Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Laurie Erickson (ep. 5)

March 31st, 2012 / Berkeley, CA

Dear Laurie,

Thank you so much for taking the time to smell my two perfume samples, Sepia 8A and Sepia 8B. Your reactions were insightful about both, and I agree with you that while sample 8A is pretty, it doesn’t convey the mood of aging and lost worlds that I’ve been so interested in somehow conveying. So I’ve focused my attention on 8B, performing numerous revisions while keeping to the same set of essences . . . plus I added oud!

I’m happy with it and feel it has now “become” Sepia. Here’s what’s in it:

Top: blood cedarwood, pink grapefruit and yellow mandarin
Middle: pink lotus, jasmine, strawberry, cocoa and coffee
Base: indole, ambergris, tobacco, labdanum, cepes and oud

I was surprised that it took me this long to add a touch of oud, because what could express elegant decay better than the dark, aromatic agarwood resin?

I dialed back the cocoa and the pink lotus in the formula while bumping up the blood cedarwood, pink grapefruit and yellow mandarin. The top note is now mostly dependent on the yellow mandarin, a sweetly floral citrus oil from Italy that’s key to the way the blood cedarwood remains richly engaged and woody.

*Note from Nathan: Italy is one of the world’s leading producers of bergamot and mandarin oils, including red, yellow and green mandarin.

When I was working through the different versions of this perfume, I was struck by the fact that each version had many aspects I liked, but other essences would distressingly crash and collide for a disharmonious shape to the overall perfume. I found that as I began dialing things back and shifting proportions around, the essences relaxed and eased into a much more harmonious structure that better reflected the sense of emotional stillness and detachment I so wanted to communicate.

Crumbling Gold Country walls in a sepia-toned ruin — photo by Aftelier

In the end, after many episodes of tweaking and refining, I came upon what I believe is just the right proportional relationship for each essence in order to achieve that whispered atmosphere of decay among the beautifully weathered buildings of California’s Gold Country, along with its landscape filled with crumbling secrets and past lives.

While I was creating Sepia, there was a song that I listened to about a hundred times, “Brownsville Girl” by Bob Dylan (and a hundred times is not an exaggeration!). Actually, this is often the case for me, as I always make perfume while listening to music. I adore this song and it communicates the “no regrets” atmosphere of the ghost towns perfectly.

This eleven minute song, that he co-wrote with Sam Shepard, is considered one of his best — which, to me (a big Bob Dylan fan) is really saying something. In the song, while traveling through the West with a new lover, Dylan speaks to an old lover. He keeps referring to a Western film starring Gregory Peck as a touchstone about his ambivalence regarding his own fame. It’s a song of blossoming romance, passionate love and loss, aching remorse and deep wisdom.

When Bob Dylan was honored at the Kennedy Center by President Clinton, Gregory Peck introduced his work and award with a speech based on that particular song:

“A kind of 19th century troubadour maverick American spirit”

I’m sending you a sample of the final Sepia perfume. I’ve tried it on several friends and found that it’s one of those fragrances that twists and turns on the skin depending on the wearer’s particular body chemistry. I do love the way that perfumes can sometimes highlight the varied animal aspects of our humanity.

And now that I’ve reached the end of my own creative journey in this project, I wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed doing these letters with you. I’ve appreciated your openness about your very personal creative process, the generous sharing of your materials and the insightful feedback about my own perfumes.

Creating perfume is usually such a solitary experience for me, and I’ve really liked being able to see into your process and learn how you create. It’s made me feel that I know you and your work so much better.




April 5th, 2012 / Healdsburg, CA

Hi Mandy,

I just received your final mod of Sepia yesterday, and like it very much! The drydown has a unique combination of woodsy and animalic notes with a warm, but not heavy, amber tone in the base. The indole, ambergris, tobacco, cepes and oud all have animalic aspects, but they play nicely together, which is quite a feat. I’m not familiar with yellow mandarin, but I can tell that I love it after trying these mods, so I’ll have to get some.

This blend grows on me the more I wear it, and as it becomes more familiar, I become more attached to it. I’m really enjoying the drydown very much. I think you really did capture the mood of the ghost towns and their theme of elegant decay that you set as your goal.

It’s interesting that you mention listening to music as you work. I find that I can listen to music when I’m doing tasks that require less intense concentration, but when I’m really concentrating I prefer my surroundings to be relatively quiet. Music is so soul-stirring that it does easily inspire creativity, but I focus better on scents without the extra sensory input of music, though I like the visual treat of a beautiful view out the window.

Beautiful views that helped inspire Laurie’s “Forest Walk” — photos by L.Erickson (click to enlarge)

I wanted to close my letter by saying how much I’ve enjoyed this project and how much fun it’s been to get to know you better.

Years ago, when your “Essence and Alchemy” book first came out, I read an article about it in the San Francisco Chronicle and immediately acquired a copy of the book to read.

At the time, I was just playing with essential oils and absolutes in oil bases, trying to create simple floral blends to enjoy during the winter months when my garden was out of bloom. Your book inspired me, letting me know that it might be possible for me to learn the art of perfumery and go beyond the simple blending of a few floral oils. You must feel good knowing that there are many people around the world you’ve touched with your writing. I know it’s brought the joy of perfuming to many people’s lives, as it has to mine.

I’m sorry that my own contribution to this Letters project, “Forest Walk”, isn’t quite done, but it’s getting close and I’ll be sure to send you and Nathan samples when it’s finished.

Thanks again so much for the chance to exchange ingredients and thoughts about our creative process! And very best wishes with your exciting new book project!


PS — The forest pictures were taken in a wilderness park just a few minutes from my cottage. My dad helped me get these pics, and they show what the hills are like around here in spring with the wild grass and old oaks.


April 5th, 2012 / Auckland, NZ

Hi Laurie —

I got your generous package in the mail yesterday, and am looking forward to testing out the various raw materials (black hemlock, Indolene 50, Firmenich civet, hydroxycitronellal) plus your own Nostalgie perfume sample and the samples of your Forest Walk trials.

Mandy also sent me her finished version of Sepia, and while I initially balked at its quiet, introspective nature (I feel like I’m quiet and introspective enough without wearing it, too!), it quickly grew on me. Of course, I had to turn off the stereo, close my eyes and sit quietly in the center of my living room to get the right “vacated ghost town” frame of mind going, but Sepia made total sense once my brain performed the necessary leap from public to private space.

And because of the materials Mandy stated she’d added to the base (indole, ambergris, tobacco, labdanum, cepes and oud, not to mention the cocoa and coffee in the middle), I was fully expecting a big ol’ punch to the nose, yet she managed to somehow rein in the big boys and achieve an utterly confounding result — the composition sounds on paper as if it’s going to be huge, yet it turns out to be sheer, light and nearly translucent, like dust hanging in a shaft of sunlight.

*NOTE: Mandy’s Sepia surprised me in much the same way that I was surprised by the sheer, light nature of the new Maison Francis Kurkdjian Oud. When someone mentions “oud”, I expect a dark, rich powerhouse of a scent, but damn if it isn’t all 21st century workplace friendly, instead.

Mandy also sent some natural Indole isolate, which I found surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable. It has a more aggressive profile than the Indolene 50, but that may have more to do with the dilution differences (the natural Indole was at 1%, while the Indolene 50 was at 0.5%), though they’re quite similar — but I got next to none of that mothball feel you were talking about from the natural isolate; instead, it was very toasted and earthy with a waxy, fleshy quality that was highly appealing and yet also oddly off-putting.

Getting down and indole-dirty with our perfumers — photo by N.Branch

I loved putting my nose to the bottle, yet couldn’t hold it there for more than a few seconds at a time, it was so intense. Your black hemlock material was also intense, but in a bittergreen, leafy manner — and could be almost a perfume in and of itself, at least by the more minimalist contemporary standards set by companies like Escentric Molecules.

The Indolene 50, however, while exhibiting some of the toasted earthiness of the natural Indole isolate, leaned more on the mothball side of the equation, while also having a softer overall profile. Again, I don’t know if that has to do with the different concentrations or if the natural Indole isolate is indeed more heavily and intensely animalic than the Indolene 50.

I’ve only done a cursory drive-by of the two “Forest Walk” mods so far, but I get what Mandy means by the “seaweed” smell — there’s an almost saline-green aspect to both samples you sent, maybe due to the moss you’re using? Because it does remind me a lot of both wet seaweed and the scent of wet, green moss on rocks.

Growing up in rural Michigan while also living an extensive chunk of time in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve walked through more than my share of damp, green forests and this accurately captures facets of that experience. It feels quite literal at this point in the creation timeline — are you shooting for literal or do you plan on veering off into a more abstract take on the forest walk?




April 5th, 2012 / Healdsburg, CA

Hi Nathan,

Glad that package finally arrived! I just received Mandy’s final mod yesterday and I like it very much, too (as explained in the letter I just emailed to her). I agree that it’s amazingly fluid and smooth given all the heavy-hitters in the formula.

You would get much more of the mothball note in straight indole than in the indolene. The synth indole I have has a strong mothball component to it.

