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

Andrew M. Santos

A woman leaves a room, and her perfume lingers. She is gone, but something of her presence remains. The woman, perfumer Mandy Aftel, has slipped into another wing of her home in search of a relic. 

Scents are like souls, Marcel Proust wrote. They endure death and destruction, “remembering, waiting, hoping…”

Fragrances are alive for Aftel, too. She calls them “my friends,” and once charmingly addressed a shelf of essential oils directly, asking, “Is everybody here?”

Aftel is heir to a tradition that traces back six thousand years to Egypt, where incense was burned to purify sacred spaces. Later, in Mesopotamia, the desire for more complex aromatics inspired some of humanity’s earliest chemistry experiments. One cuneiform tablet dating to 1200 BC names the world’s first-recorded chemist, a female perfumer named Tapputi. From that era onward, precious fragrances proliferated via the Silk Road, reached mass adoption in the “Perfumed Court” of King Louis XV, and currently comprise a 30 billion dollar global industry that includes Aftel’s cozy atelier here in Berkeley, California.   

The seventy-four-year-old returned clutching a notebook. “This is it,” she announced. The pages document seasons of struggle as the artist attempted to recreate the precise natural scent of someone she had loved and lost – a perfume she would eventually name Memento Mori. “The process mirrored the relationship itself,” she confessed. “Torturous.”

It had been a solitary period, reminiscent of the perfumer’s childhood in 1950s Detroit. Growing up in a synthetic miasma of “asphalt, detergent, and chlorinated swimming pools,” the scents of her youth were unfriendly ones.

“I wasn’t particularly well thought of in my family,” she recalled. “I wasn’t very pretty. I was dyslexic, and did terrible in school. Failure wasn’t scary for me; I had already failed. I just kind of marched along, and tried to figure things out on my own.”

Aftel got married, briefly, to a local boy. She became a mother. She moved to Berkeley in 1970. She became a weaver. She wrote an oral history of the musician Brian Jones, just after his death. She lived for months with the singer Donovan and his wife in Joshua Tree. She became a successful psychotherapist.

Finally, two decades later, on a whim, she decided to write a novel about a perfumer. It was a subject she knew nothing about. Yet as she submerged herself deeper and deeper into the alchemy of the artform, Aftel’s identity began to meld with that of the protagonist. Soon, she had shuttered her therapy practice and committed fulltime to the vocation of crafting bespoke perfumes.

Research demonstrates that humans can smell ovulation, reproductive compatibility, and general health — often changing our behavior as a result. One study of males found that the scent of a women’s tears lowered testosterone, sexual arousal, and perceived attractiveness of female faces.

In her book “Fragrant,” Aftel describes it as a love affair. “I took in the oils in all their gorgeous diversity. It was as if a mirrored sensation were occurring inside of me; I felt as if I were becoming one with the oils, as if they were entering me. I couldn’t tell where they left off and I began.”

Inside Aftel’s atelier and museum, one is immediately engulfed by the artist’s “scent organ,” comprised of hundreds of bottles in rows filled with essences. The perfumer presents the bottles to her clients, one by one, and watches carefully. “When people smell their favorite scents,” she observed, “they always close their eyes like they’re about to be kissed. It’s primal.”

Accordingly, olfaction is our oldest evolutionary sense. Every living cell ever studied is capable of assessing the chemicals in its environment. As higher order animals, we are often led by the nose beyond our understanding. Research demonstrates that humans can smell ovulation, reproductive compatibility, and general health — often changing our behavior as a result. One study of males found that the scent of a women’s tears lowered testosterone, sexual arousal, and perceived attractiveness of female faces.

Aftel’s scents often elicit strikingly precise responses. “They’ll say, ‘Oh that’s my grandmother,’ or ‘That’s a motorcycle ride I took one time in Germany.’ Sometimes, it’s a bad memory, or you can just see them get lost.”

She learned early on to avoid assumptions. “Reactions to ingredients come from such a non-verbal, animal part. I’ve had people come in for a custom perfume, looking super corporate, super conventional, maybe cold — and they pick out the sexiest, dirtiest stuff I have. You never know who a person is inside.”


