Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent By Mandy Aftel


The “Alice Waters of American natural perfume” ( celebrates our most potent sense, through five rock stars of the fragrant world.
Mandy Aftel is widely acclaimed as a trailblazer in natural perfumery. Over two decades of sourcing the finest aromatic ingredients from all over the world and creating artisanal fragrances, she has been an evangelist for the transformative power of scent. In Fragrant, through five major players in the epic of aroma, she explores the profound connection between our sense of smell and the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive. Cinnamon, queen of the Spice Route, touches our hunger for the unknown, the exotic, the luxurious. Mint, homegrown the world over, speaks to our affinity for the familiar, the native, the authentic. Frankincense, an ancient incense ingredient, taps into our longing for transcendence, while ambergris embodies our unquenchable curiosity. And exquisite jasmine exemplifies our yearning for beauty, both evanescent and enduring.
In addition to providing a riveting initiation into the history, natural history, and philosophy of scent, Fragrant imparts the essentials of scent literacy and includes recipes for easy-to-make fragrances and edible, drinkable, and useful concoctions that reveal the imaginative possibilities of creating with—and reveling in—aroma. Vintage line drawings make for a volume that will be a treasured gift as well as a great read.
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent

“That can’t be mango I’m smelling. Mangoes don’t smell like that.”

This was my first reaction after trying on some luxury-brand eau de toilette I’d received as a gift some two years ago. It was a large bottle, too, and I’d been pleasantly surprised to receive it because no one usually gives away anything as expensive as luxury fragrance unless one is very fond of the recipient. But as soon as I tried it on, I realised that the giver was probably eager to foist the monstrosity upon someone else: it was sweet to the point of nauseating, and the little that I’d sprayed on my wrist was clearly entirely too much. I tried washing the scent off, but even after doing so the smell still lingered on my skin.

Not to say that I don’t like the smell of mangoes, because I do. My grandmother owns an orchard, and though most of the fruits are exported to Japan, the “rejects” (fruits that are too small, too blemished, or just not up to certain specific standards, but are nevertheless still eminently edible) are sent to her children: my mother and her siblings. They fill the house with a delicious sweetness, thick enough that it almost mimics the custardy texture of the fruit flesh itself, with just a hint of tanginess that registers at the back of one’s throat when one inhales deeply; the smell is never overwhelming, never cloying, even when the mangoes have reached the point of overripeness. I associate the scent with the comforts of home, of family, and the pleasures of summer, which is probably why I really disliked the eau de toilette and its poor attempt to mimic the fragrance of something that lies at the intersection of so many things that are special to me.

It is this intersection, where scent meets and entangles with history (both personal and of the world), art, and philosophy, that Mandy Aftel tackles in Fragrant: The Secret History of Scent.

The book’s structure is a somewhat-familiar one, having read books by Diane Ackerman, Victoria Findlay, and Michael Pollan. Chapter One is an introduction of sorts, talking in a general sort of what about what perfume is, what is does, and what it has come to mean to different people down the course of history. It also deals a little with Aftel’s life as a perfumer: what led her there, and what she does now. The next five chapters are more specific, and focus on one particular ingredient used in perfumery, and a theme: Chapter Two focuses on cinnamon, and the idea of adventure and the exotic; Chapter Three deals with mint, and is the thematic opposite of Chapter Two, focusing as it does on the concept of home and the familiar; Chapter Four is about frankincense and the idea of transcendence; Chapter Five is about ambergris and the concept of curiosity; and finally, Chapter Six focuses on jasmine and the idea of beauty. At the end of every chapter Aftel includes a few recipes, focusing on the ingredient tackled in the chapter: most are for perfumery-related things, like body oils and solid perfume, but there are also a few food recipes in there, showing the versatility of the ingredients discussed in the chapter. The book concludes with copious notes, an extensive bibliography, and a list of sources should one ever feel inclined to try making perfumes for oneself.

If anyone is going to talk about fragrance and the special relationship humanity has had with scent and the art of perfumery, then Mandy Aftel is certainly one of the best. She is an artisanal perfumer based in Berkeley, California, where she not only makes perfumes, but conducts classes on how to make them. She also collaborates with chefs to understand how fragrance and food can work together to create a unique dining and olfactory experience. She’s written other books before, but those books have been somewhat more specialised, focusing primarily on perfumery and food. Fragrant, however, is considered to be a very fine introductory book for the beginning perfumer or just the curious looking for something interesting to read.

