A perfumer’s obsessive quest to recreate the fragrance of lost love

A lady leaves a room, and her fragrance lingers. She is gone, however one thing of her presence stays. The lady, perfumer Mandy Aftel, has slipped into one other wing of her dwelling in search of a relic. 
Scents are like souls, Marcel Proust wrote. They endure demise and destruction, “remembering, ready, hoping…”
Fragrances are alive for Aftel, too. She calls them “my buddies,” and as soon as charmingly addressed a shelf of important oils immediately, asking, “Is all people right here?”
Aftel is inheritor to a practice that traces again six thousand years to Egypt, the place incense was burned to purify sacred areas. Later, in Mesopotamia, the need for extra advanced aromatics impressed some of humanity’s earliest chemistry experiments. One cuneiform pill courting to 1200 BC names the world’s first-recorded chemist, a feminine perfumer named Tapputi. From that period onward, valuable fragrances proliferated by way of the Silk Road, reached mass adoption in the “Perfumed Court” of King Louis XV, and presently comprise a 30 billion greenback world business that features Aftel’s cozy atelier right here in Berkeley, California.   
The seventy-four-year-old returned clutching a pocket book. “This is it,” she introduced. The pages doc seasons of battle as the artist tried to recreate the exact pure scent of somebody she had liked and lost – a fragrance she would finally identify Memento Mori. “The course of mirrored the relationship itself,” she confessed. “Torturous.”
It had been a solitary interval, reminiscent of the perfumer’s childhood in Fifties Detroit. Growing up in an artificial miasma of “asphalt, detergent, and chlorinated swimming swimming pools,” the scents of her youth had been unfriendly ones.
“I wasn’t notably effectively thought of in my household,” she recalled. “I wasn’t very fairly. I used to be dyslexic, and did horrible in class. Failure wasn’t scary for me; I had already failed. I simply variety of marched alongside, and tried to determine issues out alone.”
Aftel bought married, briefly, to a neighborhood boy. She grew to become a mom. She moved to Berkeley in 1970. She grew to become a weaver. She wrote an oral historical past of the musician Brian Jones, simply after his demise. She lived for months with the singer Donovan and his spouse in Joshua Tree. She grew to become a profitable psychotherapist.
Finally, twenty years later, on a whim, she determined to write a novel a few perfumer. It was a topic she knew nothing about. Yet as she submerged herself deeper and deeper into the alchemy of the artform, Aftel’s id started to meld with that of the protagonist. Soon, she had shuttered her remedy observe and dedicated fulltime to the vocation of crafting bespoke perfumes.

Research demonstrates that people can odor ovulation, reproductive compatibility, and normal well being — typically altering our conduct in consequence. One research of males discovered that the scent of a ladies’s tears lowered testosterone, sexual arousal, and perceived attractiveness of feminine faces.

In her ebook “Fragrant,” Aftel describes it as a love affair. “I took in the oils in all their beautiful variety. It was as if a mirrored sensation had been occurring inside of me; I felt as if I had been turning into one with the oils, as in the event that they had been coming into me. I could not inform the place they left off and I started.”
Inside Aftel’s atelier and museum, one is instantly engulfed by the artist’s “scent organ,” comprised of a whole bunch of bottles in rows full of essences. The perfumer presents the bottles to her shoppers, one after the other, and watches fastidiously. “When folks odor their favourite scents,” she noticed, “they all the time shut their eyes like they’re about to be kissed. It’s primal.”
Accordingly, olfaction is our oldest evolutionary sense. Every dwelling cell ever studied is succesful of assessing the chemical substances in its setting. As greater order animals, we are sometimes led by the nostril past our understanding. Research demonstrates that people can odor ovulation, reproductive compatibility, and normal well being — typically altering our conduct in consequence. One research of males discovered that the scent of a ladies’s tears lowered testosterone, sexual arousal, and perceived attractiveness of feminine faces.
Aftel’s scents typically elicit strikingly exact responses. “They’ll say, ‘Oh that is my grandmother,’ or ‘That’s a motorbike journey I took one time in Germany.’ Sometimes, it is a unhealthy reminiscence, or you possibly can simply see them get lost.”
She discovered early on to keep away from assumptions. “Reactions to components come from such a non-verbal, animal half. I’ve had folks are available for a customized fragrance, wanting tremendous company, tremendous standard, possibly chilly — they usually select the sexiest, dirtiest stuff I’ve. You by no means know who an individual is inside.”

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One of these horny, soiled parts is jasmine. Aftel plucked a bottle from the shelf, and pulled the stopper. I inhaled deeply.
“What do you get from that?” she inquired.

“I wished to make a fragrance that smells like a physique,” she continued. “I wished the sensual pleasure that you simply draw from being bodily shut to somebody you love, and the odor of them, and the contact of them. I wished to seize what it’s to be shut to any individual and lose them, and know that it is by no means coming again.”

I struggled for a second, realizing how little of our language is devoted to the olfactory. “It smells like nostalgia… bittersweet.”
“One of the issues that is actually attention-grabbing about jasmine is that it has two elements,” Aftel replied. “It’s bought a really stunning half and a really putrid half.” The putrescence comes from the molecule indole, which is in sure flowers like orange blossom and magnolia, in addition to in excrement. “Jasmine is a fecal-floral,” Aftel continued. It derives its energy from the distinction of opposites, the ugly and the stunning. “That’s what makes it such an ideal aphrodisiac.”
“It smells human,” I added.
“It does,” she confirmed, “and when you put it on a scent strip, it is going to evolve over time. It adjustments, it strikes. I really feel like that is the way it needs to be. My perfumes do not final. The factor that makes fragrance final on the physique is artificial, and I solely use pure essences. Anyone who buys fragrance from me — I educate them how to be my buyer.”
“You educate them to embrace the ephemeral?”
“Yes,” she concluded. “When one thing disappears, you treasure it extra.”
Another determine notably beguiled by jasmine was Napoleon Bonaparte. The olfactophilic Emperor, who famously forbade his spouse to bathe, reportedly went by means of sixty bottles of jasmine extract per thirty days.
The phrase “jasmine” seems repeatedly in Aftel’s pocket book, scribbled amongst a whole bunch of different components, almost all stricken by means of by Xs. The story of Memento Mori, in some ways, is a narrative of creation by means of deletion. “I by no means had a lot bother making a fragrance in my life,” the artisan confessed, flipping by means of the pages. “I cried the entire time I used to be making it. It simply goes on, and on, and on — crossing out prospects. I gave up so many instances, however I all the time went again.”
“I wished to make a fragrance that smells like a physique,” she continued. “I wished the sensual pleasure that you simply draw from being bodily shut to somebody you love, and the odor of them, and the contact of them. I wished to seize what it’s to be shut to any individual and lose them, and know that it is by no means coming again.”
Even now, over a decade since the finish of the relationship that impressed her fragrance, Aftel avoids specifics. “It’s nonetheless simply too uncooked,” she gasped, eyes glistening. “I am unable to.” She spoke in phrases that contoured her loss — by no means describing it immediately. There was no identify, or perhaps a pronoun connected. Aftel solely ever referred to her former beloved as “this particular person,” setting up the excellent void for her fragrance to fill.
Building her fragrance in layers, she started at the floor of the absent physique. “I used to be in search of the texture of pores and skin – that consolation you get from somebody’s pores and skin from the time you are a child until you die, being bodily shut to somebody you love. Just a really particular feeling.”
In truth, our first olfactory associations start even earlier, in utero. Odors present in amniotic fluid are later emitted throughout lactation to information the suckling toddler to the breast. Beginning at start, the new child will desire its mom’s scent above all others.
Aftel saved returning to a bottle containing the essence of butter. “If you odor butter,” she described, “it is variety of animal and delicate. It has a tinge of sweetness and a bit of funkiness.”
She finally added ambergris, an exceedingly uncommon and costly substance produced when sperm whale intestines are wounded by the beaks of big squid. Ambergris could be carried by ocean waves for 100 years or extra earlier than washing up on the shore and being bottled. “The ambergris provides the pores and skin its shimmery observe,” Aftel defined.

Of all the senses, odor has the strongest, most enduring connection to reminiscence. The olfactory bulb bypasses the moderating affect of the thalamus, immediately infiltrating the amygdala and hippocampus, the place feelings and recollections kind.

