The Dignity of Decay: Mandy Aftel's Sepia

Have you ever visited the ghost towns of the Wild West? The skeletons left standing long after the Gold Rush was done rushing have always intrigued me, but I've never been to visit one.

We just don't have anything like that on the East Coast, where I've lived all my life and done most of my (limited) traveling. When I think about those old ghost towns, certain images repeat themselves, probably exaggerated by books and movies, twisted and changed by time and imaginations.

If I close my eyes right now and imagine...


Feel the stillness of the amber desert, all that can be seen for miles around... Hear the squeak of a door as it opens, a bell quietly ringing its alarm...  Taste the dirt and dust as it circles you, kicked up by cattle on the main street... Feel the pounding heat beating down on your head as you discretely wipe away sweat from your forehead... Smell the cold water, freshly pumped from the well and poured into a rich oak barrel... Feel the heavy weight of gathered gold, hard-earned and nearly hot to the touch... Smell leather saddles, reins, boots, and belts... Touch the canvas on a wagon as you sidestep a loose dog and almost stumble... Hear the groan of the planks as you walk by storefronts... Smell the horses: their sweat, their manure, their warm, hay-tinged breath as they stand, patiently, tied to railings... Listen to the gentle rustle of long skirts over high leather boots... Smell the freshly polished wood that runs the length of the bar in the saloon - and smell spilled whiskey and beer, sticky on the floor... Hear the laughter of dancing women through upstairs windows as they gossip away the long, hot day... Smell the passion - and the desperation - that permeates everything...


"You know I can't believe we've lived so long and are still so far apart

The memory of you keeps calling after me like a rolling train."
"Brownsville Girl" - Bob Dylan  

Sepia, the newest scent by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel, strives to capture the feeling of those long-gone times. It evokes the memories of the past while also representing the still, quiet abandoned buildings and streets that remain to this day. Mandy said she enjoys trying to capture an emotional visual scene and portraying it as an emotional statement for the sense of smell. This strikes such a chord with me. One of my favorite things to photograph is abandoned buildings, crumpling barns in forgotten fields, and cars rotting away under trees. Without trying, I find myself building stories around these ghosts as I snap away. So you see why this project draws me in!

Mandy followed her own usual process when creating this olfactory homage, and to my delight captured bits of insight and peeks into her methods as part of the Letter to a Fellow Perfumer series that runs on Nathan Branch's blog (the series starts here).

How does a perfumer, natural or "mixed media" go about creating a perfume that depicts a California ghost town? Mandy usually starts with specific essences and builds around them then builds the scent from the bottom (base notes) up. Sometimes, as in with Sepia, those initial essences never make it to the final product! Her method is fascinating - very similar to that of an abstract expressionist painter. She seems to go to anther place and let intuition and experience guide her, as if in a trance of sorts (read more here).

Here's an excerpt that explains her motive in making Sepia:

"I’ve been driving around California’s Gold Country for the last year, looking at ghost towns and feeling consistently struck by their desolate beauty. I find myself drawn to their ruin — seeing in the remains of their previous life much more than I ever would have seen when they were new and pristine.

Certain things charm me, like the lack of a strict grid or city planning, the absence of sidewalks and curbs, and sometimes the presence of wooden sidewalks. My imagination is spurred in ways that are sensual yet vague, without specifics or literal points of focus.

To me, this is all about atmosphere

— the ghostly presences, the patina of time —

all of which inspire me to create..."
- Mandy Aftel, Letters to a Fellow Perfumer, courtesy of Nathan Branch

"I’m looking to recreate a feeling I have about ghost towns and the beauty of what remains after something is ravaged by time. After much disappears, what remains is experienced in wisps and shrouds of what came before, but only from the vantage point of now." - Mandy Aftel
Mandy made two concentrations of Sepia and I got to try both. Both are clearly related but have distinct differences, too. It was a really great experience to not only try this scent, but also to compare the two concentrations. Both were their own process and both brought to mind different things.