And I must say, that’s rather true. Though reading Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume and seeing the movie adaptation of the same made me interested in the idea of perfumery as a whole, I was completely aware that what I was reading, and watching, was fiction. Suskind obviously took the time to do research, but his work was still fictional and probably not completely accurate to how perfumery is done in the contemporary world. Fragrant, then, looked like—and turned out to be—a good gateway into understanding how perfumery is done by people like Aftel, who take the small-batch, artisanal approach espoused by the slow food/locavore movement that is one of the most powerful driving philosophies in the food world today.

That philosophy is present in Fragrant. It’s especially prominent when she’s talking about her work as a perfumer, and in the recipes she includes at the end of every chapter, but it’s there, in the background, in the chapter-length essays for each individual ingredient. The slow food/locavore movement firmly believes that every ingredient has a story, and understanding that story is key to giving an ingredient its proper value, and, therefore, to treating it as it deserves to be treated. When Aftel tells the heartbreaking story of the cinnamon gatherers in Sri Lanka under Dutch colonial rule, or even the rather whimsical Chinese legend of ambergris being solidified sea-dragon drool, she is trying to impart to the reader a belief that these ingredients, though some have become more commonplace, are actually far more valuable than one imagines—and should be treated appropriately and with the proper respect for their origins and the people behind them.

Interwoven with this philosophy are other musings; as noted earlier, each chapter has a specific concept attached to the ingredient being discussed, and Aftel expounds upon that concept, quoting from a very wide variety of sources, from obscure medieval monks to Coco Chanel, to reinforce her ideas as well as to offer different viewpoints. While this is quite interesting, and something I personally find enjoyable, I do find that it made some chapters weaker than others, since my interest in a specific chapter was dependent mostly upon my interest in the theme in question. A certain imbalance among the chapters is also noticeable: for instance, the chapter on jasmine focuses a lot more on beauty and aesthetics, while the chapter on cinnamon focuses a lot more on history. I found myself wishing that there had been more of a balance in the topics covered in each chapter, just so that one can truly understand how all the topics work together to tell the story of the ingredient and how it connects to the theme of the chapter.

Fortunately, Aftel frequently includes her own anecdotes about her work as a perfumer, because I think that the book wouldn’t be quite as firm without them. It’s all well and good to discuss these intriguing philosophical questions, but without some binding thread the book would fall apart. That’s where the whole perfumery idea comes in, and where Aftel’s experience as a perfumer comes into play. If she had not included that aspect, the book would feel very loose and disjointed, something to merely flip through as one pleases, instead of something to really spend time with and delve into.

It’s also rather clear that Aftel’s writing really comes to life when she’s talking about perfume, or her work, or her life a perfumer. The book as a whole has a relatively unified tone, but where her writing stands out the most is when she’s talking about what she loves most—which is not, necessarily, history or economics or science. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, just something I noted while reading the book, because I realised that I always took a touch longer to get through a portion of text if Aftel was talking about some aspect of her work, or was telling a personal anecdote.

Overall, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent is an engaging read: it sucked me in the way any good book, fiction or otherwise, ought to, and held me there for its entirety. It’s not without some weak spots, however: there’s a lack of cohesiveness in some of the individual chapters, and none of those chapters really go in-depth into the ingredient itself, focusing instead on the theme that Aftel has associated with each one and discussing history and philosophy as necessary to emphasise her point. However, this tendency towards lightness is what makes this book such a good introduction to the craft of perfumery, and the recipes at the end of each chapter are sure to encourage more than a few readers to give making their own scents a shot. Fortunately, Aftel provides a list of sources at the end of the book, so that readers can find the tools and ingredients they need if they feel inspired enough to give perfumery a try. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent În principiu, Mandy Aftel și-a propus să spună poveștile unor aromate (5 la număr): scorțișoara, tămîia, menta, ambra cenușie și iasomia (pp.18-19). Ceea ce a rezultat nu se ridică la înălțimea nobilei intenții.

Așadar, nici vorbă de o istorie a parfumului, cum pretind editorii. Titlul original al cărții e altul și e tot mincinos: Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. Mandy Aftel scrie cam tot ce-i trece prin minte despre mirosuri și mirodenii (ca și cum ar fi unul și același lucru), fără rigoare, și urmînd o bibliografie pestriță, formată din titluri de articole de ziar și postări pe bloguri. A consultat mult prea puține cărți serioase, deși istorii ale mirosului, miasmelor și miresmelor s-au tot scris. Cînd ignori orice criteriu cronologic și sari direct din Renaștere în Sumer și apoi mai sari o dată la părerile despre lume, viață și parfumuri ale lui Coco Chanel, nu faci istorie. Încropești un text pe un subiect atrăgător și obții un haloimas. Citatele abundă, dar nu pot fi verificate de nimeni, fiindcă Mandy Aftel nu pune și pagina din care citează, doar titlul articolului sau cărții.

