On Mandy Aftel's book "Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent"

It's been so long since I've blogged that I've quite forgotten how! But I can't think of a better way to jump back in than to start with an offering from one of the nicest people I know, a friend and a fragrant wizard: Mandy Aftel. Today, though, I'm not discussing a perfume. I'm talking books, my friends.

That's right. Among Mandy's many gifts is her ability to put her thoughts to paper. Perhaps you have read her well-known primer on natural perfumery, Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume*? Or her book on using essential oils in expected (and not so expected) ways: Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance (with Daniel Patterson)? Or Scents and Sensibilities: Creating Solid Perfumes for Well-Being? Did you know she has also written about Brian Jones, a founding member of the Rolling Stones? And about finding a therapist? Yeah, she used to be a therapist in a past life. I mean, not like a past life, woo-woo-style, rather that was her profession before she discovered her passion for natural perfumery.

[*Note to self: Self, why have I not reviewed that?  I do own it. Must remedy.]

"I create perfume, and people wear it, because beauty is a vacation from reality. It is a place --an ideal place-- that you can visit without traveling. It is restorative, and it makes you feel good. A personal adornment like wearing jewelry, it has no practical purpose whatsoever. It simply allows us to inhale bliss." - Mandy Aftel

Why Fragrant?
Frankly, I'm a bit of a quite a nerd, so no hobby of mine can fully be enjoyed without understanding the background of the whole thing. Luckily, in Fragrant, Mandy makes this not only an accessible bit of research but a very pleasurable one.

But Fragrant is not written for the perfumers and perfumistas of the world. I mean, feel free to read it if you are one. I encourage you to do so. No, more than that: Frankly, I'm quite confused if you don't read Fragrant and still call yourself a perfumista. I don't understand how you can blog about, or "speak knowledgeably" about, your passion if you do not know where the art's roots are. But anyway, I digress.

Fragrant is Mandy's offering to the non-obsessed. To those who, to borrow the online slang, may be noobs. The curious. The folks who wonder-- "who was the first person to rub that on their body? And WHY?!" It's a way to open the door and say, "Come in, explore this amazing world with us!"

Love, love, love the awesome pictures that pepper the pages of Fragrant

At the beginning of the book, Mandy skims through her history. She tells us of various careers that led her, ultimately, to her passion: natural perfumes. She uses words like "joy" and "heady" and "mysterious" and "amazing." You feel how excited she is to share this world of hers with you, the reader, and that's what makes this book such a lovely read. And it's also, by the way, what makes Mandy such a great perfumer and a wonderful person to talk to. 

You see, she knows that people have become so accustomed to being bombarded with scents that we hardly register them anymore. Our detergents, our dish soaps, shampoos, our grocery stores, our foods for heaven's sake! Everything has an artificial scent and we've become numb to this constant battering ram of olfactory warfare. 

We think perhaps we just don't care about scent. But Mandy has discovered the joy of introducing - or rather, reintroducing - people to the pleasure of natural scents. And that, my friends, is why Fragrant was written.
"...they've come to believe they have no appetite for scent itself.  Watching them discover authentic aromas and their sensual pleasures is profoundly thrilling, like watching a starving person feast on a delicious meal. It's these experiences of reawakening people to scent that led to this book." -Mandy Aftel

The Main Characters

Mandy has taken a clever approach to introducing us to the world of scent. She's chosen five "main characters" to lead the reader through history and perfumery. Each gets a chapter. I'll happily introduce them, but let me point out that the real bonus is that if you purchase Fragrant from Mandy's website, Aftelier Perfumes, you get this amazing Companion Kit that actually gives you samples of all five of the main characters!

Each item in the Companion Kit
Companion Kit packaging

In order of appearance:


Full disclosure: I really do not react well to spearmint. Well, whatcha gonna do? 

How cool is it to know that the cinnamon and mint oils that come in the kit can be used in food or drink? And should you choose to do so, you may wear the (already diluted) ambergris tincture and jasmine on your skin. The frankincense? Rub it between your fingers, on your skin, or layer it with the other two skin-appropriate oils and make your own perfume!

The inside of The Companion Kit

Cinnamon is a spice, and leads us through the spice route, educating us on history, passion, some myth, and how perfumery really got its start.

Mint represents home and Americana. It symbolizes all things authentic, comforting, and welcoming.

Frankincense, as part of a tree, ties us to the earth and to the sky, being a crucial part of incense. This character leads us to the spiritual.

