Monday, February 23, 2015

Fragrant by Mandy Aftel- Book Review

*Disclosure: the author of the book is a dear personal friend*

It took me longer than usual to finish reading Fragrant by Mandy Aftel. The reason was that the book is a rich tapestry-as rich and intricate as its beautiful cover (which also translates to the inside design, from typeface to illustrations). I took it in small portions, little morsels of perfume stories, facts, quotes,  and recipes.  Fragrant feels like a box of the most luxurious artisan-made truffles (incidentally, Mandy Aftel is a chocolate connoisseur), which you have to appreciate one by one and not binge on the whole thing).

The narrative of Fragrant is an exploration of five aromatic materials: mint, cinnamon, frankincense, jasmine, and ambergris, through the way we perceive them, and the way they influence us and our emotions. The book can be accompanied by a companion kit ($25 on that includes cinnamon and mint essential oils, frankincense resin, as well as jasmine and ambergris tinctures. The latter will probably knock the socks off newcomers to perfume that never experienced this legendary ingredient.

Speaking of fragrance newbies: too many perfume books, even those that aspire to explain the fundamentals (categories, scent pyramid, etc.) stumble during the effort to pull those readers into the perfume world, perhaps because they lack the emotional aspect. Mandy Aftel's writing is as affecting as her perfume artistry, so she pulls you into her world and shows you its magic. Long-time followers of this blog know that when considering a perfume book I often ask myself how likely it is to grab my own sister: a fragrance lover who owns several bottles, never leaves the house without wearing scent, yet is completely baffled by my own perfume life and the passion that holds it together. I have a feeling that reading Mandy Aftel's book may give people like her a push in the right direction.

For me, there are two things that stand out the most in the book: Mandy's own vision, and commitment to honest perfumery, as well as the depth of research that holds the book together, as represented by the little-known facts and quotes. My absolute favorite is this one by Oscar Wilde from The Picture of Dorian Gray, which proves that dear Oscar was one of us:
"And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one's passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul."
And a final word from the husband:

"Fragrant has a unique meditative quality. While broadly telling the stories of 5 fragrant heroes, the unusual mix of history with science, facts and folklore, personal opinions and actual perfume making recipes, has an interesting effect. Even without a common narrative or a mystery to be solved, it draws you in and fascinates, enlighten and challenges you to examine again the fragrant world around you. We take for granted today scents that were the pinnacle of luxury in the past. I found myself reflecting on the richness and abundance of spices and essences available today and appreciating them more.

I also enjoyed Mandy's mini essays about perfumery today and her insider take on the industry.
This is what I'd imagine spending a wonderful week in one of Mandy's workshops feels like. Hearing her opinions, stories, anacdotes and rants while learning about high end perfumery.  "

Fragrant by Mandy Aftel is available from Amazon (around $21 for the hardcover, $11.99 for the Kindle edition). I received the hardcover directly from the publisher and the companion kit from Mandy, but also purchased the ebook as these days I find it easier to read on my iPad.

Art: "And she proceeded to burn perfume and repeat spells until the sea foamed and was agitated"-- The Story of the Gulnare of the Sea  by Maxfield Parrish, Arabian Nights, 1909


  1. What a wonderful review! I've enjoyed past books by Mandy, and love many of her scents, and dream of taking one of her workshops. Sounds like this book is a must-read. I love that excerpt from Dorian Gray, a book I read long ago, when my holy grail perfumes were Giorgio and Calandre. ;) Somehow I missed that glorious scent passage in the novel! Must go back and explore it. Anyway, thanks for the review and the evocative scent "images"--a welcome antidote to a cold Tuesday morning.

  2. I think I shall add this to my reading list and pick up the companion kit. My nose is not so great at picking out scent components so that's a great idea to have a companion kit to get someone like me started. I think I will enjoy both.

  3. Wow Gaia, what a fantastic review of Fragrant! I’m so glad you think your sister would like it too -- I wanted it to reach beyond people who are already into perfume to a more general audience. I loved reading Ori’s wonderfully kind words as well, and the sumptuous Arabian Nights perfume image you chose is perfect. Thank you so much!

  4. Brilliant review! Your comparison of it to luxurious artisanal truffles was so spot on. Her perfumes always seem to me like magical gifts and this book seemed like that as well - so beautifully written and thought provoking. DH does not exactly share my complete obsession with scents (understatement), but he does share my passion for history and he was intrigued enough by what I'd been saying about Fragrant that he ended up picking it up to read during our last ice storm and ended up being genuinely fascinated by it - even has been asking to sniff some of my EOs, isolates and absolutes (shock!). I never, ever give perfumes to friends unless I am sure they want them and then I only give them ones I know they've tried and love (often Mandy's), but I can think of several non-scent obsessed friends who I think would really enjoy Fragrant and I plan on getting copies for them.
    I truly hated coming to the end of it and, although I'll be rereading it, I also am keeping my fingers crossed that she'll write another volume exploring different scent materials.

    1. Your incredibly kind comment means so much to me Anna! As a writer, after working so long in isolation to bring Fragrant forth, the most that I could hope for is that it could touch people the way it has you -- so thank you for saying that!

  5. I have one of her earlier books, Aroma, which I have really enjoyed, and I love several Aftelier perfumes. Looking forward to reading Fragrant! nozknoz


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