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Renowned perfumer Mandy Aftel explores the primal nature and fundamental importance of aroma in everyday life, teaching people about the nature of smell and the idea of "olfactory consciousness" in Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. Renowned perfumer Mandy Aftel explores the primal nature and fundamental importance of aroma in everyday life, teaching people about the nature of smell and the idea of "olfactory consciousness" in Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume.


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Renowned perfumer Mandy Aftel explores the primal nature and fundamental importance of aroma in everyday life, teaching people about the nature of smell and the idea of "olfactory consciousness" in Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. Renowned perfumer Mandy Aftel explores the primal nature and fundamental importance of aroma in everyday life, teaching people about the nature of smell and the idea of "olfactory consciousness" in Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume.

30 review for Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Reading this book was a direct result of my new obsession with the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, a boutique perfume oil company that I just ADORE. There's lots of practical information, a big helping of encouragement to experiment, and lots of good mythological and historical tidbits. Reading this book was a direct result of my new obsession with the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, a boutique perfume oil company that I just ADORE. There's lots of practical information, a big helping of encouragement to experiment, and lots of good mythological and historical tidbits.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Yaaresse

    Someone saw me reading this book, and the comment was, "But you don't even like perfumes!" That's partly true. I don't like synthetic perfumes. I don't like being bombarded by someone's overzealous application of scent. I don't like synthetic fragrance. (Every time someone tells me their homemade soap or perfume has "only the best all-natural essential oil of banana/cucumber/lilac/fill in blank with any other synthetic scent masquerading as "natural oil," I cringe. There is no such thing as cucu Someone saw me reading this book, and the comment was, "But you don't even like perfumes!" That's partly true. I don't like synthetic perfumes. I don't like being bombarded by someone's overzealous application of scent. I don't like synthetic fragrance. (Every time someone tells me their homemade soap or perfume has "only the best all-natural essential oil of banana/cucumber/lilac/fill in blank with any other synthetic scent masquerading as "natural oil," I cringe. There is no such thing as cucumber EO.) Now, what I do like are things that smell good and are subtle. I like history. I like thinking about an everyday thing in a new way or understanding how something works and why. This is a book that likely receives both more praise and more criticism than it deserves, but how well one likes this book will depend on why one is reading it. It's neither a "how to" book nor a straight history, but it contains elements of both. Within the "how to" part, the author does much better with the explanation of how scent affects (most) people and how to approach the process of building a fragrance blend than she does the nuts-and-bolts of making a specific perfume. There are recipes, but they are either skewed to her preferences -- and she seems to be overly fond of floral and sweet scents-- or contain ingredients that are unlikely to be within the budget (or accessibility) of a hobbyist. Within the history part, she does a nice job of covering how alchemy and perfume-making are related, the history of using scents for ritual and pleasure, and the beginning of the perfume trade; however, don't expect to find the scuttlebutt about the big perfume houses or famous brands. Because I was reading it for entertainment and as a general history of fragrance, I enjoyed it. The author has a lovely writing style, sensuous and descriptive, although she comes off a little assumptive in a few spots. (No, everyone does not like rose or ylang-ylang and everyone does not like sweet powdery finishes.) The writing reminded me a little of Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. I found her recipes the least interesting part of the book, but I understand that she is including them as exercises on how to train one's sense of smell. For me, the best parts of the book were the history of how fragrance has been used throughout various ages/cultures and the section comparing building a fragrance to composing music. There is a substantial bibliography, and the text is indexed and sourced. The vendor list is likely out of date, but perhaps will be updated in e-book format. In all, an interesting and enjoyable read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    Not what I expected. I wanted an actual history of perfume- how it was made, how it reflected society, how it differed in different cultures, etc. This book was a disorganized mess of random quotes about alchemy, information about perfume ingredients from a mostly botany-related perspective, and recipes for making your own natural perfumes. There were also lots of snide comments about how synthetic perfumes suck, which was insulting as well as inaccurate (for instance, the author asserted that s Not what I expected. I wanted an actual history of perfume- how it was made, how it reflected society, how it differed in different cultures, etc. This book was a disorganized mess of random quotes about alchemy, information about perfume ingredients from a mostly botany-related perspective, and recipes for making your own natural perfumes. There were also lots of snide comments about how synthetic perfumes suck, which was insulting as well as inaccurate (for instance, the author asserted that synthetic perfumes smell the same on everybody- not true!). Glad I just checked it out of the library instead of buying it!