Next, got here Turkish Rose. “It smells childlike,” I famous. “Yes,” Aftel replied. “When you add this to the different oils it begins to transfer round them, body-like, giving it three-dimensional kind.”
As we sat in her atelier inhaling, one after the other, the essences of her signature fragrance, Aftel closed her eyes, as if getting ready to be kissed. Of all the senses, she famous, odor has confirmed scientifically to have the strongest, most enduring connection to reminiscence. The olfactory bulb bypasses the moderating affect of the thalamus, immediately infiltrating the amygdala and hippocampus, the place feelings and recollections kind. I used to be not simply asking her to keep in mind her previous, she concluded, I used to be asking her to relive it. 
As the fragrances started to mix, the fragrance started to tackle a life of its personal. “I used to be simply lost in it,” Aftel recalled, “like I used to be in the relationship. The fragrance could be a method, superior, after which a pair days later, the scent would morph. It could be terrible. The fragrance would simply decide up and transfer from the place I final left it. I used to be out of management. I might take the fragrance aside and do it once more, and once more, and once more.”
Writing about the historical past of scent, Aftel described her utopia, a distant hunter-gatherer society known as the Ongee. These folks of the Andaman Islands equate scent with selfhood. Death is imagined as a dissipation of one’s private aroma. “An inside spirit is claimed to reside inside the bones of dwelling beings,” historian Constance Classen writes of the Ongee. “While one is sleeping, this inside spirit gathers all the odours one has scattered throughout the day and returns them to the physique, making continued life potential.”
Eventually, like a bone spirit herself, Aftel felt that she had lastly been ready to collect all the scents of her beloved and seal them away in a bottle. The fragrance premiered to savage skilled opinions. “Not everybody loves every part I do,” Aftel remarked, “however I by no means get horrible opinions. There was one which in contrast Memento Mori to rancid cheese.”
Still, like a blossom that has advanced to entice a single species of insect, Aftel noticed the pull her fragrance has over the grief-stricken. The brokenhearted, she claims, typically “magically” gravitate in the direction of the fragrance with out figuring out something about it. 
RELATED: People lacking the scent area of their mind can nonetheless odor
“Soon after Memento Mori got here out, somebody who had simply gone by means of a breakup got here in,” the perfumer noticed, “they usually purchased an entire bottle. Later, they wrote to say that they may really feel what went into the fragrance, and that it was serving to them grieve.”
The fragrance, she claimed, appeared to perform as a form of publicity remedy. A associated method was efficiently used to deal with 9/11 survivors for PTSD. Many skilled a robust scent trauma from the distinctive stench of Ground Zero, described as “rubbery, bitter, and candy at the identical time.” Researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia had been ready to use an identical “artificial odor bouquet” to desensitize witnesses to their traumatic recollections.
For Aftel, the artistic course of itself was therapeutic too. “For anybody who’s going by means of loss,” Aftel supplied, “if you can also make one thing out of that loss artistically, it allows you to transfer a bit of farther from it. In the starting, your grief is your entire life, however finally your life begins to develop round the grief.”

Before he died, Leonard Cohen requested to be buried with the fragrance that Aftel had made for him. The fragrance is constructed round the essence of Oud.

“The grief is equal to the love, so I do know that I’ll grieve without end,” she added. “But, as Leonard Cohen would say, ‘We’re all damaged.'”
Throughout our interview, the songwriter’s phrases had been ever on Aftel’s lips. As an ardent fan, she had as soon as composed a fragrance specifically for Cohen, known as Oud Luban. She mailed it to him, and he wrote again in gratitude. It was the starting of a deep friendship that lasted for over twenty years. In Aftel’s universe, Cohen represents an everlasting grace that she feels “balances” the cruelty of her lost relationship. She quoted Cohen once more: “None of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”
Painfully shy, Aftel would solely work together with Cohen by way of correspondence. For twenty years, she dodged his many invites to meet. Only when he lay dying of leukemia did she relent. “He was simply so variety and beneficiant about me and my work,” she remembered of their assembly. “I used to be so scared, I wished to depart instantly, however he stated, ‘I’ve a brand new tune. Would you want to hear it?’ I saved pondering, ‘Don’t begin crying!’ So, he performed it for me, and it was unbelievable, and he simply went on till he had performed the entire album. And, I simply do not have phrases for what a transcendent expertise love is.”
Before he died, Cohen requested to be buried with the fragrance that Aftel had made for him. The fragrance is constructed round the essence of Oud. At forty-four thousand {dollars} a pound, it’s the costliest ingredient in the world of fragrance. Oud is extracted from the endangered agarwood. It solely develops inside the diseased core of the tree. Fittingly, like the ambergris in Memento Mori, the scent of Oud is the scent of a wound.
After his demise, Aftel labored with Cohen’s household to put together his funeral. “It’s arduous to imagine any of this occurred,” the perfumer confided, “however I feel it did.” She introduced incense burners and organized them on the altar. As it has completed since antiquity, the aromatic smoke undulated skyward, a skinny thread in search of to unite us on earth with one thing above. For a very long time after the service had ended, even after the burial itself, the fragrance remained. 
Read extra on fragrance and scent:

https://www.salon.com/2022/04/30/scent-of-love/

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