Thursday, May 12, 2011

Reviews: Lumiere, Cepes & Tuberose, Honey Blossom & Parfum De Maroc from Aftelier + Thoughts On Natural Perfumes


I wonder if I would've detected an unfamiliar quality in Mandy Aftel's perfumes if I'd first smelt them without knowing that they contain no synthetics. I'd like to think that the answer to that is Yes, but of course, the question's academic, because when I did finally get a chance to try some, I was fully conscious of her status as one of the most highly-respected all-natural perfumers in the western world. Consequently, I couldn't quite switch off my nose's 'What's different here?' radar and just concentrate on 'What's here?' Mind you, that's not a huge problem, because I daresay that one of the many pleasures of wearing Aftelier scents is precisely this business of trying to work out whether they're speaking a slightly unusual language.

On the evidence of the few I've been able to sample, I'd say they're fluent in the mainstream variant of Perfumese, but they insist on mixing it up with their own dialect, a rough-edged, uncompromising tongue that sounds as though it was born centuries ago in a dense forest occupied by long-haired folk who enjoyed spear-throwing and cave-painting. In olfactory terms, the lingo manifests itself in a way I'm unable to describe without resorting to seemingly derogatory words, which is a shame, as I absolutely don't wish them to be read disparagingly. 'Fusty', 'murky', and 'fungal' come to mind, but they need to be combined with 'interesting' and 'compelling' to give you some sense of how these fragrances operate.

Lumiere is probably one of the more easy-going members of the range. Although it displays some of the aforementioned mustiness, its heart is a green-tinged floral that engages in a charming flirtation with a bitter-sweet, tea-based drydown. Cepes & Tuberose resides at the other end of the accessibility scale, and is all the better for it. After a shimmering start of gilt-edged woods, it builds its eponymous white flower to suitably curvaceous proportions whilst playing down the animalic aspects and highlighting the rich, berry-like notes. A hefty dose of those sylvan mosses keeps the whole firmly grounded.

Honey Blossom recently received a great deal of attention from the blogosphere, not least because it was the subject of a fascinating series of letters between Mandy and Andy Tauer. An alluring piece of work, it places a pristine linden blossom absolute at its centre and pulls it in an astonishing number of directions, from sun-baked hay, to freshly snapped twigs, secretive spring petals, dusty pollen and, needless to say, thick, ambery honey. My personal favourite is probably Parfum De Maroc. I'm a sucker for roses anyway and this one's a deceptively simple wonder, topping and tailing its smooth Turkish otto with an intriguing dry orange top and a base of dusky spices.

Longevity and sillage are often the basis on which all-natural perfumes are criticised. Indeed, Mandy herself has written on this blog that her scents don't display as much power and persistence as some people might wish. Personally, I think she's being a bit hard on her work. Yes, on my skin, the foursome above didn't last as long as most juices bolstered with synthetics, but they were easily detectable for four hours, which isn't exactly appalling... although I will concede that many will find this difficult to reconcile with the scents' relatively hefty price tags. As for sillage, well, that's mostly a personal issue, anyway. We don't always want our perfumes to bellow like nuclear-powered megaphones and it's wise to reserve some room in our wardrobes for fragrances that combine presence with subtlety, especially when they display as much elegance, refinement and sophistication as this quartet from Mandy.

[Reviews based on samples of extrait provided by Aftelier in 2011; fragrances tested on skin.]

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A few afterthoughts. Firstly, I ought to point out that I don't know if the 'nocturnal undergrowth' aspect of Mandy's scents is peculiar to all non-synthetic fragrances. The only other alcohol-based, 100% naturals I've smelt are Tauer's Cologne Du Maghreb, L'Artisan's Eau De Jatamansi and Gorilla's Icon, and I can't say they're muggy in any way, but then they're specifically designed to be weightless and transparent. Mandy sets out to make her perfumes full-bodied and multi-dimensional, which entails using a substantial quantity of heavy, wildebeest-hunting base notes. Perhaps they're responsible for the paleolithic vibe. But then again, no, that isn't a satisfactory explanation. Most attars are all-natural - as @cchonguk helpfully reminded me on Twitter - and whilst they do tend to be heady, I've never smelt any that are musty. I'd be interested in receiving insights from anyone who's tried comparable all-naturals.

The subject of attars prompts me to return to the issue of longevity. Since everyone seems to agree that all-naturals don't last very long, I suppose I've simply got to accept this, but I would appreciate an explanation as to why they're so fleeting, especially when one considers that attars make their presence felt for ages. Could it be something to do with the fact that the latter are oil based?