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One of those sexy, dirty elements 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 wanted to make a perfume that smells like a body,” she continued. “I wanted the sensual pleasure that you draw from being physically close to someone you love, and the smell of them, and the touch of them. I wanted to capture what it is to be close to somebody and lose them, and know that it’s never coming back.”

I struggled for a moment, realizing how little of our language is devoted to the olfactory. “It smells like nostalgia… bittersweet.”

“One of the things that’s really interesting about jasmine is that it has two parts,” Aftel replied. “It’s got a very beautiful part and a very putrid part.” The putrescence comes from the molecule indole, which is in certain flowers like orange blossom and magnolia, as well as in excrement. “Jasmine is a fecal-floral,” Aftel continued. It derives its power from the contrast of opposites, the ugly and the beautiful. “That’s what makes it such a perfect aphrodisiac.”

“It smells human,” I added.

“It does,” she confirmed, “and if you put it on a scent strip, it will evolve over time. It changes, it moves. I feel like that’s how it should be. My perfumes don’t last. The thing that makes perfume last on the body is synthetic, and I only use natural essences. Anyone who buys perfume from me — I teach them how to be my customer.”

“You teach them to embrace the ephemeral?”

“Yes,” she concluded. “When something disappears, you treasure it more.”

Another figure particularly beguiled by jasmine was Napoleon Bonaparte. The olfactophilic Emperor, who famously forbade his wife to bathe, reportedly went through sixty bottles of jasmine extract per month.

The word “jasmine” appears repeatedly in Aftel’s notebook, scribbled among hundreds of other ingredients, nearly all stricken through by Xs. The story of Memento Mori, in many ways, is a story of creation through deletion. “I never had so much trouble making a perfume in my life,” the artisan confessed, flipping through the pages. “I cried the whole time I was making it. It just goes on, and on, and on — crossing out possibilities. I gave up so many times, but I always went back.”

“I wanted to make a perfume that smells like a body,” she continued. “I wanted the sensual pleasure that you draw from being physically close to someone you love, and the smell of them, and the touch of them. I wanted to capture what it is to be close to somebody and lose them, and know that it’s never coming back.”

Even now, over a decade since the end of the relationship that inspired her perfume, Aftel avoids specifics. “It’s still just too raw,” she gasped, eyes glistening. “I can’t.” She spoke in words that contoured her loss — never describing it directly. There was no name, or even a pronoun attached. Aftel only ever referred to her former beloved as “this person,” constructing the perfect void for her perfume to fill.

Building her fragrance in layers, she began at the surface of the absent body. “I was looking for the texture of skin – that comfort you get from someone’s skin from the time you’re a baby till you die, being physically close to someone you love. Just a very special feeling.”

In fact, our first olfactory associations begin even earlier, in utero. Odors found in amniotic fluid are later emitted during lactation to guide the suckling infant to the breast. Beginning at birth, the newborn will prefer its mother’s scent above all others.

Aftel kept returning to a bottle containing the essence of butter. “If you smell butter,” she described, “it’s kind of animal and soft. It has a tinge of sweetness and a little funkiness.”

She eventually added ambergris, an exceedingly rare and expensive substance produced when sperm whale intestines are wounded by the beaks of giant squid. Ambergris can be carried by ocean waves for a hundred years or more before washing up on the shore and being bottled. “The ambergris gives the skin its shimmery note,” Aftel explained.

Of all the senses, smell has the strongest, most enduring connection to memory. The olfactory bulb bypasses the moderating influence of the thalamus, directly infiltrating the amygdala and hippocampus, where emotions and memories form.

Next, came Turkish Rose. “It smells childlike,” I noted. “Yes,” Aftel replied. “When you add this to the other oils it begins to move around them, body-like, giving it three-dimensional form.”

As we sat in her atelier inhaling, one by one, the essences of her signature perfume, Aftel closed her eyes, as if preparing to be kissed. Of all the senses, she noted, smell has proven scientifically to have the strongest, most enduring connection to memory. The olfactory bulb bypasses the moderating influence of the thalamus, directly infiltrating the amygdala and hippocampus, where emotions and memories form. I was not just asking her to remember her past, she concluded, I was asking her to relive it. 

