A Perfumer’s Obsessive Quest To Recreate The Fragrance Of Lost Love

A woman leaves a room, and her perfume lingers. She is gone, but something of her presence remains. The woman, perfumer Mandy Aftel, has slipped into another wing of her home in search of a relic.

Scents are like souls, Marcel Proust wrote. They endure death and destruction, “remembering, waiting, hoping…”

Fragrances are alive for Aftel, too. She calls them “my friends,” and once charmingly addressed a shelf of essential oils directly, asking, “Is everybody here?”

Aftel is heir to a tradition that traces back six thousand years to Egypt, where incense was burned to purify sacred spaces. Later, in Mesopotamia, the desire for more complex aromatics inspired some of humanity’s earliest chemistry experiments. One cuneiform tablet dating to 1200 BC names the world’s first-recorded chemist, a female perfumer named Tapputi. From that era onward, precious fragrances proliferated via the Silk Road, reached mass adoption in the “Perfumed Court” of King Louis XV, and currently comprise a 30 billion dollar global industry that includes Aftel’s cozy atelier here in Berkeley, California.   

The seventy-four-year-old returned clutching a notebook. “This is it,” she announced. The pages document seasons of struggle as the artist attempted to recreate the precise natural scent of someone she had loved and lost – a perfume she would eventually name Memento Mori. “The process mirrored the relationship itself,” she confessed. “Torturous.”

It had been a solitary period, reminiscent of the perfumer’s childhood in 1950s Detroit. Growing up in a synthetic miasma of “asphalt, detergent, and chlorinated swimming pools,” the scents of her youth were unfriendly ones.

“I wasn’t particularly well thought of in my family,” she recalled. “I wasn’t very pretty. I was dyslexic, and did terrible in school. Failure wasn’t scary for me; I had already failed. I just kind of marched along, and tried to figure things out on my own.”

Aftel got married, briefly, to a local boy. She became a mother. She moved to Berkeley in 1970. She became a weaver. She wrote an oral history of the musician Brian Jones, just after his death. She lived for months with the singer Donovan and his wife in Joshua Tree. She became a successful psychotherapist.