I’ve recently had the opportunity to correspond with perfumer Mandy Aftel and she’s agreed to help me learn about the world of natural perfumery by trying her perfumes. We’ve decided to start the discussion with a single perfume. I left it to her discretion where to begin and she chose Cuir de Gardenia eau de parfum.
Traditional floral-leather perfumes sit at the crossroads of the hard and the soft. They have a lived-in quality that makes me want to let my guard down and a slap that warns me not to. Cuir de Gardenia follows this tradition and offers all the contrast and engagement I love about the genre. It draws a line from earthiness to an almost candy-sweetness straight through the heart of the gardenia. Aftel lets the materials speak clearly but doesn’t fall back on the ‘easy’ beauty of a flower. Cuir de Gardenia immediately confounds my expectation that natural perfumes simply rely on the inherent beauty of materials to the exclusion of compositional rigor. Botanical materials have a complexity that aromachemicals lack and calibrating the materials requires nuance. You can add. You might even be able to multiply, but you can’t subtract.
The accords used in synthetic perfumes have gearing that allow them to be played at most any volume. With botanicals, the proportions and the dynamics are intrinsic to the materials and can’t be isolated easily. Instead of attempting to alter the ratios inherent in the materials, Aftel’s perfume focuses on scale. Dynamics that would be contradictions at a louder volume sit comfortably when the ‘size’ is correct. Mushroom, blue cheese, dusty soil—-if overplayed, these qualities would make a clownish perfume. Cuir de Gardenia has just the right scale, though, and these umami notes sit at the corner of your attention, engaging your imagination and loading the perfume with aromatic subtext.
Cuir de Gardenia balances its contradictory facets easily and floats like a soap bubble blown into the air. A floating bubble holds a perfect shape. It demonstrate an almost preternatural quality of motion where a light breeze trumps gravity in a contest of unseen forces. It is transparent but reflective. It is nearly invisible yet is a swirling rainbow of refracted light. After an arresting opening, Aftel’s floral-leather settles into a similar, otherworldly delicacy.
Cuir de Gardenia’s dynamics follow the flower, not the rules of perfume. A flower’s scent doesn’t fly at you like a floral-aldehyde perfume. It haunts the vicinity of a flower with a tidal quality of movement. Gardenia, and its tropical cousin tiare (same genus, different species) are opulent and lush but not as expansive or aggressive as orange blossom or lily. They strike at a very specific range. Up close, with my nose to the flower, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees because I get caught in a beauty-fugue and my eyes glaze over. At a distance the scent is identifiable but spectral and it is hard to locate the source. In between lies gardenia’s Goldilocks territory and passing a blooming bush makes life instantly sumptuous. Cuir de Gardenia has a similar aromatic orbit and at wrist/nose distance it flourishes. It appears luminous, coherent but delicate. It performs more for the wearer than a wider audience and perfume’s animalic quality buries the tiare in your skin where it basks. I get the impression that Aftel listened very closely to her materials. They are used for maximum impact without being twisted out of shape.
So that’s gardenia. What about the leather? In both natural and synthetic perfumery a leather (cuir) note or accord must be built. A ‘leather’ note has a looser connotation than, for instance, a jasmine note. It is more an aromatic sensibility than strictly a scent. Birch tar and quinolines have traditionally been used in perfumes such as Bandit and Cuir de Russie. They suggest tanning chemicals more than hides per se, but they denote leather. Aftel uses the musky, animalic quality of castoreum to create a purring animalism that implies an animal’s den and by association, skin, fur and leather. The note is subtle compared to the gardenia’s pizazz, but is integral to the perfume and binds the perfume to your skin.
I have a general understanding of how aromachemicals are used in perfumery both for scent and for effect. Isolating aromatic qualities and then building with them makes sense to me. A gardenia accord is one of the grails of synthetic perfumery, like muguet and lilac. The plants themselves don’t yield an essence and the complexity of the scent of the flowers is hard to achieve. Gardenia accords tend to be unstable and fall apart quickly. Muguet notes have been hobbled by restrictions on materials. Having found a source for a tiare essence, Aftel has a different challenge. What does it mean not to recreate the scent of a flower but to compose a fragrance with the essence of a flower? I suppose this is an elementary question for a natural perfumer, but it points to a difference between natural and synthetic perfumery. While ‘mainstream’ perfumery has long manipulated botanical materials, they are typically used as Luca Turin described: they are a perfume’s flesh that sits on a skeleton of synthetics. The working principle is that natural materials’ perceived weaknesses (brevity, variability, imprecision) are countered by the attributes of aromachemicals (durability, stability specificity).
Perfumery can be read, but the vocabulary differs between natural and synthetic approaches and I’m trying to learn a new dialect. My points of comparison are all from the ‘straight’ world of perfumery but I hope that as I smell more of Aftel’s perfumes I’ll be able to discuss them more directly.