Traducerea e mediocră, am găsit greșeli elementare de gramatică și cuvinte folosite aiurea. Cutare plantă e, de exemplu, „endemică” în Asia de Sud-Est. Dintr-o astfel de compunere poți reține cel mult cîteva anecdote, deși nu poți fi sigur că au vreun temei. Degeaba ai entuziasm, degeaba fondezi o editură, dacă nu ți-ai terminat studiile...

P. S. Cîteva observații în grabă: nici una dintre cele 3 sau 4 Marii din Evanghelie nu a spălat cu mir picioarele copilului Iisus (p.11). Iisus era deja băiat mare. Cf. Evanghelia după Ioan, 12: 3.

„Romanii clasificau mirodeniile în funcție de aroma lor preponderentă” (p.52). Era mai bine „în funcție de aroma lor principală”.

Menta e „o plantă endemică aproape peste tot în lume” (p.101). Endemic înseamnă „pe un spațiu restrîns”, „a trăi exclusiv într-o anume zonă”. Dacă e pe un spațiu restrîns, menta nu mai poate fi răspîndită pretutindeni. Propoziția rămîne imposibil de înțeles. În alt loc, același adjectiv enigmatic: Arborele Aquilaria este „endemic în Asia de Sud-Est” (p.152).

Alexandru Macedon către Aristotel: Îți trimit multă smirnă „ca să nu mai fi atît de econom, cînd e vorba de zei” (p.149). Alexandru scria, săracul, cu mari greșeli de gramatică. N-ar fi fost rău să-și fi terminat Lyceul înainte de a pleca în expediția din Asia.

„În lumea parfumurilor, florile sînt un simbol al frumuseții” (219). Florile sînt frumoase oricum, mai ales în lumea vegetală. De ce ar trebui să fie și simbolul frumuseții în universul miresmelor? Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent This book was given to me by the publisher for review.

This is a fantastic book. I am very familiar with Aftel's work in both perfumery and her writings on the subject, and I have to say, this is by far her best yet. Often when people ask me for a book suggestion as a starting point, I typically recommend Aftel's book Essence & Alchemy, but give them the caveat that it is on the dense side and is more helpful for those who are starting to create perfumes. Still a great book, regardless. But what Aftel has done with Fragrant is make the spirit of the first book more accessible and streamlined while still keeping the helpful aspects for aspiring perfumers. Personally I don't have much of a desire to create my own perfumes, since it takes a lot more time, skill, and effort than most people think, but I love reading books like this that let me glimpse into the mind of a perfumer and vicariously see the way they see and smell things.

Structurally, the book has five parts, each going into detail about five different fragrance notes, cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. I love that she chose these ingredients, because most of these aren't the ingredients one would immediately think of relating to perfume (unlike rose, lavender, vanilla, cedar, etc). With most of these, she goes into historical detail about each ingredient's context, and, of course explains how they are used in perfumes. But she also uses these as broader sounding boards for greater topics. Sometimes she might use them to talk about a whole group of notes, a genre, or even use them to talk about philosophical points related to smell and perfume. I like this, because it adds a lot of depth and dimension to ideas that--on paper at least--seem like they would be bland.

As a couple of criticisms, I really wish that each chapter had all the aforementioned aspects together. Some chapters really only majored in one or maybe two of those aspects, history, perfume context, or philosophy. There were points here and there where I really wanted to know more about the genre of perfume these ingredients are in, or I wanted more historical context, or even more philosophical nuances when a chapter was getting too historical. Some chapters are clearly stronger than others because of this.

It wouldn't be an Aftel book without a lot of detail of blending and making perfume, and this book does a stellar job at explaining the process and gives several formulas to the would-be perfumer to practice at home--each formula at the end of its respective chapter, highlighting the notes of that chapter. Here is where you really see the talent that Aftel has. Even when you can't smell the final product from reading, you see how labored the process is, and just how carefully Aftel creates her perfumes. I have always admired and respected her for her perfumes (after smelling them), but I've grown an even deeper respect after reading this book and understanding how deep her knowledge, passion, enthusiasm, skill, and even wisdom really is.

