Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 2)

July 25th, 2011, Berkeley, CA

Dear Dawn

When I said that in a classic floral “there is an emphasis on the perfume being beautiful”, I meant a focus on conventional beauty as opposed to something edgier and more difficult.

I’m consistently drawn to perfumes that are edgier, so it will be a personal challenge for me to make something that would be considered a classic floral beauty. I will take aim at that goal, but probably in my own idiosyncratic way.

What are your thoughts about conventional vs edgier in a classic floral?

I liked reading about your way of creating a perfume, first from an image in your mind — made up of color, light, texture and shape. My perfumes almost always start in my head, with two essences engaged in conversation. The essences speak to me — not as much about their aromatic capacities but what can they accomplish together, defining the space between them and negotiating how that space could best be inhabited. Everything else in my perfume grows out from this point.

Any essence ultimately included in the formula has to be vital or I’ll strip it back out. I sometimes feel like I’m editing Hemingway’s prose — paring everything back to what is only and artistically necessary. I must admit, I find the editing process exhilarating.

*Note from Nathan: Mandy is referring to Hemingway’s famous Iceberg Theory of Prose — that “effective revising often means cutting material from a draft, not adding more to it.”

The other way that perfumes come to me is when I want to translate a feeling into a perfume. It’s never a well-used or overly defined feeling like love or fear — it’s usually something more gossamer, inchoate and vague; something that I can’t (and don’t want) to express in words.

It’s about capturing what can never be said.




July 31st, 2011, Boulder, CO 7/31/11

Dear Mandy,

I understand your thoughts on beauty. Yes, for me, conventional beauty encompasses what I would think of as “prettiness” within “beauty”, and I can see how within the realm of the classic floral bouquet one must have some sense of the continuum of what is pretty, what is beautiful and what is more avant-garde.

When I allow myself to think of the classic floral bouquet and conventional beauty in fragrance, my mind goes to Houbigant Quelques Fleurs, and then of course back to Jean Patou Joy. I guess I equate classical beauty with symmetry, like the classical vase form.

Thinking of classic florals — photo supplied by DSH Perfumes

A more modern sensibility might find beauty in the asymmetrical, but with the classicist, it’s always symmetry. I conceive of a floral bouquet perfume that is rounded on all sides and “full-up” or brimming — like having your arms filled to capacity with fresh flowers as the epitome of beauty in a classical sense.

Personally, with florals, I think that I may honestly be more a classicist. I really adore floral aromas, and when working with them I tend to accentuate their essential nature as opposed to creating a new situation for them.

But I have to say that conceiving of this idea is intriguing to me. It makes me think of your process of conversation between the elements. I, too, consider a perfume “in conversation form” — or like players on a stage, but only after I’ve started formulating. Until that point, for me, it’s all in the abstract and happening in my mind.

I think that perhaps “the conversation” is part of the editing process for me. I very much liked reading about your sense of a perfume as something that you can’t express, or that you wouldn’t even wish to express in words. I feel that this is one of the significant ways that perfumery can be used to bring meaning to art, life and experience, which is to express emotion, or anything really, in a non-verbal, completely visceral, pure sort of way.

We seem to be hard-wired for this. We smell it and the communication has happened; the message was sent and received without words. How wonderful.

So, I have been wondering if you have begun your process? Have you started your design?

All my best,



August 9th, 2011, Berkeley, CA

Dear Dawn,

Reading your thoughts about symmetry, beauty and classicism in relation to perfume, it sounds like both of us feel such a wordless, passionate, intuitive emotion when creating a perfume.

And I completely agree with you when you mention that before we know we’ve smelled something, we’ve already smelled it — that our olfactory experiences are both instantaneous and primal.

I always feel so lucky to be able to create in this particular art form. I’ve started to think about composing — nothing concrete yet, just ideas about which florals to include. I spent some time focusing on osmanthus and tuberose, smelling each one repeatedly on a scent strip.

To me, they have a certain amount of aromatic overlap and a certain amount of dissonance; of course, they share the rich floral tones, but the tuberose differentiates itself with its putrid/gorgeous, fecal/floral dichotomy, while my osmanthus absolute smells like apricots, cough medicine, dead flowers and tea.

I’ve been turning over in my mind how to best combine these two. One of my original thoughts was to use poplar bud absolute, which shares certain facets with the osmanthus, particularly the apricot tones. But I worry that they’re too similar and will lock together in a way that obscures their individual idiosyncratic beauty, which is what I really want to highlight. I’m also very drawn to the idea of including alpha ionone, with its gorgeously soft, powdery violet aroma.

What flowers are you thinking of using?




August 14th, 2011, Boulder, CO

Dear Mandy,

Yes; instantaneous and primal. The olfactory sense is so like that and for me, akin to poetry. It makes the hair stand on the back of my neck, which is to paraphrase the way poet Robert Graves described ‘true poetry’. This is how brilliant perfume design affects me as well.

*Note from Nathan: Robert Graves calls the wordless emotional state that Mandy and Dawn refer to as “the original hypnotic state”, and addresses its eventual revelation: “The poem is there at the origin, but at the seventh level of consciousness, and rises up gradually through each repeated revision . . . it must be scratched for and exhumed.”

Accessing the hypnotic state — photo supplied by DSH Perfumes

I like the ideas you’re contemplating for your design, especially the poplar bud absolute and alpha ionone. I suspect that you’ll have some of the wonderful “Aftelian” nuances that remain a bit edgy even within the structure of the classical floral, and I think it’ll be exciting to experience the unfolding of this conversation for you.

I’ve been imagining a rather gigantic floral bouquet that not only pairs the tuberose with it’s all-time “BFF” gardenia along with the “royal marriage” of rose plus jasmine, but also brings in some rich fruit nuances — cassis perhaps, to dance with the osmanthus.

I’m pretty sure that ylang ylang is getting an invitation to the party, as well.

I’m starting to envision the whole thing as an opulent masked ball . . . complete with fine silks and masks. Less straight from the garden and more refined. We’ll just have to see.

Shall we start sending some sketch samples to each other? The process of discussion is so much fun but the excitement of trading samples sounds even better. What do you think?

All my best,


***This is a continuation of a series. You can find the other letters between Mandy Aftel and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz at the links below:

Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 1)
Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 3)
Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 4)
Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 5)