipes, witchcraft, and perfume, that were the direct antecedents to the antique perfumery books that I had been collecting since I started making perfumes.  This tradition was carried on in the compendiums that the American pioneers carried westward, like Dr. Chase’s Recipes, or Information for Everybody (1903)


Most difficult was that, because I read well over 150 books, and I personally was enthralled by so much of the material, in the end, I had enough for several books, and it was hard to winnow down what would make the final cut.


LA: Were you olfactory as a child? Did the aroma of things seem especially

evocative or identifying for you even then?


MA:  I was sensual, but not so olfactory. What I was, was incredibly curious, poorly socialized, and always putting my nose into things.  Following my nose has served me well as a perfumer and as a writer in ferretting out materials and making connections.



LA: Do scents now help you enter into other states — evoke memories,

conjure certain people, enter into a deep sensual space?


MA: Yes, in my studio I have amassed an unbelievable “organ” of natural perfume essences, some from the turn of the last century, with many different varieties — of roses, of oranges, with minute variations. Anyway, I think of the essences not just as individuals but as my “friends” — they take me so many places inside myself, they never fail to make me happy. There is something about smelling these unbelievably gorgeous essences, like time-traveling, or an out-of-body experience — almost like a drug, so mind-bendingly deep and beautiful. I see the aromas enter people when I teach or do a demonstration, I watch people’s moods change right in front of me. I am excited to share these aromatic experiences more widely; I do believe that the more you know about an aroma, the richer your experience will be when you smell it. Breathing in beautiful natural aromatics put you in a slightly narcotic state.  I always have to be careful  to make sure that I write down exactly which essences I have used and how many drops in order to hold on to it and be able to make it again.

LA: MP3s have habituated kids’ ears to a tiny and tinny sound — studies

find they actually prefer it to the full richness of an analog

reproduction of music. Do you think the plethora of cheap scents

around us works to cloud and blunt peoples’ sense of scent? AXE

deodorant, Tide detergent — perfumes are employed to deaden

sensibilities, and people don't know what they have been sold and are

trading on — or what is possible.  Do you feel it is possible to

awaken people from their enchantment with chemicals — not unlike

rousing someone with smelling salts?


MA: Absolutely, it is my hope. I feel that people have been cut off from the voluptuous, gorgeous experience of high-quality aromatics, from being only exposed to the olfactory equivalent of McDonalds and that the places where this really can really be expanded are with food. With cooking, or even simply drinking tea or hot chocolate, people are used to having a richer aromatic experience.


LA: For some people, scent is used to be recognizable as part of the herd.

Is it dangerous to step outside the herd?


MA: From my perspective, it is dangerous to stay in the herd.


LA: As JT LeRoy, I once wrote a Swiftian adventure fable about how far we

would go to find a rare flower in the Congo. It was clearly over the

top, but not really! You have gone on phenomenal treks to find new

scents, can you share some of them?


MA: People always ask me if I travel, and I feel like a huge disappointment because I say no.  My phenomenal treks have all taken place in the comfort of my home in Berkeley, but I have gone to phenomenal lengths to get my hands on the rare, precious, and unfathomably expensive essences that I use in my perfumes.  I have been offered the opportunity to buy old antique collections of essences, and hundred-year-old sandalwood and ambergris that have aged like fine wines.  I found a grower of gardenia in Tahiti who sells only to me and is very eccentric.   I go places in my imagination and my research. There I am on the Spice Route. 

Laura Albert

Laura Albert won international acclaim writing fiction as JT LeRoy:

the best-selling novels SARAH and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL

THINGS, and the novella HAROLD'S END. Find out more at her website

Diane Pernet

A LEGENDARY FIGURE IN FASHION and a pioneer of blogging, Diane is a respected journalist, critic, curator and talent-hunter based in Paris. During her prolific career, she designed her own successful brand in New York, costume designer, photographer, and filmmaker.