You also see just how well-read and studious she is with subject just from the plethora of books cited. That by itself is an enormous undertaking and really strengthens the impact of the insight she gives. Apparently she has a large library of old perfume books--of which I am very jealous. :)

When reading this book, I felt honored to be a colleague of someone who wrote this. And I felt like I was reading something that is timeless and will be essential reading for future generations of perfumers and fragrance enthusiasts, critics, and collectors. From now on whenever someone asks me where to start with books on perfume, I have the perfect answer without any qualms: Fragrant, by Mandy Aftel. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent I chose this book because I was doing research about scents. It's divided into 6 sections, five of them dedicated to a specific scent - cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. I read the sections on cinnamon and mint because they were most relevant to my project.
Aftel is a perfumer and her passion for scents and knowledge of their history is evident throughout the book. I retained some basic facts about spices, such as there are many kinds of cinnamon and it does not grow everywhere, which makes it expensive, while mint will grow anywhere.
The book is well-researched and well-written. These are some of my favorite lines/trivia:
-Spices, in their role as a major ingredient in incense, were an early forerunner of aromatherapy.
-A poison antidote used in 80 B.C. combining almost all the known spices of the day was so powerful that when a certain king tried to poison himself to avoid capture by the Romans, he was unable to do so.
-Our modern term 'grocer' originally meant a spice merchant who handled larger wholesale, or 'gross', quantities.
-Recipes are built on the belief that somewhere at the beginning of the chain there is someone who does not use them.
-Cinnamon is the Julia Roberts of spices: that blinding smile makes it hard to take in the rest of this dazzlingly beautiful and talented woman.
There were also recipes at the end of each section for creating perfume and for creating flavor.
My one criticism of the book is that there is so much information and it does not fit tidily into the assigned sections. Spices were and are used for food and for medicine and as currency and as status items, as well as for their scents, so the sections were not as focused as they might have been.
Overall, this book was helpful for my project and held my interest not only as reference but as an engaging story about spices. It is the kind of book that takes more than one reading to absorb all that it has to offer.
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent 2.5 - docking a star for encouraging the ingestion of essential oils, without much, if any, discussion of risks or safety. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent


I was looking for a history of scent and fragrances, but was presented with a hodgepodge of historical chit chat, perfume recipes, gushing about how awesome perfume making is, and references to people the author knows. It was poorly organized and in dire need of a (better) editor.

Oh well. Sometimes the random shelf grabs at the library pay off...and sometimes they don't. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent This book was confused. Note, I said confused NOT confusing. The author is a well known natural perfumer and her passion for the subject is apparent, but the book has a bewildering lack of focus. Reading this book, I had the impression the author would a wonderful dinner party guest, with lots of interesting facts about all sorts of things. But translating fascinating chit chat into a well structured book is quite different. For example, the chapter on frankincense and other tree-based scents, includes discussions of incense in worship, the cultivation of frankincense, the evolutionary history of our sense of smell, poetic descriptions of fragrant offerings in world religions, incense-based clocks in Asia, geisha, Chinese peasants telling time using cat’s eyes, natural and herbal medicines using frankincense and myrrh, how citrus oils are distilled, recipes involving frankincense, and perfume recipes – IN THAT ORDER. Everything here was really interesting, but it was also dizzying to find yourself in what felt like a totally different book about every 3 pages. I didn’t make it all the way through this one as it just was not a pleasant reading experience. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent Great book for beginners like me! Lots of interesting and useful tidbits, as well as some recipes. Emotionally charged writing. A lot of piecing together of paragraphs from other books. I find books like this one useful when I'm attempting to find more quintessential books on the subject. I would recommend to a friend! Easy reading, I read it in a couple of days. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent I've read this book multiple times even before I started to write Elements of A Home. The story of scent is told in the most beautiful and compelling way. My copy is completely dogeared as I've attempted to note my favorite stories. If you love history, you'll find this book fascinating. Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent Scent is one of the most powerful and versatile senses we have. It can invoke memory, history and emotion within seconds.

Author and perfumer Mandy Aftel writes about five major scents and their histories in “Fragrant.” She talks about: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris and jasmine in great detail, though the narrative wanders into tangents occasionally. Each chapter is ended with recipes for perfume and for food (made with essential oils to enhance the flavors.)

I really wanted to like this book. I’ve had a sensitive nose my entire life. I’m someone who will spend a ridiculous amount of time smelling perfumes, candles and anything that smells amazing. And I love learning about history, especially if the narrative is a little funky and something I haven’t heard before.

Unfortunately, the author’s tone was off-putting. Throughout the book Aftel argues that natural scents are better and advocates for creating your own perfumes and scents, even though this is an extremely time-consuming and expensive hobby. Further, there’s a high degree of failure. (Aftel says all of this in the book and yet doesn’t think her audience will be resistant to the idea. Umm…yeah, I don’t have a lot of disposable income and or time. Many people don’t.) I don’t mind having someone having a strong preference for something, but when what you’re advocating is inherently impractical, it makes you look arrogant and snobbish.

What I thought I’d signed up for was a scent literacy and history book. I didn’t get that. Not even a little.
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent