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The Most Intimate Sense: Notes from a Fragrant Book Party

Master perfumer Mandy Aftel delighted us during the party for her new book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. “Scent is about luxury,” she says. “It’s tied to emotion and memory, to the irrational.”

All photos courtesy of the author

A week ago, before I zipped it up and stuffed it into a FedEx box, I foolishly poked around the toiletry kit my ex had left in my apartment. I kept toying with his bottle of Italian facial tonic, a simple blend of menthol and eucalyptus he used to soften his beard. I shouldn’t have removed the cap, of course. But for the next half hour, inhaling from that bottle brought him back to me, much more than the melody of a song he liked, the made-up tunes he sang into my voicemail, or the taste of the sautéed beets he taught me to make.


I didn’t go to FedEx that night. The next morning I snuck another few breaths from that bottle and marveled at how, without fail, every breath led to the same dull stabbing in the chest. How could those two sensations be so intimately connected?

A few nights later, I attended a preview party hosted by Riverhead Books and Food52 for Mandy Aftel’s wonderful new book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, which comes out this October. At the door I was greeted with a choice of natural enhancement for my champagne—mandarin citrus, blood orange, jasmine, or ginger. I chose the blood orange, a secret mimosa. My drink transformed, and I wandered around sniffing all of Aftel’s natural food spritzes, which she later sprayed on vanilla ice cream and pieces of chocolate for everyone to try. “Scent is about luxury,” she said. “It’s tied to emotion and memory, to the irrational.”

Ice cream infused with jasmine was indeed luxurious—I had three samples. Then things turned experimental. “I’m going to turn this chocolate into a Terry’s Chocolate Orange,” said an ex-Londoner. We started playing with all the scents. The mistake of the evening was spraying a piece of chocolate with frankincense. Some found it transcendent. For me, a similar effect might have been achieved by rolling the candy in a flowerpot a few times.

With her fiery red hair and her devotion to the frivolous, Aftel delighted me from the start. As a natural perfumer and adviser to world-class chefs, vintners, and sommeliers, Aftel is highly respected, and her scent work has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Time, Food & Wine, and W, published in three previous books on the subject, and translated into seven languages. Through her company, Afterlier Perfumes, she offers solid and liquid scents, chef’s essences, teas, as well as experiences like perfumed dinners. When she was starting out, Aftel collected 200 turn-of-the-century fragrance books to learn the art of perfume making. She is zealous about the integrity and quality of her ingredients. She sources her gardenia oil from Tahiti, her ginger from Indonesia. “If you could take one of these on a desert isle,” she said, “the fresh ginger spray is the one. You can put it on ice cream, on takeout, in hot water with lemon.”


Where might one find takeout on a desert isle? Suddenly I liked her even more. Aftel lives in a world of whimsy. Her inspiration comes from the materials themselves, from her love of research. Every scent, she says, has a cultural history, special uses, maybe even a myth or a superstition attached. Aromatic materials give us richer, more exciting experiences—we weave them into our history.

Aftel’s research into scent seems to consume her life, and her collection is enviable. In California, she has an “organ” of scents, an arrangement starting with ephemeral top notes (e.g., citrus), followed by middle notes (e.g., floral scents), and base notes, the parts of the fragrance that linger after the others are gone (e.g., oak moss, resins, vanilla). Next, she is putting together a museum of perfume paraphernalia and collectibles.

In her talk, Aftel introduced the 50 or so partygoers, mostly women, to the “five rock-star scents” featured in her new book. Cinnamon, she said, evokes the luxurious and the exotic. For centuries people have hidden and hoarded it, even made up myths about it. Spearmint is the opposite—it’s the smell of home, hospitality, and familiarity. Pioneers used to plant mint as they moved westward, and ancient Greeks used it at their tables. Frankincense, a resin from a tree, evokes spirituality and transcendence. Ambergris, which comes from sperm whales and is kicked up on the beach, is about curiosity. Jasmine suggests simple beauty and elegance. Aftel told us that most people haven’t smelled natural jasmine because it costs $3,000 a pound, versus $2 for synthetic. In synthetics, trace parts of the flower can’t be replicated, since Jasmine is a fecal floral and there is more than one kind. She let us smell both kinds, and while the synthetic was the version I recognized, the natural was subtler and more complex. It reminded me of the crushed petals Iranian grandmothers stuff into their clothes.


“Natural is sexy because it’s dirty,” said Aftel later on, about the fecal jasmine.

By then the room was heady with frankincense and ginger and cinnamon, altering my mood. I told her about Iranian rosewater ice cream and my beard-oil dilemma.  She told me about perfumed doves released at parties in Roman times and scent as a part of therapy.

“It’s chemical,” another guest, a scientist, said. “We can smell sex and fear.”

I was skeptical. If you think about it, smell is the most practical sense to live without. The lack of it wouldn’t require physical therapy or a new language. You may not even weep over it. The absence would recede to the background and be forgotten like an old song. And yet, it’s true that it’s tied to every vital moment, to entire chapters in life. Its source data doesn’t fade as the details of faces or childhood melodies often do, the linked emotions remaining painfully intact.

I left the party around this time, carrying home my bottle of ginger spray and my scent wheel, a little more aware of how much my nose dictates my emotions. On my way home, I thought about the arc of scent, about saying goodbye, and the handful of mornings I spent with that bottle of facial oil. According to Aftel, scents hold the power of history. They have their own lives and narratives, and this is why natural ingredients are more complex and emotional.

“My mother wore lily of the valley perfume every day,” a 90-year-old friend recently told me. How many decades ago was his last memory of her?

“Shalimar,” his wife said, musing about her own mother or grandmother.

It seems to me that scent is no more than a heart plug, every pull causing the chest to fill up and drain and fill up again. Smell is romance; it’s luxury. In a civilized world where we don’t have to sniff out our prey, it’s about as necessary as a big feather hat. And yet, it moves us in primal ways—according to Aftel, it makes us mad, irrational, hungry.

In the end, I poured a bit of my ex’s facial oil into a travel dropper. I labeled it with his name, sealed it tight, and put it on a shelf of discarded souvenirs from old romances. Armed with the knowledge that my mood lives inside my nose, I chose a new scent to dictate my week: loose-leaf bergamot tea that smells like my mom, her Shalimar. And because it’s earthy and pungent and reminds me of precisely nothing, I’ve kept a hunk of Aftel’s frankincense, like a talisman, tucked in my pocket.

Dina Nayeri is the author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead Books, 2013).