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Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume Paperback – October 6, 2004

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Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume + Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent + The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

To this most extraordinary treatise on the history and making of perfume, Aftel, a writer and aroma designer, brings sheer delight in the bouquet of aromas in the natural world, as well as a "love for arcana" and an irreverent sensibility that embraces "little-acknowledged" aphrodisiacs like the smell of sweat. Smell is one of the most primal senses: even newborns orient first toward the smell of their mothers' milk. And world history is full of the manipulation of smell, she reveals, starting with the palace perfumers of ancient Egypt; the Israelite women who concocted essences for temple sacrifices; the Romans, who anointed nearly everything; the alchemists, who searched for the Divine Essence; all the way up to modern pheromone researchers who hope, finally, "to snare the sex drive." Aftel traces this history with witty anecdotes (Ben Franklin's plea for a drug to make sweet-smelling farts, Petrus Castellus's advice to rub civet directly on the penis) and well-chosen alchemical and botanical illustrations. After this seductive introduction, she shifts into the how-to mode, discussing the actual making of a scent, a process of selecting certain "base notes," adding "heart notes" and finally the "top chords." Her emphasis is on experimenting, and developing an "olfactory consciousness." Since organically based perfumes interact with the wearer, they must be designed for a particular user, not vice versa, as with commercial, synthetically based products. Aftel provides some sample formulas and concludes with a roundup of romantic, bathing and spiritual uses of perfumes. Agent, Peter Matson.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


This is by Mandy Aftel, who is an all-natural perfumer in Berkeley. She comes out of the same movement for the best natural ingredients that created Chez Panisse [restaurant], also in Berkeley, which started the foodie revolution. This is a wonderful, swoony, sensual book. She gives you the history of perfume through the ages, from the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians. She talks about how people have moved away from the idea of perfume as a ritualistic, meditative, aesthetic creation. The mass marketing of perfume, which includes a lot of synthetics and chemicals, has taken away a lot from the original idea of what perfume was and should be.

Aftel started her own atelier to make perfumes. She uses natural ingredients, so no synthetics, no chemicals, no fixatives. The downside is that all-natural perfumes don’t last that long, maybe two hours maximum. But she has striven to show that you can make elegant, complex, interesting, beautiful perfumes using all natural ingredients. She holds workshops where you can make your own perfume. The book is really a primer to go back to the roots and the ancient ideas of what perfume is all about. She talks about the meditative nature of certain essences, and notes their healing properties and the transcendental element of perfumery. It’s also gorgeously written.

People have read this book and developed their own interest in making perfume. It’s a seminal, inspirational book that many people cite. Earlier I mentioned the Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer. He trained as a chemist. He told me he read Mandy’s book, and after that he decided he wanted to make perfume. He started experimenting in a home laboratory, just mixing ingredients, and his first perfume was called “L’Air du Desert Marocain”. It was a huge hit. Luca Turin gave it five stars and called it a masterpiece. Tauer is now a highly recognised niche perfumer. He’s not a completely natural perfumer, but he uses up to 50% natural ingredients which is huge these days. There are many perfumes that use just a few percentage points of real ingredients and the rest is synthetic. That’s not to say you can’t make perfumes using all or mainly synthetics. There are some wonderful perfumers out there with very modern takes on perfumery – such as Comme des Garcons – and they have no problem using synthetics.

This book has inspired a generation of perfumers, and it brought people back to the original idea of what perfume was supposed to be. Mandy Aftel is a very spiritual person, who is able to meld the spiritual and ritualistic elements of perfumery with the pure, hedonistic, sensual beauty of it.

