Sunday, April 29, 2012

Aftelier- Sepia

I love antique and vintage stores, where I can spend hours upon hours browsing and touching little pieces from the past. Even the most simple odds and ends can have a story, and there's magic in finding something special and giving it a new life. Some of the items in those store can be heartbreaking, and for me, nothing is more so than the boxes with random old photographs of people and places. I look at them, family portraits, wedding pictures, a house on a beach somewhere up north... These are someone's relatives, someone's family history. Why are they here, forgotten and discarded, in a dusty hat box at some store in Cold Spring, NY?

I'm probably extra sensitive to this because so little has remained from my own family history. My ancestors lived in several European countries; World War II and the Holocaust stripped away the people, the stories and the photos of my long-lost relatives. I look at the yellowing sepia-toned photos and wonder if there are similar pictures of my family at antique stores in Vilnius, Sofia and Bucharest.

Sepia by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes is about memories and their emotional impact. The fragrance straddles the here and now as well as the memory of an almost forgotten past. Sepia feels the empty spaces in the stories, wooden boxes and abandoned houses with today's sunshine and lives through the careful use of citrus, wood, and animalic hints. But despite the atmospheric elements and abstract ideas, Sepia is a lived-in perfume, meant to be worn on skin, used and loved, just like those bits and pieces at antique stores, waiting to be given a new life.

The particular use of citrus in Sepia will smell vaguely familiar if you've experienced some of Aftel's more recent perfume. We're talking all natural ingredients, the very best that can be sourced; maybe that's why this particular accord smells so alive, and not in that "fresh citrus" way you find in commercial fragrances everywhere. So if you never smelled an Aftelier perfume before, and the mere mention of citrus and cedar makes you think of the sterile L'Eau d'Issey, I can promise you these two are nothing alike. Sepia isn't clean (see Angela's review on Now Smell This). Its earthiness was achieved by an incredible use of cocoa, coffee and cepes (!!!) alongside oud and tobacco flower. Another perfumer might have chosen patchouli, but Mandy Aftel achieved a very complex effect with her work, as she stripped what could be a very gourmand heart from any resemblance to food. The result is sublime.

Sepia warms up and develops on skin, like a sun ray that crawls slowly as the day progresses. There's a little sweetness there and some funk. It reminds me of antique stores that smell of wood polish and vintage clothes (no mothballs, though), clean but old, trinket boxes that used to hold fragrant items, maybe good incense. The hint of ambergris in Sepia is the final touch of elegance, a remnant of better days and interesting stories.

Top: blood cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit.
Heart: pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee.
Base: flowering tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, labdanum.

Sepia by Aftelier ($150, 30ml EDP) is available from You can also purchase samples and a parfum concentration. The sample for this review was sent to me by the perfumer.

Somewhere along Route 40 in California, ca. 1930, from


  1. I have loved trying Aftelier perfumes. There is not one sample that I bought that I have not loved. Off to go get this one! Thanks!

  2. You write:

    "I look at the yellowing sepia-toned photos and wonder if there are similar pictures of my family at antique stores in Vilnius, Sofia and Bucharest."

    Sorry, Gaia, the Nazis burned the contents of most Jewish quarters, just like they burned the bodies in the mass graves. But if you're really interested in looking at those sepia photographs, you might see if some elderly relative kept photo albums. Often the Europeans sent pix across the pond. The names may be lost to time. (I have a crumbling album my grandparents left me, for example, with pix of my great aunts and uncles who were murdered in 1941. No one tell me who's who.) But the faces are oh so evocative.

  3. What a wonderful review Gaia, such a treasure! I am so grateful – really even relieved, at how well you understand my work. I appreciate your intelligent & artful writing so much, and love your choice of evocative photograph!
    xo Mandy

  4. I really must get it together and order samples of this. I've fallen in love with Mandy's work, and I'm so excited know she's released another. Her fragrances evoke emotions in me as no other fragrances do.

    Thank you for the lovely imagery and thoughtful review!

  5. My favourite scent discovery was Mandarina Duck.
    I did not like it at first but its become much loved.
    Sepia sounds sublime..Perfect for an obsessive nostalgic like me.


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