  4. 4 out of 5

    John David

    My long absence from the book reviewing community, both on here and on YouTube, can be blamed in large part to my burgeoning interest in perfume, which started about two years ago and has only become more serious. (Well, there’s work, too, but I figured I’d blame-shift to something that sounds mildly interesting.) The author, Mandy Aftel, is one of the great purveyors of independent perfumery in the United States. She currently operates a highly successful company called Aftelier Perfumes (a pla My long absence from the book reviewing community, both on here and on YouTube, can be blamed in large part to my burgeoning interest in perfume, which started about two years ago and has only become more serious. (Well, there’s work, too, but I figured I’d blame-shift to something that sounds mildly interesting.) The author, Mandy Aftel, is one of the great purveyors of independent perfumery in the United States. She currently operates a highly successful company called Aftelier Perfumes (a play on the word “atelier”) that sells perfumes and other scent-related products. When you ask around in Facebook fragrance-related groups for other people who make their own scents, as I plan to start doing quite soon, this is always the first book that everyone recommends. People simply rave about it. If there’s anywhere you want to start, they say, it’s with “Essence & Alchemy.” So, in full preparation for learning as much as I could before I began ordering essential oils, concretes, and other ingredients used in perfumery, I hurriedly ordered the book from Amazon. However, I was pretty disappointed by what this book had to offer. It’s not wholly useless for the complete neophyte, which I totally am: there’s good information about what kinds of notes mix best with others, and what kinds of oils serve as “top notes” (ones that you smell first), heart notes (ones that you smell for most of the duration of the scent), and base notes (the scent as it begins to finally die away on your skin). I had a lot of questions. Can sandalwood be a heart note? Is there anything I can do to extend the life of citrus notes? What kind of rose is better, Egyptian or Bulgarian? This was really valuable information, and I’m glad I found some answers at a reasonable price. (You’d be amazed at how expensive some of the technical books on perfumery can be.) However, much of the book concerns, rather unfortunately, the “alchemy” of the title. I suppose that might have been a hint that it would have been a little, how shall I put it – new agey and kooky? – for my tastes. Much of the first half of the book – the part that focuses on the “alchemy” of fragrance – is interlarded with block quotes, like the following one from French philosophy Henri Bergson: “These memories [olfactory sensations], messengers from the unconscious, remind us what we are dragging behind us unawares. But, even though we may have no distinct idea of it, we feel vaguely that our past remains present to us … Doubtless we think with only a small part of our past, but it with our entire past, the original bent of our soul, that we desire, will, and act. Our past, then, as a whole, is made manifest to us in its impulse; it is felt in the form of tendency, although a small part of it is known in the form of idea.” Other similar quotes from people like Carl Jung abound. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading Jung, and even Bergson. Look at the history of what I’ve reviewed: it’s full of obscure philosophy that only the unrepentant nerd would even deign to touch. What I enjoy reading less is how a perfumer who seems to be perhaps a bit too in love with her own craft, mixes in texts on alchemy and philosophy so create a sort of salmagundi of voodoo that is only occasionally graced with the useful information other people promise it has. For someone genuinely interested in taking their first steps into creating their own fragrances, only chapters 3-6 are necessary. There’s also a very helpful index at the back that gives a list of the most important oils that Aftel says are indispensable and every perfume should have, along with a curated list of online shops where you can purchase said materials. If you’re interested, there’s also a short chapter about mixing bath salts (no, not the fun kind that make you eat people’s faces off). All in all, not a total loss, but I was sad not to have found more useful information here. Bravely onward to Steffen Arctander’s “Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin”!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Billy

    This came as an unexpected gem. I was so impressed with this book. Initially I was nervous that it was going to be heavy on jargon and read like a research paper, but it was nothing like that. Aftel did a great job explaining the jargon, the history of perfume and it's relation to alchemy while sewing it together with a such sensual writing that it was really a joy to read. Also, her bibliography is incredible! If you're doing research in metaphysics, religion, botany, pharmacology, sexuality or This came as an unexpected gem. I was so impressed with this book. Initially I was nervous that it was going to be heavy on jargon and read like a research paper, but it was nothing like that. Aftel did a great job explaining the jargon, the history of perfume and it's relation to alchemy while sewing it together with a such sensual writing that it was really a joy to read. Also, her bibliography is incredible! If you're doing research in metaphysics, religion, botany, pharmacology, sexuality or olfactory-related biology, you'd most likely benefit from looking over her bibliography. She also teaches you how to make perfumes and how to develop your nose.