(Denise Hamilton The Browser 2011-10-04)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Gibbs Smith; Reprint edition (October 6, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586857029
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586857028
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #281,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

126 of 131 people found the following review helpful By nancy on July 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This just might be the best overall book on fragrance ever, ever written. It is of essential interest to the reader interested in perfume at most any level, from the connoisseur to the designer to the fabricator to the consumer. Mandy Aftel persists in creating perfumes from "all natural" ingredients, after "the trade" now relies on synthetics and scent enhancers and linear construction, even in the most expensive concoctions. And, here we're talking about QUALITY perfumes with history behind them, not new age, "go with the glow" infusions that are often a little reminiscent of the compost heap after the rain. For the general reader, Aftel references the history of fragrance preparation, from ancient times, through alchemists perfumery, to the great age of the perfection of the art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All the traditional ingredients are itemized, from essential incenses and oils used as the "base" to the citrus and floral essences used for the "heart" or middle notes, to the delicate and short-termed finishing high or "head" notes. The properties of each are well explored. More interested readers will be delighted to learn more about the character of what is going into their favorite perfumes and what combines and what doesn't. The reader considering dabbling in perfumery, will find this to be an excellent guide on how to start and continue to build fragrances from easily obtainable essences acquired by mail order.
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62 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Jason D. Florin on August 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book relates the historical facts about perfumes in an enjoyable, easy to read manner. The author does not limit herself to the descriptions of the typical essential oils listed in most books such as lavender, rose and jasmine, but also includes more exotic aromatics such as blood orange, champa, amberette, and cabreuva. She does not include the more medicinal smelling oils like thyme and tea tree in her recomendations as many other books do. However, this is a book on perfumary and the esthetic properties of the essential oils are the focus. For those interested in the technical and medicinal merits of the essential oils, this is not the book for you. The author does not promote the use of animal products; they are mentioned as these oils are a part of the history of perfumery, and still have a role , albiet diminished, in the modern perfume industry. Her discriptions of the various oils are detailed and her anecdotal references are interesting. She describes how to blend oils, offers suggestions on blending companions, and provides enough data to create your own blends. The oils are catagorized by note, and also according to family ie. resin, citrus, floral etc.She also includes recipies, indicates which oils are costly and/or difficult to find, and some sources. Overall, this is a well written, entertaining, and information packed book, which focuses on perfumery not chemistry.A sheer joy to read, and inspiring for the creative nature of blending essential oils.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Kasee L. Kozel on December 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is the book to have when you want the best perspective about natural perfumery. Most perfume books focus solely on the synthetic or aesthetic aspect of scent. "Essence and Alchemy" goes into depth about all aspects of perfume: scientifically, historically, sensually and spiritually. Maybe this will add one more element to home perfume-making. It's what makes the book unique. That, and it's a great read. I renewed it twice from the library when I first came across it!
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48 of 52 people found the following review helpful By "zevahn" on July 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I am familiar with the few available sources of reliable information on perfumery, as well as the various treatises on sundry applications of natural botanical oils and extracts. Books offering expert insight into the individual ingredients used in natural Perfumery, such as Steffan Arctander's History of Natural Flavors and fragrance Materials, are quite scarce and far beyond the budget of most. Recent publications on the fundamentals of perfumery, such as Salvatore Paul Gimelli's Aroma Science, are highly technical and unsuited to those lacking a broad foundation in chemistry.
I would recommend that Ms. Mandy Aftel's Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume be considered mandatory reading for anyone fascinated with natural oils and extracts, and the sensual world of Perfume. This is an ideal guide to the student and neophyte perfumer alike. Ms. Aftel has offered us a wonderful introduction to natural perfumery. Those seeking an historical study of perfumery will find in Essence and Alchemy exhaustive research distilled into a fascinating and elegant retelling. But more than providing us with a mere history of perfumery, Ms. Aftel has shared a wealth of knowledge gathered from her own experiences working as a professional perfumer. Essence and Alchemy offers a unique insight into a master perfumer's art. Ms. Aftel provides a most enchanting invitation to the world of natural perfume, and if ever a book may revitalize the all but lost art of natural perfumery, it is Ms. Aftel's Essence and Alchemy.
A reviewer has expressed strong disapproval over the inclusion of Animal derived materials, such as Civet, in Ms. Aftel's book.. Civet is certainly among the ingredients used in traditional natural perfumery.
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