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.
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. You 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.
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 Cafleurebon.com 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 😮 )