Mandy Aftel ..The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells

I love the raw materials of incense and perfume. Many of them tend to have very blurred borders in their usage between one and the other. I have come to realize that I am a somewhat “materials oriented guy” when it comes to this sort of thing and because of all this I started gathering up a lot of essential oils, absolutes, resins, herbs and all the rest of the raw materials that go into creating incense and what has been termed by Octavian Coifan as “The Eighth th Art” or perfume.

There are no schools for incense making in this country, or if they exist they are pretty well hidden. So I decided to try another route and take perfumery classes. I had read Mandy Aftel’s book “Essence and Alchemy” and was captivated by her insights into the worlds of scent and its references to metaphysics. It didn’t hurt that I had studied some of the ideas within the Alchemical teachings and figured I would feel at least comfortable and probably highly intrigued in a class taught by her. It’s also very convenient that her studio is nearby and close to some of my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, how could it not be wonderful?

I still remember my first class, being clueless as to what to expect in such an environment, although I was sure it would not be anything like, say, a Microsoft Network class (amongst other things I am also an IT). So I studied up in Mandy’s Level One Work Book and left for the first morning of class praying that I would not look or act too much like a neo-barbarian or whatever other low life images came to mind.

When walking into Mandy’s perfume studio one is greeted by the sight of what I now always think of as “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”, and yes, I do see this with capital letters. It’s done up in light creamy white walls and a stunning amount of polished   wood. There are wooden book cases and shelves everywhere (totally filled) and on one side is a large glass container with at least five pounds of high-grade Frankincense (my eyes went to this very quickly; it’s an incense thing, kind of comforting). But what really just sort of rivets ones attention is the huge wood perfumer’s organ. A quick estimate tells me there have got to be at least five hundred bottles on this thing, all nicely labeled and sorted. My little “materials oriented guy” brain goes into shock – just think of all the wonderful smells in them! OK, I was a little short on how to really use them, but…damn, five hundred bottles!

Now it is my third time coming to a weekend class with Mandy, but it’s almost always the same reaction when walking in. It is a beautiful space to work and study in, well designed for its purpose.

Class starts, there are six other students besides myself and they are from, in this class, from all parts of the US. In other classes I have been in they have been from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The class starts out by everyone introducing themselves and why they are here.

This is where things become so much more than you could imagine before getting there. Mandy, as the teacher, is incredibly passionate about what she does and as far as I can tell she never really stops being that way. There always seem to be ideas coming up on what to do next. She is really an entrepreneur of the first water with a huge imagination and a lot of focus.  Plus she has that special ability to pass on what she has learned in a manner that is validating and seems to be perfect for the person she is talking to. She has seen or  made most of the mistakes that someone starting out will run into and is not scared to tell you about them on the off-chance that you will then not need to go there. She is also out front about what it can cost in terms of time and money to go down this road, both of which can be high. In fact she mentions repeatedly how many times she has tossed out the test blends, experiments and just plain mistakes. It is amazingly reassuring to the beginner to hear someone who is very high up the perfumers ladder say what amounts to, it’s not all going to work and it does take some real live time, energy and money to make it happen. She is being very truthful as she says this, but there is also a smile on her face. It is a rare teacher who can laugh at themselves and she does have a wonderful sense of humor.

Mandy and feedback to the class

You also get to bounce ideas off of your classmates, which is invaluable. Every one of them has a different way of looking at any given assignment. Each day in the Studio will last about seven hours and you will make anywhere from three to five scents, based on what the class wants to go for or what Mandy thinks would offer the best experience. It becomes a very focused and intense time. You might be surprised at how concerned one can become over what one drop of say, Cade, will do to your blend and the clock is ticking. One DropYou  get to have honest feed back from her on where each scent is at and you also get to hear the same thing about your classmate’s endeavors. She is incredibly good at discovering where the mistakes are and how to correct them. This is invaluable information to the beginner.

As the weekend progresses you find yourself trying many new ideas, not just because there are so many new raw materials to try, but because you get to see and smell what everyone else is trying and then see where you could incorporate some of this into your own creations.

