Friday, March 15, 2013

The Smell of a Good Book: Essence & Alchemy by Mandy Aftel

For perfume lovers everywhere, understanding the magic and hidden mysteries of the "juice" that graces counters in beautiful glass bottles the world over is the ultimate way to appreciate perfume. It's almost natural that the love, appreciation and discovery of fragrance leads to a desire to absorb as much information about the world of perfume as possible. What are "notes?" How does one discern when one ends and another begins? Where did perfume come from? Though these questions may certainly seem basic to perfume connoisseurs, many consumers of fragrance buy beautiful scents with very little understanding of the thousands of years of history, trade and craftsmanship that led to the creation of the perfume they have just purchased.

As far as I'm concerned perfume is far more than base, middle and top notes, a combination of smells from around the globe that produce something unique and beautiful. Perfume is an artistic medium as celebrated perfumers have taught us, it is theory, something different to everyone and perhaps most importantly of all it is a way to capture and relive the most obscure memories from our pasts. Even those who wear perfume only for its most basic function—a beautiful smell—can appreciate just how powerful it can be. 

It is without question in my nature to become enamored with something and immediately desire to soak up as much literature and information I can find on the subject. Perfume is the subject of the day, and I was thrilled when Trish of Scent Hive recommend Mandy Aftel's incredibly written Essence & Alchemy in a comment on one of my perfume posts.

Aftel's book offers an incredibly in depth look at perfume, its origin, its historical significance and even more interestingly how and what makes a perfume. Understanding something is always a sure way to appreciate it more, and though I was already fast in love with fragrance before I began to read Aftel's masterpiece (and have been for much of my life) the "aha" moments brought on by Essence & Alchemy have only served to deepen my appreciation of the power of fragrance.

Aftel's book begins with a brief history of perfume, followed by a look at perfume from basics to base, heart and head notes, "The Art of Composition," "Perfume and the Boudoir," "The Reverie of the Bath," and of course concludes with a segment dedicated to "Perfume and the Soul." As a reader who has also spent quite a bit of time pouring over academic and analytical texts, I can appreciate the way Aftel tackles the subject at once analyzing and explaining in a methodical fashion as she peppers her prose with beautifully worded sentences that I can't help but underline ... once an English major, always an English major.

I thought I would include some of these quotations for you, as Aftel's own words speak volumes more about the quality of this wonderful book than my own ever could:
"Perfume was not just a product, but a way of being in the world that for centuries retained an aura of magic and mystery" (4).
"[...] scent is tantamount to the tracks that mark the passage of solid bodies through the atmosphere, and consequently redolent of memories" (12).
"Base notes are the deepest, most mysterious, and oldest of all perfume ingredients. Every ancient culture used themindeed, for centuries they were the essence of perfumeso when you work with them, you literally have ancient history in your hands" (71).

I ordered my copy of Mandy Aftel's Essence & Alchemy from Amazon, though it's also widely available elsewhere. I highly recommend this book to anyone that is even remotely interested in the world of perfume. Aftel treats each facet of her research masterfully, and writes in such a way that one is not overwhelmed as though the writing was meant for a textbook. The "aha" moments brought on by this book will only deepen your appreciation and understanding of fragrance just like a whiff of a perfume or fragrance from childhood brings back vivid memories from bygone days.

Have you read Mandy Aftel's Essence & Alchemy? What is your favorite book about perfume?