As the fragrances began to combine, the perfume began to take on a life of its own. “I was just lost in it,” Aftel recalled, “like I was in the relationship. The perfume would be one way, awesome, and then a couple days later, the scent would morph. It would be awful. The perfume would just pick up and move from where I last left it. I was out of control. I would take the perfume apart and do it again, and again, and again.”

Writing about the history of scent, Aftel described her utopia, a remote hunter-gatherer society called the Ongee. These people of the Andaman Islands equate scent with selfhood. Death is imagined as a dissipation of one’s personal aroma. “An inner spirit is said to reside within the bones of living beings,” historian Constance Classen writes of the Ongee. “While one is sleeping, this internal spirit gathers all the odours one has scattered during the day and returns them to the body, making continued life possible.”

Eventually, like a bone spirit herself, Aftel felt that she had finally been able to gather all the scents of her beloved and seal them away in a bottle. The perfume premiered to savage professional reviews. “Not everyone loves everything I do,” Aftel remarked, “but I never get terrible reviews. There was one that compared Memento Mori to rancid cheese.”

Still, like a blossom that has evolved to attract a single species of insect, Aftel saw the pull her perfume has over the grief-stricken. The brokenhearted, she claims, often “magically” gravitate towards the fragrance without knowing anything about it. 

RELATED: People missing the scent region of their brain can still smell

“Soon after Memento Mori came out, someone who had just gone through a breakup came in,” the perfumer observed, “and they bought a whole bottle. Later, they wrote to say that they could feel what went into the perfume, and that it was helping them grieve.”

The fragrance, she claimed, seemed to function as a kind of exposure therapy. A related approach was successfully used to treat 9/11 survivors for PTSD. Many experienced a strong scent trauma from the unique stench of Ground Zero, described as “rubbery, bitter, and sweet at the same time.” Researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia were able to use a similar “synthetic odor bouquet” to desensitize witnesses to their traumatic memories.

For Aftel, the creative process itself was healing too. “For anyone who’s going through loss,” Aftel offered, “if you can make something out of that loss artistically, it lets you move a little further from it. In the beginning, your grief is your whole life, but eventually your life begins to grow around the grief.”

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

“The grief is equal to the love, so I know that I will grieve forever,” she added. “But, as Leonard Cohen would say, ‘We’re all broken.'”

Throughout our interview, the songwriter’s words were ever on Aftel’s lips. As an ardent fan, she had once composed a perfume specially for Cohen, called Oud Luban. She mailed it to him, and he wrote back in gratitude. It was the beginning of a deep friendship that lasted for over twenty years. In Aftel’s universe, Cohen represents an enduring grace that she feels “balances” the cruelty of her lost relationship. She quoted Cohen again: “None of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”

Painfully shy, Aftel would only interact with Cohen via correspondence. For two decades, she dodged his many invitations to meet. Only when he lay dying of leukemia did she relent. “He was just so kind and generous about me and my work,” she remembered of their meeting. “I was so scared, I wanted to leave right away, but he said, ‘I have a new song. Would you like to hear it?’ I kept thinking, ‘Don’t start crying!’ So, he played it for me, and it was unbelievable, and he just went on until he had played the whole album. And, I just don’t have words for what a transcendent experience love is.”

Before he died, Cohen requested to be buried with the perfume that Aftel had made for him. The fragrance is built around the essence of Oud. At forty-four thousand dollars a pound, it is the most expensive ingredient in the world of perfume. Oud is extracted from the endangered agarwood. It only 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 death, Aftel worked with Cohen’s family to prepare his funeral. “It’s hard to believe any of this happened,” the perfumer confided, “but I think it did.” She brought incense burners and arranged them on the altar. As it has done since antiquity, the fragrant smoke undulated skyward, a thin thread seeking to unite us on earth with something above. For a long time after the service had ended, even after the burial itself, the fragrance remained. 

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