  6. 5 out of 5

    B

    I wasn't expecting so much writing about mixing scents, formulas and storing oils. I did enjoy the parts when the author gave the readers a more historical background on perfume and the science of scent and perfumery, although it was limited. I wasn't expecting so much writing about mixing scents, formulas and storing oils. I did enjoy the parts when the author gave the readers a more historical background on perfume and the science of scent and perfumery, although it was limited.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ana

    A wonder of old knowledge. I will be making my own scents now, yes thank you.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Laura (Kyahgirl)

    This was one of the first books I read on the history of perfume and perfume making. I think it is an excellent blend of 'story' and fact. The art and science of perfumery is fascinating. As is the long history of fragrance in human society. I love it. Aftel captures the fact, the history, the science, and the mystery. I'd highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in this subject. This was one of the first books I read on the history of perfume and perfume making. I think it is an excellent blend of 'story' and fact. The art and science of perfumery is fascinating. As is the long history of fragrance in human society. I love it. Aftel captures the fact, the history, the science, and the mystery. I'd highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in this subject.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Noel

    Interesting book, although the constant references to alchemy, change and magic become tiresome after the first few pages; so tiresome that i'm giving this a mere two stars or ok if you need a translation. However, there is some refreshing information on the history of perfumery as well as pertinent information on essential oils and their attributes, as well as useful listings of internet resources, suppliers, and what is needed for a beginner to start creating their own essences. Ok. Interesting book, although the constant references to alchemy, change and magic become tiresome after the first few pages; so tiresome that i'm giving this a mere two stars or ok if you need a translation. However, there is some refreshing information on the history of perfumery as well as pertinent information on essential oils and their attributes, as well as useful listings of internet resources, suppliers, and what is needed for a beginner to start creating their own essences. Ok.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kara

    A sensual history of perfume. Interesting! Several examples of perfume mixology I will experiment with.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Meagan

    A good introduction to fragrance. Very entertaining and mostly informational; did not enjoy the detour into pseudoscience.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rjyan

    This is a very magical book. If you ever read "Against Nature" and felt real strange during the perfumes part, definitely read this. This is a very magical book. If you ever read "Against Nature" and felt real strange during the perfumes part, definitely read this.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Harmony T.

    This was a fantastic introduction to the history of perfume making that was full of historical references and beautiful poetry of aromatic experiences. I learned quite a lot from this book, and it also reinforced what I already knew from my own experience. There are a good many fragrance blend recipes in here which I hope to experiment with one day. The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the blatant bias against synthetic ingredients. The amount of plant material needed for essential o This was a fantastic introduction to the history of perfume making that was full of historical references and beautiful poetry of aromatic experiences. I learned quite a lot from this book, and it also reinforced what I already knew from my own experience. There are a good many fragrance blend recipes in here which I hope to experiment with one day. The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the blatant bias against synthetic ingredients. The amount of plant material needed for essential oil creation isn’t sustainable, synthetics are needed to fill in the gaps for the demand. This is a discussion the author did not engage in other than comments here and there about synthetics being poor representation of the original. Sure, but not everyone can afford expensive essential oils nor can we sustain the enterprise environmentally. There’s room for both natural and synthetic oils in perfumery and I wish the author had discussed this more.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Connie Snow

    I had a reservation to visit the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley, California so I decided to read one of her books on the airplane ride to San Francisco. This one was the easiest to find and it did not disappoint. If you are especially connected to your sense of smell like I am, you will love this book. And even if you have just a regular average relationship with your nose you will still love it. Lots of interesting stories about the history of scent, how specific scents are develop I had a reservation to visit the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley, California so I decided to read one of her books on the airplane ride to San Francisco. This one was the easiest to find and it did not disappoint. If you are especially connected to your sense of smell like I am, you will love this book. And even if you have just a regular average relationship with your nose you will still love it. Lots of interesting stories about the history of scent, how specific scents are developed and how the whole perfume business has evolved. I actually met Mandy Aftel at her museum and she was so engaging that I will probably eventually inhale all of her books. And if you have the opportunity, visit the charming little museum which is housed in her Arts and Crafts cottage and staffed by her family.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Elaine

