Essence and Alchemy
Mandy Aftel
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Buy *Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume* by Mandy Aftel online

Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume
Mandy Aftel
Gibbs Smith
256 pages
October 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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“Scent has always provided a direct path to the soul, and no one who becomes immersed in it can fail to be pleasurably changed by the experience,” Aftel quips in her beautifully written book, Essence and Alchemy. In a way, Essence reads as a loving ode to perfume while being a very detailed how-to guide to making solid and liquid perfumes.

Aftel is well known for her expertise on perfumery. As the founder of Aftelier, a company that creates custom-made perfumes for individuals and private labels, Aftel speaks with authority and passion for scents. Essence is the precursor for her other popular perfume books, Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance and Scents and Sensibilities: Creating Solid Perfume for Well-Being.

The basic foundation for perfumery is laid-out with Essence loosely divided into five key sections: history of perfume, the components of perfume, making perfume, the use of perfume in everyday life and quick references for further exploration. The art of perfume is centuries old and tied to the extinct science of alchemy, “the ancient art that undertook to convert raw matter, through a series of transformations, into a perfect and purified form.” In other words, the process of alchemy helped create a system where the scents and oil from flowers, fruit, plants and animals could be extracted to make perfume.

All perfumes have three major scents: the head notes (the immediate smell that lasts for a few minutes), the heart notes (the scent that is associated with the perfume and lasts for a few hours) and the base notes (the scent that lasts for a few days). Aftel unveils a process in which different types of scents are carefully mixed to evolve various emotions and shows how perfumery is a delicate balance between science and art.

The “head” of the book revolves around the careful explanations of various scents. She goes into beautifully vivid details about dozens of scents and what they should be mixed with. For example, when discussing the heart note jasmine Aftel states, “Rich and warm, heavy and fruity, intensely floral, it is nearly narcotic in its ability to seize the senses and the imagination…It is the natural product par excellence – pliable, versatile, universal…Compatible notes are rose absolute, jasmine and ylang ylang.”

Part of the magic in Essence is also in its visual appeal. Heavy use of illustrations from various centuries helps to evoke the emotions that Aftel describes. Helpful headings and lists break the text into easy reading.

The “heart” of the book lies within its middle chapters where Aftel gives step-by-step instructions on how to create solid and oil perfumes. Endless yet interesting lists of scents and fragrances guide the reader regarding what to mix, what to buy and how to discern one scent note from another.

Aftel reserves the last few chapters on the popular uses of scent in the last few centuries: its ties to sexuality, bathing and soothing the soul. How scent has been used for seduction (particularly for women) is discussed but Aftel also explores how natural body odor can change the way perfumes smell on certain people; “Where scent and sex are concerned, context is everything.” A brief history of bathing oils includes instructions on how to make bath oil blends. Information on aromatherapy and perfume oils used in religion are reserved for the final chapter with a description of a meditation blend for those looking to explore the craft.

Perhaps the “base” of the book is in its final pages. The section “Supplies for the Beginning Perfumer” not only gives a thorough list of essences and oils but the information is also broken down according to cost and the author’s preference. What equipment is needed and more importantly where to get to materials is provided with company listings ranging from the U.S. to France.

For readers seeking more information on perfume, Aftel again uses her detailed literary style to point readers in the right direction. Even in the bibliography, Aftel reveals her enthusiasm for perfumery with 15 groupings of books including paragraphs of explanation. For these two sections alone, Essence is a perfect reference guide regarding perfume.

Altogether the components of Essence read like a well-made perfume: warm, mysterious, interesting, engaging and satisfying.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Julie Sobowale, 2007

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