Ambergris is one of those "who in the heck saw that and decided to burn it or put it on their bodies?" items. This character, a highly animalic, very prized, quite expensive ingredient, introduces us to the concept of "other" but also ties us to our own animal side. Not familiar with the ingredient? Wait until you hear how it's "made"...

Jasmine. Ah, sweet, sultry jasmine. This character represents the human craving for beauty, but also artfully introduces the concept of wabi-sabi. Well, you'll see. This may have been my favorite chapter. 


Other neat features of the book include recipes for perfumes, foods, drinks; gorgeous quotations and poems (Mandy, you make my heart sing with these!); delightful illustrations from old books; insights into perfumery; and so much more.

For example, would you like to learn...
  • The best cure for olfactory fatigue?
  • How to think about/describe a smell?
  • How scents are captured from the thing-- the flower, the tree, the bark, the fruit?
  • Some really mouth-watering tips for using essential oils in food and drinks?
  • A pretty sexy poem about being the wife of a cinnamon peeler? 
  • Where the word "grocer" originated?
  • Which surprising spice, still used everywhere, was used as currency in medieval England?
  • How many perfume ingredients had elaborate stories involving snakes "back in the day"?
  • How to discern, yourself, what raw ingredient is a top, middle, or base note?
  • Which popular herb was thought to be an effective form of birth control in Japan at one point?
  • How to make Toad Ointment? (spoiler alert: the toad does not fare well in the end)
  • Why Wrigley's Gum owes a lot to some geese?
  • Which common perfume ingredient was found in King Tut's tomb?
  • What Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are finding out about frankincense and why it is really, really important?
  • How incense was used as a clock?
  • Why a dog rolls in the nastiest, grossest filth it can find and then proudly trots off?
  • Why, although I love it, butyl mercaptan will never be used in perfumery?
  • What butterflies smell like?
  • Really, how many times snakes are mentioned in this book?
  • Would you try jasmine-ambergris chocolate?
  • Which perfumes would you compare with rococo architecture? Ok - only you can answer that, but the question is obliquely posed in Fragrant.

In Summary

I found this book a fantastic read. I not only enjoyed the history -and I'm not a history gal if it's dry, which this was not- but I really had a good time learning about how Mandy picks particular ingredients. What makes a specific cinnamon Aftelier-worthy? Fascinating.

I thought that it was quite cool to learn how modern marketing hasn't come too far from ancient times, when stories were embellished to make the ingredients seem more valuable, more exotic, and voila- more expensive! 

And I laughed out loud when Mandy compared Pinterest to a modern cabinet of curiosities. Indeed it is! More laughs came when reading the story about the man who got an leaky package in the mail...

I have a fondness for old American stories, so the section on peddlers and old ointments and backwoods tales was right up my alley. 

And of course, digging into the gross but amazing roots of some of my favorite vintage scent ingredients (ambergris, castoreum, civet, musk) was so cool. I have my qualms about their use currently, but in my vintage perfumes I figure those ethical dilemmas have long gotten on their ships and sailed away, so this vegetarian and animal rights activist can rest easily. Kinda.  

I learned a lot about perfume itself, not just the ingredients. New terms made themselves known to me. Accessory Notes. Burying, Chameleon Perfume. Cresol. Who knew? Well, Mandy Aftel did. 

At any rate, this book kept my interest, and if you are intrigued with perfume I assume it will do the same for you.  

Frankly, I am now inspired to mix my own gorgeous naturals. Ok, I expect them to be much less gorgeous than Mandy's, but the process is the thing. And the smelling, the diving in, the reveling in the scents... that's what I have gotten from this book. So thank you, Mandy.

PS: I'm totally making frankincense shortbread.

"What is beauty for? The beauty of beauty is that it is not for anything-- it doesn't stand for something else, it doesn't have to do something, it only needs to be." - Mandy Aftel

Other reviews
This book has been disappointingly represented in the perfume blogosphere, but has been received well elsewhere. Here are some links to reviews and, after that, links to purchasing the book.


Disclosure: This book and the accompanying "Companion Kit" were provided to me by the author.


  1. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for your careful reading of my book and thoughtfulness in your writing about it. You're the reader that a writer dreams of having. I adore you!
    xo Mandy

  2. Fabulous review. That list of questions makes we want to rush out right now to buy this. Since I don't have a collection of essential oils, I'd love to get it with the companion kit.

    -- Lindaloo


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