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

October 6th, 2011 / Berkeley, CA

Dear Dawn,

Creating this perfume started out as nothing but trouble.

Usually a perfume begins to emerge, like a sculpture from a slab of stone, and I see the contours and shapes as they become free from the mass, but this letter should be titled “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute”, instead.

Let me tell you where I’ve been before the enormous changes: I decided that I would build the perfume on the accord of a tuberose-saturated osmanthus. Looking back at the old formulas for vintage florals, I thought that I needed to keep the base notes light and use something like bergamot, with maybe a splash of tarragon on the top. And since I found some incredible compounded natural isolates of apricot and pear, I was eager to include them because of how I assumed they would interact with the fruity bond between the osmanthus and tuberose.

All of this sounded good on paper, but as I began to make the actual trial perfumes, I found that while they were pretty, they were also pretty boring. It slowly began to dawn on me that I didn’t like tuberose and osmanthus together at all — that the two of them locked in a flat, fruity-floral way that didn’t accentuate the most attractive qualities of either essence.

I made variation after variation after variation, and *nothing* shapely or distinctive emerged. Soon, anyone who crossed my path was urged to try versions E, L, Q, R, and U on their skin — “Which one do you like best?” I kept asking.

Everyone had their favorites, everyone said how beautiful they were, and those who know me well said, “When you get ready to toss them out, please give them to me, I love them.”

I saw all of this as a very bad sign. Why was I so indecisive? Why wasn’t there one version that called out to me and said, “Yes, choose me, I’m it!”

I decided to send sample versions of what I had to Nathan, hoping he could help me make up my mind, and in his prescient and brilliant way, Nathan put his finger right on the problem: I just wasn’t into this project. Not as it was.

He came to that determination from smelling the perfumes (unfinished and lackluster, he said) and also from the emails I’d written to him while I was trying to come up with a final version. When I wrote to him that I was sick of osmanthus + tuberose and ready to throw in the towel, he suggested that I should listen to what I was saying and maybe approach the project from a completely different angle — that I should talk to you about letting myself off my own hook.

*Note from Nathan: I reminded Mandy that when it came to these letters projects, “the rules” aren’t carved in stone. If she wasn’t loving the parameters of the current project, then there was no reason why she couldn’t change the blueprint and build a different beast. Because that’s the prime benefit of being one’s own boss, right? Okay, back to Mandy!

I am so grateful that when I called you, you said it would be fine if I wanted to go in a direction that felt more like myself: an exotic floral rather than a classic floral.

Needless to say, I learned some very interesting things about my own process of creation, number one being that I’m not at all interested in classic perfumes. I know, that’s probably heresy to admit, but it’s true. Following the footsteps of past masters to create a traditionally pretty floral is just not interesting to me — I make my perfumes for myself because they thrill me, not because there are rules I need to follow or shoes I’m trying to fill.

So this morning, I woke up feeling like a person who had just drawn a get-out-of-jail-free card! I was so excited to head to my studio and work on an entirely new perfume from scratch, and when I sat down and started putting the pieces together, the whole perfume sprang out of my head almost fully formed. It was a story and I found I already knew the beginning, middle and end . . . I was writing it down as fast as I could!

In my studio, there was this incredible castoreum tincture and an antique civet that I had on hand; I’d never worked with two animal ingredients together in one perfume and I was curious to see what would happen with not one, but two of them.

I’d also recently picked up some extraordinary deertongue (*not* an animal ingredient, but a type of grass that was once used to flavor pipe tobacco), which has the aroma of tonka bean and the countryside in beautiful balance.

I was moving toward a balsamic base in a big hurry, something that was rich and exotically sensual.

For the heart of the scent, I wanted something that smelled spicy, but without spice — a phantom spice, if you will. The best way to get that was to add some jasmine sambac, with its rich, spicy, indolic kick. I have such a voluptuous Turkish rose absolute on hand, and loved how it mated with the balsamic base; I knew I wanted to lean on that while also filling things in with the otherworldly yet soft aroma of blue lotus.

The story I wanted to tell was of a secret garden that one could enter through the perfume; as though fitting a key in a lock and swinging open the gates to this beautiful, fragrant, utterly exotic world. That’s where I was when I made this perfume, and that’s what I hope people will feel when they smell the perfume on their skin.

P.S. — This one’s a keeper. I stopped at version “B” and I won’t be harassing any of my friends to make up my mind for me.



Red Rose No. 5
Leaning on the rose — photo by Nathan Branch


October 18th, 2011 / Boulder, CO

Dear, Mandy —

I’m thrilled that you called, and that you’ve been inspired to create something that excites you, inside and out. While I haven’t been totally unhappy with the choice of “classic floral with a tuberose & osmanthus focus”, I have found the project a bit topsy turvy.

I think that, for myself, I’ve been wrestling with an altogether different problem. When we first began this perfume design, we spoke about naturals and synthetics, etc., and although we both agreed to go wherever the perfume took us in terms of materials, I still had planned to create with a 100% natural palette, but this self-imposed limitation just hasn’t been working for me.

So since our last conversation, I changed directions, too, and jumped off that cliff into a mixed-media palette, and I have to admit — it’s just what I wanted! While I’m not feeling as ‘finished” as I suspect you are with your new design, I feel that I am well
on my way down the right path.

My first step was to just go for it by adding my classic tuberose accord (mixed media) to pump up the tuberose intensity along with the super animalic / indolic juhi jasmine absolute and moroccan orange blossom. I also pumped up the ylang, as I’m anticipating some leather in the drydown.

Another big step was adding the all-botanical ‘spiced plum’ accord that I may have mentioned in my last letter. This made a huge impact . . . but the real leap came when I strongly dosed the base with green oakmoss. I’d originally planned to keep the oakmoss note a bit subdued, but to hell with it. I feel like going “all in”.

For me, the sense of feeling unbridled has shifted this classic floral into a much richer zone, and amazingly — as we started in late summer and now it’s autumn — I want it to be softly spiced, with rich fruit nuances and a deep animalic dry down, yet a truly sexy FLORAL FLORAL.

I’m feeling pretty good about it (and my husband said I smelled good tonight when I came home wearing it!).

If I’m not finished by the next letter, I feel that I’ll at least be very, very close. I’m thinking that I’ll work on this design just a bit more and send a version to you for your thoughts. Shall we trade some in-progress but almost finished samples of our work?

I think that might be fun.

I look forward to your next letter, and perhaps a sample exchange.

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. 2)
Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 3)
Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Dawn Spencer Hurwitz (ep. 5)