At some point Mandy will create something from selections the class gives her. This is one of the more profound moments. It’s one thing to open a bottle of say, Jasmine Sambac, and just smell it, it is a whole different level to open the same bottle and know what it is going to smell like right now and then in fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour and so on as it dries down. Plus, what happens when you add it to other E.O.’s, absolutes and whatever else is in the mix, remembering that each one of them is also going through its own evolution within the bottle. Being a perfumer is a lot like conducting a large orchestra. It’s really about how all the separate essences (instruments) will mix together (harmonize) and how that scent (sound) is going to be received by the world. So to see someone who has put the many hours necessary to educate the nose and now has a very good idea as to what is going to work with each other and under what conditions is a real treat. Right there you can see that it is really all about taking the time to educate yourself on how the parts can play and harmonize together with each other.Your wrist, a perfumers best friend!

By the end of the class you have seen and done quite a lot. You have a much better understanding of how the materials work together and when to use which ones. You may have meant people who you can bounce ideas off in the future, which will be a great help. You have gotten to play in the “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”! You will walk away with many more ideas than when you walked in and a much greater appreciation of the possibilities that can open to you.

Making perfume really is an art and there are many, many ways to go about it, being taught some structure and techniques and receiving honest feedback can go a long ways towards helping one with their goal. This is probably (at least for me) one of the most valuable lessons I learned. Oh yes and Mandy’s opening statement (somewhat paraphrased) “This class is not about making anything good, it’s about spotting the mistakes and fixing them”.

I would like to thanks Mandy and her husband Foster for a wonderful time along with all my fellow perfumers in training (all three seasons worth, you know who you are). I feel honored to have gotten to study with all of you… Also thank you Michelyn Camen at with some editing input and help.

  Hey, anyone know where I can get my hands on some antique Sandalwood oil or Boronia?  One can get very spoiled with access, even for a short time, to Mandy’s collection  😮 )

Cheers    -Ross



  1. Brian said,

    July 10, 2012 at 6:30 am

    Hi Ross,

    Nice article. If you are still looking for some antique sandalwood, I have various vintages ranging from ones distilled in 1921, 1930, 1942, and 1973 as well as some “newer” mysore distilled in 2002. They all smell quite different and I’d be happy to give you a description of each.

  2. October 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    […] fourth class with Mandy Aftel at her studio in Berkeley, CA. It was once again time to revisit the “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”. After the class was over I had time for reflection; which during the class one generally […]

  3. apsara said,

    February 21, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Have a dozen oils from Eden Botanicals & Enfleurage, half ounce in original bottle, bought them 3 months ago.
    Willing to sell these for a fee, was thinking $ 55 incl. Shipping, let me know if you want them. Will not bother with shipping single bottles, so it’s all or nothing. The price amounts to a fraction of original price. These are either oils of which I have doubles or of which I only wanted half an ounce but they came in one ounce bottles.
    Blue Cypress/Curcuma/ Cinnamon Vietnam from Enfleurage / Myrrh / Elemi / Frankincense Somalia / Atlas Cedar / Sweet Basil Eden / Sweet Basil Enfleurage / Rosewood / Eucalyptus, plus about five Eden samples (mostly fir, pine etc). Plus a tiny amount of a good Sandalwood.

  4. Anya said,

    February 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    PS: no matter who is selling golden boronia, it all comes from one supplier, Essential Oils of Tasmania. I have some also, and hopefully, next year, now that the fields have been coddles and brought back to health (the previous owner, a corporation, neglected them , and the 2008 yield was only 18 kg.) there will be a more plentiful supply, and the price will go down. Maybe go down. This year’s supply was good, but the price went up. Masha, you might check with Jane on her source 😉

  5. Anya said,

    February 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Hi Ross:

    I have some 25-year-old sandalwood I can share. About antique boronia: I’m not so sure it ages well, unless it’s topped with some alcohol and kept in refrigeration. I have several vintages, and I did not refrigerate them, and they’ve lost that freesia-like topnote. I have added a bit of alcohol to the vintages from the past three years, and keep them refrigerated, and they’re fine. I’m glad your studies with Mandy are going so well and that you’re so inspired.


  6. Charna said,

    February 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Hi Ross,
    Really great post! I enjoy your narrative voice and like reading about your experiences taking Mandy’s class. It sounds heavenly. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the course and your learning process.

  7. Bellatrix said,

    February 19, 2011 at 1:55 am

    So jelaous 🙂 Great experience. Which note you liked the most? Btw, how much does this course cost?

