Aftelier Week: Haute Claire (a perfume review)

Hi, pumpkins. What a Fall it has been... I'm not one to wish time away, since I know we have so precious little of it, but I'm pretty ready to shoo 2011 into the past and greet 2012 with welcome arms!

I got some samples of scents from Aftelier Perfumes recently, from the lovely Mandy Aftel. I enjoyed putting them on and sniffing them and wearing them, and then, just as I was getting ready to write about them ---  BLAM! A cold.

Not a cold, really. Some kind of something like a cold but magnified into some uber-cold that has no name. I'm not the only one to catch it, of course. It's going around. But what I most resent from the darn thing was that I couldn't smell for two weeks! I literally sat next to the little tin of Aftelier samples during that whole time. A few times I opened the little round tin they came in and touched the pretty little vials, but since I couldn't have smelled an angry skunk sitting on my lap, I didn't bother opening those little friends.

But now? Now I can smell! And thus begins a week of reviewing my new little pals from Aftelier Perfumes, with many thanks to Mandy for a) providing me with the samples, b) being patient while I didn't review them, and c) saying nice things to me while I was sick. The only thing that's better than indie perfumes are the perfumers themselves!

So, without further yammering on my part, let's move onto...

Haute Claire

Perfumistas may have been following along on my imaginary BFF's blog* as Mandy Aftel and Liz Zorn corresponded about and sort-of collaborated on new perfumes**. This series is dead-fascinating if you're a fan of perfume or just interested in the creative process. It's really compelling, and to sniff the finished product is a real treat!

ANYWAY, this scent I'm discussing today is the result of that correspondence. The challenge set-up by Mandy and Liz was to use both galbanum and ylang-ylang in a scent. Why those two ingredients? Well, the women decided to work around two ingredients they usually prefer to ignore or avoid. You've gotta love that idea, don't you? Two artists, masters of their craft, challenging themselves and pushing past blocks to create something new. Fabulous.

Liz noted in their correspondence that she hadn't created a galbanum perfume in around 15 years. Mandy realized she never had made one she ended up putting in her line and referred to the ingredient as "impressive", yet possessing a "sharp and thorny greenness". She even called it "a green razorblade".  Liz called it " volatile and invasive".
Galbanum is green. Really green. It's also quite intense. I often sense it as high-pitched or sharp. It is also considered stand-offish by some, with scents that use it prominently to be thought of as cold or distant. You may have met it in any of these perfumes: Vent Vert (Balmain), No. 19 (Chanel), Chamade (Guerlain), among others.

Ylang ylang had been avoided by Liz for awhile, though she confessed to having liked it in the past. Mandy admitted its "creamy sweetness can be problematic". Zorn even admitted "It’s taking me some time to warm up to this Ylang Ylang. I wasn’t aware that my distaste for it had become so palpable."
Ylang is a white floral with quite interesting facets. Sometimes rubbery, at times super-sweet, even a little spicy, and once and awhile described as mentholated or having a wintergreen-like aspect. It can be heady. It can be fruity. Scents with prominent ylang ylang include: Private Collection Amber Ylang (Estee Lauder), Mahora (Guerlain), Joy (Patou), Black Orchid (Tom Ford), Songes (Annick Goutal) and countless others. Ylang Ylang is used in  the most famous of perfumes: Chanel No. 5. It's also found in many of my most beloved perfumes including one of my "Top 5" scents, Amaranthine (Penhaligons). There it is paired with banana leaf to amazing (and to some, dirty-skanky) degree.

To me, Mandy Aftel's perfume birthed of this experiment, Haute Claire, is not at all what I expected. Being a fan of both galbanum and ylang, I was expecting to enjoy the scent. I do. But not in the way I had anticipated...

Haute Claire is both crisp and soft, cool and warm. The fresh edgy greenness of galbanum is offset by the creamy floral of ylang ylang edged with honeysuckle. The green and floral notes harmonize in perfect pitch, with neither dominating the other. A warm base of vetiver and vanilla provides a soft finish of sweet grass. - Mandy Aftel
Featured NotesTop: galbanum, Mexican lime, wild sweet orange, ylang ylang co2.Heart: honeysuckle absolute, ylang ylang extra, clary sage.Base: vetiver, ethyl phenyl acetate***, vanilla absolute.

I expected Haute Claire to be sharply green. I often find galbanum piercing, but I do enjoy it. Beauty is pain/ Pain is beauty? I also figured I'd find a rich, buttery, thick ylang in this scent.

Cue the game show buzzer that signifies a wrong answer. Hit it a few times for good measure.