Notes are as follows:
Top: blood cedarwood, pink grapefruit and yellow mandarin
Middle: pink lotus, jasmine, strawberry, cocoa and coffee
Base: indole, ambergris, tobacco, labdanum, cepes and oud

When sampling Sepia in edp form, a mandarin and jasmine are the first prominent notes. Nearly immediately the base notes are pushed to the fore, sort of like flipping to the end of a book to see what happens. Sepia becomes dusty. The air is filled with tobacco, mushroom, salty skin. It is still and dense, like air in an undisturbed room.  Shortly, I experience an intensified mushroom scent blended with some dry, dark chocolate. At this point the scent seems to solidify and become more dense. Sepia in edp wavers on my skin like a flickering light, coming into focus and then fading away repeatedly over the rest of the duration of the scent. It's a truly beautiful experience.

In perfume concentration, Sepia opens chocolatey-rich with mandarin and jasmine on the side. The impression one gets of the scent is definitely warm and golden, like amber resin wrapped around some ancient long-gone creature. This version of Sepia builds as it wears as if layers are being piled on: polished wood then more chocolate then mushrooms. There's a  flash of something else here, something like Mandy's Cacao, but this is deeper and a bit more naughty. Cacao is sweet and rich, but this is dry, maybe dusty, perhaps even ancient. In this version, the scent softens over time and becomes a slightly powdery ambered whisper. Another incredible experience.

I couldn't pick a favorite version of Sepia. The edp is so damn mysterious. That in-and-out flicker is truly compelling, and I wear it sometimes just to feel it move. The perfume version of Sepia is so dense and lovely I won't be able to pass on it, either. I haven't worn them at the same time - I don't know that I could stand that much beauty all at once! I do think I need both forms, though, in my collection. There are times when I'd like a little mystery and others that I want that more centered, stronger presence. There is nothing like either of these in my collection right now.  In fact, I do not know that there's anything  like these two in perfumery. I can't think of a thing to compare them with when it comes to the mood and presence that they convey. They are startling, unusual, and truly beautiful.

"What I find so compelling about the art of perfumery is its seemingly direct access to our memories, hooking right into the experiences and feelings that stay with us throughout our lives... smells that can plug us in to dreamy, inchoate places inside each one of us where the entire landscape is painted with colors pulled from the very depths of our soul." - Mandy Aftel

Sepia is both a perfume and an experience. Had I not known the back-story, I doubt I would have envisioned abandoned Gold Rush towns, to be honest. But Sepia is clearly about distance and time. It is elegant and earthly at the same time. It has a certain wistfulness that I deeply enjoy. It is a whisper of the past. An echo. A memory - and yet somehow also beautifully concrete. It's the kind of scent that may seem strange at first but then you begin to crave it. It takes root in your being and becomes essential.

Thank you, Mandy, for another amazing piece of art (two, really!) and for allowing me to have this experience. 

Get Sepia at Aftelier Perfumes.
Mandy does have samples available
 for both the perfume and the eau de perfume
versions of this scent.  

Samples of these items were provided by the perfumer. 
Please see my policies page for more info on my review practices.


  1. Wow Jen, I am completely blown away by your amazing review! You have totally outdone yourself in channeling the spirit of Sepia - I can hardly believe how rich, intelligent, clever, and passionate it is! I thank you so much for your deep understanding and incredible support for my work.
    xo Mandy

    1. Aw, shucks, Partner! :)
      Thanks for making such inspiring work, Mandy, and for letting me be a small part of it's movement.

  2. Gorgeous descriptions of a scent I now can't wait to try! This is right up my alley!

    1. Thanks, Mike D. I love you for saying that. :)

  3. Bravissima, Jen! I love this review ,and I totally agree!

    1. Flora, thanks for the sweet compliment. It's really a neat scent, isn't it?

  4. Hi Jen - due to a very busy week, I saved this article and was finally able to read it this morning. I am struck by the images conjured - both of a gold rush town and the scent of Sepia. Very enjoyable reading! I've never tried Mandy's work, though the reviews always tempt me. The line is a little steep for me at this time, so I've even avoided sampling. I will eventually experiment with her creations and I just know they will be something special.

  5. Oh Man, great review Jen- the wanted poster is OTT. LOVE!!!


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