    • clairsight said,

      February 19, 2011 at 9:26 pm

      Bellatrix, you can check Mandys site for pricing. As far as a single scent or note, that almost impossible for me to pin down anymore, it changes all the time. I am however a huge fan of sandalwood, oud, civet/musk/ambergris and many of the florals.

  8. February 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Great article Ross, thanks for bringing it to my attention, Mandy is one of my heros.
    I have a small bottle of Boronia for you….

  9. Anne said,

    February 18, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Loved your article, Ross! I love perfume and virtually anything associated with scent, so your article was an interesting read. It was great to read about Mandy, her work, and your experiences there.

  10. February 18, 2011 at 9:53 am

    […] I love the raw materials of incense and perfume. Many of them tend to have very blurred borders in their usage between one and the other. I have come to realize that I am a somewhat “materials oriented guy” when it comes to this sort of thing and because of all this I started gathering up a lot of essential oils, absolutes, resins, herbs and all the rest of the raw materials that go into creating incense and what has been termed by Octavian Coifa … Read More […]

  11. February 18, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Beautiful article!!! Thank you for sharing. Makes me even more determined to get out there to study with Mandy 😀

  12. February 17, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Great write up Ross, you took me back to the day we first met with your vivid descriptions of the anticipation of taking Mandy’s class, the incredible studio and awesome perfume organ. You told the truth about Mandy’s passions and enthusiasm and made me wish I had been there. Next time…

    I recently acquired some great boronia from Enflerage in NYC.

    • clairsight said,

      February 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm

      Thanks Anu.

  13. Sandi said,

    February 17, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Great article! Thanks for sharing your experience. Love that statement spotting mistakes and fixing them. I’m sure Mandy had some Wool on hand as well as all those bottles… Ahh yes I am sure you got spoiled in working with substances that are expensive and sometimes evasive inventory…

    • clairsight said,

      February 17, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      Her collection is amazing, and it helps to have been doing it for as long as she has, especially before the shortages that are happening now. But I have great fun looking and hunting things down.
      The spotting of ones mistakes is so valuable and really such a great thought process that can be applied to so many different areas of ones work or life in general.

  14. February 17, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Nice. Such a treat to read about Mandy’s studio and all the beautiful things it holds. Thanks, Ross. You didn’t mention how the perfume classes are helping you with your incense creation — though they must be, otherwise you wouldn’t keep going back.

    • clairsight said,

      February 17, 2011 at 10:09 pm

      Hello Nathan, welcome to the blog
      They do indeed help, it makes me look at my work and start to see how improvements( on a lot of different levels) can happen. One thing for sure is packaging. I remember very clearly when you commented on Andy Tauer’s old bottles and when the new ones appeared. You were right on the money, the outside needs to showcase the interior or it will never get seen/smelled/worn or whatever. Mandy said basically the same thing, so I am hunting down a really nice case for the forthcoming incense sticks.
      Hey, the bacon wrapped chicken rocked, thanks!

      • February 18, 2011 at 12:48 am

        Ross — I’m happy to hear that you take Mandy’s advice to heart. She’s one of the smartest small business owners I know.

  15. Steve said,

    February 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Great writeup, Ross, on what looks like a valuable and unique opportunity/experience! It’s funny, the thought of the endless combinations of those 500 bottles 😯 would quickly shut me down, locked in mental gridlock from too many possibilities and over-analyzing whether the “next drop” would be critical for success or the knell of disaster! Thankfully, there are folks who can sort through it all and present wonderful blends for the rest of us to enjoy! Of course, I have trouble deciding between all those blends, too – I guess I don’t operate effectively with too many available options 😀

  16. Mandy Aftel said,

    February 17, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Thank you so much for the wonderful piece you wrote about my teaching and our class. You capture so much of the values of what I am trying to communicate when I teach perfume especially my opening statement.

    • clairsight said,

      February 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm

      Thanks for the class and the use of your studio. Hey Foster, the pictures worked great, thanks! Hope your legs are OK from all the running up and down the stairs.

  17. Masha said,

    February 17, 2011 at 2:45 am

    Perfumer Jane Cate uses John Steele’s boronia to beautiful effect, heavenly stuff, though expensive. I think you can get small amounts from the Perfumer’s Apprentice. And yeah, most people who make incense do some work with perfumery as well, and vice versa!

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