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Mandy Aftel - Natural Perfumer

“Each perfume I create contains an idea that I want to communicate – it’s like a message in a bottle.”

Mandy Aftel delights in blends of natural scents that celebrate the beauty and corresponding underbelly of nature, while working with historic and modern materials to capture a breadth of human experience that spans centuries.

In July Mandy was announced as the winner of the 2022 Art and Olfaction Septimus Piesse Visionary Award, in honour of her “exceptional vision with regards to how scent is used, developed, or imagined.”


You have a very strong connection with nature – what does this give you?

I cannot stop being overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and its capacity to restore. Nature is the original perfumer. I find being amongst nature and really focusing on each smell makes you feel so alive in that moment and is also very humbling.

You have had many facets to your career: you have been a weaver, trained as a therapist, and you are an author; it was while researching a novel that you became fascinated with scent. What did you find so intoxicating?

I was reading these books about scent from the turn of the century and became so immersed in the topic and how far-reaching scent was into all areas of our lives, from food to gardening, beauty and sexuality. It connects cultures, all over the world, across the whole of history. At the time I had no idea where it would lead me thirty years later – where it is still leading me. I feel very fortunate.


Does this fascination with smell go back to your childhood?

I have always been really curious, and I was fascinated by all smells. I didn’t find things icky, such as bodily smells. I still enjoy all smells, even so-called ‘bad’ ones; they remind you that you’re alive.


What is it particularly about natural scent that you’re drawn to?

Natural scents have a lot more variation and depth to them compared to synthetic. They are thrilling to work with. They don’t broadcast themselves as strongly as synthetics do, or last as long; if you walk into an elevator and smell someone’s perfume lingering, that is synthetic. You often have to lean in close to smell a natural scent on someone, which creates a really personal and sometimes sensual connection. To me, things that last forever are not as interesting [as the ephemeral].


How do you begin to create a perfume from scratch?

Each perfume I create contains an idea that I want to communicate – it’s like a message in a bottle. I start by focussing on two essences that have a high contrast and think about them having a conversation; I see essences almost like beings. Then I concentrate on the feeling that I have, weave little bits together and build in experiences. 

What kind of feelings might you work into a fragrance?

I created ‘Memento Mori’ when someone important had left my life; they hadn’t died, but I was in mourning. I concentrated on the smell of their body and worked out my grief through creating the fragrance. It is about memories and a vanishing beauty. It has really resonated with people; it ended up being one of my most popular fragrances.


You have talked before about your fascination with the darker and even ugly side of beauty – does beauty need that edge to indeed be beautiful?

There is this putrid smell in jasmine and other heavy white flowers, like orange flower or tuberose and I find it fascinating. I love that they are beautiful, but that they also have this funky little dirty aspect too. I find that ying and yang element gives its beauty a sense of completeness and it makes it more fascinating. 


You delight in pairing unusual fragrances, such as mushrooms and tuberose – what is the inspiration behind that?

I noticed that once the top floral notes of the tuberose had lifted, there was a dark, earthy note that lay beneath it that was shared by the mushrooms. I wanted to build on that shared layer. While you often associate tuberose with a feminine perfume, in this blend it became a very unisex fragrance. 


When you make - or even wear a perfume – the first thing you smell are the top notes; they are the ones that seduce you and pull you in. Then you encounter the middle layers; the spices and florals, which are deeper, richer essences. If you get as far as smelling the base notes – which you really have to lean in to smell, those notes are the ones that have been in man’s spiritual life since the beginning of time. 


Some of the oils and resins that you use are hundreds of years old – there’s an element of bottling time involved in your work. 

Yes, there is something really thrilling about touching something that someone else has touched and smelt across the centuries. It gives you that feeling of travelling through time. I made perfume for Leonard Cohen, and he liked very old, biblical resins made from incredibly old, and expensive botanicals [eight varieties of oud were used, from hojari frankincense to benzoin and opopanx] that were around $55 ,000 per kilo. It was important to him to feel this connection to these timeless materials. 


Your collection includes hundreds of natural essences, from a 100-year-old bottle of sandalwood oil to a 16th century symbolorum, all of which you share with visitors in the museum you created – the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents - next to your home. What does your museum mean to you? 

I love my museum so much; I’d happily sleep in there. Everything is so beautiful, and it gives me a huge thrill to share it with visitors; I come out to meet everyone. Since the pandemic, we gave everyone little white gloves to put on, and it actually gave people more courage to touch, read and smell these ancient books. People don’t often get a chance to encounter these kinds of materials. There is this lineage through time that we can share with people across the globe.


What are some of your most recent additions? 

One thing I bought over lockdown was a beautiful antique pomander which was an item carried by rich people during the plague. I found this beautiful one from France that was shaped like an egg, decorated with gold opium poppies and tiny rubies, that when you open it, reveals the cavity where you would put the scented cloth or cloves or whatever, and it has a monkey playing the violin. It’s incredibly special.

“Natural scents have a lot more variation and depth to them compared to synthetic. They are thrilling to work with.”

How to develop your “nose”

Smell everything that crosses your path and truly connect and enjoy that moment of being with that aroma. It can be really small moments: if you have a cup of tea, take five seconds to be with that smell and that wonder of it; if you rip a basil leaf, rub it on your fingers and really breath it in.


Cooking is the closest thing to making perfume: you add in small amounts of ingredients all the way through, tasting as you go. I advise people to really smell as much as they taste; you’ll be surprised how different it smells at different points of the process.

Experiment with natural ingredients to make different things – it’s very rewarding. You can make a simple body oil by using a base oil such as almond or fractionated coconut oil and adding in essential oils (but not citrus ones as they can cause problems on the skin). Put some together and see where it takes you. But it can also be in throwing together herbs in a teapot: gather chamomile, mint and basil and brew that in hot water and breath in the scent. It’s a very easy way to nurture yourself.


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Edited By Hole & Corner

Chris Watson, sound recordist

“If you listen to the world for 10 seconds, it can be interesting. Listen to it for 10 minutes or longer, then you get a very different, deeper and more powerful experience”
Yuan Zhu, 09 21

Felicity Irons, rush weaver

“There’s something seductive about the smooth regularity of the woven baskets and flooring, which feels so satisfying underfoot.”
Yuan Zhu, 09 21