I do get wet, mossy rocks in Forest Walk, and so have most testers. Maybe the difference between mossy rocks and seaweed isn’t too far, and maybe they are just on a continuum with each person smelling it at a different spot on that continuum. I’m not fond of my seaweed absolute sample, and this mod doesn’t smell like that to me. If it comes off veering that direction to some people though, I’ll want to make adjustments because I want forest, not wet coastline.

Damn the coastline, it’s full forest ahead! — photos by L.Erickson

I want the scent to put people *in* the forest, so in that sense I want it to be literal. Several people have said the floral notes read strong enough to them and they don’t want it much more floral than it is. I would enjoy more violet in it myself, so I may try that. I also want to experiment more with the moss and green notes.

My very first mod was less literal and more floral, but the first few testers thought it should be more literal and foresty, so I headed off in that direction and liked where it took me. I need to try a couple more things and send some more testers out. I just finally filed my taxes today, so I can get back to Forest Walk again.

I will keep in touch on Forest Walk. I’d love for you to test another mod soon.

Thanks for sniffing!


PS: I like mod 25b better than 22; it seems better without the synth moss ingredient that I removed in 25b.


April 5th, 2012 / Berkeley, CA

Dear Laurie,

I was very moved by your sweet and tender letter.

It’s so meaningful to know that “Essence & Alchemy” had this role in your life. It’s the whole reason that I write my books, and to hear that from you, someone I have such admiration for and respect — that is deeply moving to me.

Thank you so much.



Arpil 6th, 2012 / Healdsburg, CA


Your book crossed my path at a perfect time. It was especially meaningful for me to do this series because I’ve looked up to you over the years. :)



April 6th, 2012 / Auckland, NZ

Are you two finished with the mutual love-fest yet, because if this turns into a group hug, I’m outta here!

But fine, I agree, the Letters series between the two of you really *has* been the perfect way to wrap up the overall “Letters to a Fellow Perfumer” series for, at least, the discernible future (and because Mandy has a new book to write).

Mandy’s continued presence was a wonderfully unifying and guiding light throughout all of the separate projects, and I’ve grown to deeply admire and respect her talents, skills and accomplishments as each individual project has unfolded — not to mention that I feel like I gained a great friend as we worked closely together managing, discussing and editing the projects during their progression.

I’ve also very much enjoyed our behind-the-scenes look into the lives of each of the other terrifically independent and talented participants: Andy Tauer, Liz Zorn, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and now you, Laurie, here at the end.

I’m looking forward to the completion of your “Forest Walk”, and I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this series than with two perfumes that are interpretations of physical places and journeys. It seems only fitting.

My bottles of Sepia are in the mail and winging their way to New Zealand as I type these words, and I’m hoping I have them in my hands sometime early next week so that I can douse myself in the elegance of decay.

Decaying into beautiful drama — photos by Aftelier

God knows, my daily routine could certainly use an injection of elegance (of any sort).

I’m sure other bloggers will have reviews of “Sepia” up before I can take pictures of Mandy’s new packaging and tap my own thoughts out on my keyboard — I’ve become way too slow on the uptake with reviews lately, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be wearing the h*ll out of the stuff in the interim. I already had to order a replacement for my dwindling supply of Secret Garden . . .

*Relevant aside: And right on cue, the Twitter reactions begin to emerge:

1.) Joey Alycia“@AftelierPerfume blew it out of the fragranced waters with Sepia. Just when I thought Mandy couldn’t top herself, she tops herself. WOW!” and 2.) Carrie Meredith“@AftelierPerfumes Sepia. Dense, hard-packed and dusty soil submitting to the wind; this is where cracks in the earth are born.”

Plus, Victoria Frolova hosts a short Q&A with Mandy over at her Bois de Jasmin website: Q&A with Mandy Aftel about Aftelier Sepia

So thank you Mandy and Laurie for a great finish to what I hope was a very enjoyable Letters experience for everyone involved (you, me and the rest of the readers). I appreciate the huge amount of time and effort both of you put into communicating what’s an incredibly difficult thing to describe — the driving forces of creativity and inspiration.

Here’s to wishing you much luck and success in all your future endeavors. And Mandy, I can’t wait to read your new book when it’s finally written and published! Which will be, like, what . . . 2014?

It’s so hard to be patient in the digital age.


***This is the conclusion of a series of letters between independent perfumers Mandy Aftel and Laurie Erickson. You can find their previous letters at the links below:

1.) Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Laurie Erickson (ep. 1)
2.) Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Laurie Erickson (ep. 2)
3.) Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Laurie Erickson (ep. 3)
4.) Letters to a Fellow Perfumer: Mandy Aftel & Laurie Erickson (ep. 4)