Instead, I revel in a rich, round green opening - tinged with a delightful lime. My skin has a tendency to rearrange notes, so the dry and arrid grassy vetiver blows through the opening of this perfume and is completely missing from the drydown.

Haute Claire becomes even rounder as it develops, which it does slowly - inch by inch. I never get much honeysuckle, though the clary sage wends its way through the first few hours of the perfume's development. I'm on the fence about that. The rich muskiness borders on objectionable for me (some people find it to smell like sweat socks, though I wouldn't go that far!).

I was expecting Haute Claire to be electric green. It isn't. Ylang balances the galbanum, creating a full-bodied mossy green experience, "mossy" here referring to the shade of green and not to actual moss as an ingredient. The clary sage keeps me on my toes, and I don't settle into this scent until, hours after application, the perfume itself settles down into a stunning and sexy ylang-vanilla that's nearly edible. Before that, though, I do not enjoy Haute Claire when I sniff my wrist. Oddly, I adore it when I turn into my own (minimal) sillage.

Did I mention the scent gets its name (as suggested by the aforementioned imaginary BFF, this perfume's "midwife") from a sword in "The Song of Roland", a 12th Century French poem? While I disagree with this scent's description as "high and light" (to me, it's low and beautifully shady), I completely understand the reference to the sword, which must have perfect balance to serve its handler well.

I enjoy a perfume that challenges me, just as Mandy Aftel seems to have enjoyed the challenges she and Liz Zorn set up for themselves when creating their scents for this project. Haute Claire is the best kind of challenge - it's not what I expected it to be. It's more. It's a really well-done blend of two ingredients that should fight against each other, and yet here they find balance and a kind of peace. The pull of the languid ylang provides the perfect counterpoint to the razor's edge of galbanum (to borrow Mandy's metaphor) just as the heft of a sword must be perfectly matched with its sharp edge and point.

Have you tried Haute Claire? Any other of Mandy's scents? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments! I'm interested to hear them.
And stay tuned: more Aftelier Perfume reviews are on their way. In fact, there will be one here tomorrow!

*If you aren't reading Nathan Branch, what are you doing with your free time?
**Ep. 1Ep. 2Ep. 3Ep. 4

***According to what I read on Scent Hive, ethyl phenyl acetate is sometimes derived from petroleum, but the one used by Mandy is not. Hers comes from "is an isolate from fruit, wine or whiskey."


  1. Thank you for another beautiful review. Looking forward to read more of your posts.

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  2. Thank you so much Jen for your fantastic review! I love your smartly-detailed writing – you tell a great story, beautifully presented, I couldn’t hope for a better expression of my art! I’m especially honored to have your attention all week, I really appreciate such a generous gift.
    xo Mandy

  3. I did get to sniff this amazing perfume in Mandy's studio last spring while there as a student. I couldn't wait to smell it, because I find galbanum so revolting! It is a truly masterful perfume. Mandy spent three days teaching us how to build scents around two particular essences without either one dominating or getting buried. Haute Claire is the perfect example of this technique: both essences are present yet not overwhelming - they seem to balance each other very well. I was so impressed to be smelling something with galbanum that I actually liked! This is really something every perfumista should smell!

  4. Eula, thanks for your sweet compliment! I'm glad you enjoy it here!

  5. Mandy, the gift was yours, to me! Thanks for the opportunity to learn about your scents! I never dreamed, reading your book, that I'd have a week like this- and get to know you! A fabulous experience all the way around. Thank you!

  6. Katie, what a privilege that must be, to work with Mandy! Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I concur: Haute Claire is a must-try!

  7. Imaginary BFF I mean Jen! I'm loving your Aftelier reviews -- the Cacao (with envy-inducing illustrations) had me laughing out loud, and the way you describe your experience with Haute Claire is terrifically vivid and direct.

    Haute Claire is definitely challenging, but pleasing, and then challenging, and then pleasing again. It's like climbing a mountain in stages -- you work to reach a plateau, marvel at the gorgeous view for a bit and then clap your hands together and say, "Okay, time to go a little further!"

    But once you hit that creamy ylang-vanilla summit, it's so completely worth all the bumps and scrapes.

    And thanks very much for the shout-out. Always appreciated.

  8. Nathan! Fancy meeting you here. :)
    Thanks for the compliments. I like laughter a lot. I enjoy the challenge of Haute Claire - I hope that came across. It's one I had to learn, like going on a few awkward dates before realizing you've met someone special.
    I like the idea of a creamy ylang-vanilla summit. Do you have those in New Zealand?!


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