And finally, I'd like to place a question mark over the word 'natural' itself. Mandy frequently works with 'natural isolates': substances - such as geraniol and phenyl ethyl alcohol - which do exist 'naturally' in botanical extracts, but have to be 'artificially isolated' if one wishes to use them on their own. Evidently, she doesn't feel this compromises her status as an all-natural perfumer, and I'm inclined to agree with her, but I wonder what your feelings are, especially if you're a perfume lover who makes a point of buying all-natural products. You might like to get your thinking juices flowing by reading this post.

On which note: it's over to you.

Persolaise.

11 comments:

  1. I'm so happy you got a chance to try some of Mandy's perfumes. I love Honey Blossom, but have not yet tried the others you reviewed, so it was nice to get a fresh view on them from you. The next must-have for me is Cepes and Tuberose. I can also highly recommend Tango (my favorite), Memento and Shiso.

    It was through Mandy and also Anya McCoy and Liz Zorn that I got a bit of an education on natural perfumery, and it was through experience, which is the most effective way to learn something, I think. I believe natural perfumery is almost an entirely different craft than perfumery using synthetics, natural essences are so loaded with mercurial nuances, not to mention expensive.

    Anya McCoy grows many of her own plants and flowers for her perfumes, which I think is *really* cool.

    What I think Mandy has accomplished that no one else has in her field, is to create luxury, high-end natural perfume. Everything from concept and names to packaging to quality of essences to blending, it's worth it. It was a bit difficult for me to understand it until I tried some of her fragrances, then the light bulb went off. I just didn't know it was possible!

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  2. And I understand that Anya is writing a book on natural isolates with 3 experts! We might have all of our questioned answered then! Yay! :)

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  3. Carrie, I think you'd find C&T quite fascinating.

    You're spot on with your description of Mandy's achievement: she's created a totally legitimate, worthy perfume house.

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  4. C.Z., thanks for that, I had no idea. I wonder when it'll be published.

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  5. It sounds like you were charmed and intrigued by these scents, as am I, and while I'm with you on the ancient vibe of some of the scents, I am confused by your "fusty, musty, murky, fungal" adjectives! I suppose you could use the word fungal, since Cepes is a stated ingredient of one of them, but earthy to me is more to the point. And I don't find them fusty, musty or murky at all, though I am used to snffing natural ingredients.

    I guess the fact that I don't find much of a difference in my ability to perceive Mandy's perfumes vs Guerlain (Vintage anyway ; ) puts me in the minority.

    It's great for all of us Perfumistas to get to sniff lots of different facets of Perfumery, wherever it may be!

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  6. Qwendy, thanks for writing.

    I'm used to smelling naturals too; most of my own perfume experiments contain a fairly high proportion of all-natural ingredients. But there was something about Mandy's fragrances that made me reach for those adjectives. Maybe it's her signature?

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  7. One of the great things about Mandy's perfumes for me is that they don't have a common thread, or base, or signature, other than unusual storylines that sort of read through the scents.

    Several of them are definitely rather dark and rich to me -- something I'm often after -- but still the notes seem very different from scent to scent, so I don't know about a Signature.

    The ancient roots show in some of them more than others too, is that what you are sensing? The words we all use to describe our sensations mean such particular things to each of us, and I often find myself reinterpreting Perfume Pals lingo to suit myself.

    I was wearing Vintage L'Interdit last night and a non perfume friend loved it, said it smelled "dusty". I didn't think that sounded like he loved it........then I thought maybe this is what people sense when they say that a perfume smells powdery.............which is also not a word I use for perfumes at all, but people ascribe to some scents I love, so there you are! I guess one man's Murky is another woman's Mossy.

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  8. Qwendy, you're absolutely right that our usage of words is often one of the main barriers we need to overcome when we discuss perfumes with each other. In my mind, 'murky' is significantly (but not always entirely) different from 'mossy'... but I expect we could go round in circles for ages, swapping adjectives :-)

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  9. Yes and to me, murky and mossy have totally different meanings! You're right, we can go on and on and on. This is why it's great to sniff things together in person, I'm so happy to have Sniffa pals in my home town (and Luckyscent's shop too!).

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  10. Qwendy, yet again, we have proof of the massive part that language plays in perfume appreciation.

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  11. I am great fan of Honey Blossom perfume. I will agree with carrie Cepes and Tuberose is also a must have fragrance.

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