    Goodness, this book has great ratings! I expected more. I found the authors writing style to have alot of rambling, she would probably be better suited writing poetry as a result. I did not appreciate the authors reference to the human race deriving itself sense of smell based on being monkeys that developed as a result of smelling eachother rectums. I have to admit I lost interest. I did keep reading because I do love the romanticism of the topic in general. I stopped reading after several chapter Goodness, this book has great ratings! I expected more. I found the authors writing style to have alot of rambling, she would probably be better suited writing poetry as a result. I did not appreciate the authors reference to the human race deriving itself sense of smell based on being monkeys that developed as a result of smelling eachother rectums. I have to admit I lost interest. I did keep reading because I do love the romanticism of the topic in general. I stopped reading after several chapters. Normally if I enjoy a book, I devour it in a few days, this book lost my interest from the beginning. The historical foundations draws me to find another book that will satisfy my desire to learn the origins of this topic.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Holly Cox

    A wonderful exploration of the art, materials and emotional resonance of natural perfumery. I loved every page of this book and found that it heightened both my appreciation and awareness of scents around me.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Gubavac

    I can't give it less than 3 stars because it contains a lot of useful tidbits throughout, but 80% of the book is new age nonsense worth skipping over. I can't give it less than 3 stars because it contains a lot of useful tidbits throughout, but 80% of the book is new age nonsense worth skipping over.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gift Hart

    Is really nice reading books from Amazon

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ibrahim

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. nice

  20. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    Informative, inspirational and very well written, especially for the apprentice/beginner perfumer

  21. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    Approachable and useful read for those interested in natural perfumery.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Riordan Pett

    The last 35-40 or so pages are visceral, raw, errotic, and unfiltered. I found it to be one of the most interesting parts of the book, if not, the most interesting part.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Dave Johnson

    my journey with fragrances has been an interesting one, indeed. without going into my whole story, i used to not like them, then i got mildly interested around the time i met my wife. a few months ago, i became extremely interested, and now i'm part of a whole fragrance community on Youtube (just look up FragranceBros). i thought it would be an interesting video to do a review of a fragrance book, and also another good idea to do a vid on a brief history of fragrance. i saw this book, grabbed it my journey with fragrances has been an interesting one, indeed. without going into my whole story, i used to not like them, then i got mildly interested around the time i met my wife. a few months ago, i became extremely interested, and now i'm part of a whole fragrance community on Youtube (just look up FragranceBros). i thought it would be an interesting video to do a review of a fragrance book, and also another good idea to do a vid on a brief history of fragrance. i saw this book, grabbed it for my Kindle for cheap, and was blown away by all that i read. there is absolutely a wealth of history with fragrance. in a way, this book is deceptive in that it says that it covers a history of fragrance---and it does--but it is so much more than that. the author, Mandy Aftel is also a perfumier, and it seems like she trained herself in the art. but besides just giving a history lesson, she talks about her journey through fragrance, gives her tips and suggestions about how to smell and what to look for, and if that wasnt good enough, she even EXPLAINS HOW TO MAKE FRAGRANCES! this is incredible! she goes in depth about all the major fragrance notes and tells you what you need and which essences to get when making fragrances. it's just an invaluable guide. and i think that's the best term for this book: a guide. i'll come back to this book as a reference in the future. the biggest downside to this book is that she breaks up the history throughout the book. i really wished that she kept the history in a few chapters and everything else somewhere else. i can see why she DIDNT do this, however, because she would have had people saying this was two books in one, one useful and the other not useful (depending on your perspective of each). the other downside is that she really goes in depth about alchemy--which is cool as a medium of history-telling, but to repeatedly come back to it throughout the book is tiring. and i also understand why goes off on metaphorical tangents, but, again, it's tiring. when i saw her start to get metaphorical, i just started skimming. all in all, a wonderful gem of a book. well worth it if you have an iota of interest in fragrance and history.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nazrul Buang

    Just finished reading "Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume" (2001) by Mandy Aftel. I decided to pick up this book to learn more about the history of perfumes and the ingredients that go into them. Aftel is an American natural perfumer and her book is a testament of her in-depth knowledge in the world of perfumes. Perfumes are gifts of two worlds, art and science, and Aftel tells the story behind perfumes. She discusses how perfumes and scents go way back in history and how it evolve Just finished reading "Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume" (2001) by Mandy Aftel. I decided to pick up this book to learn more about the history of perfumes and the ingredients that go into them. Aftel is an American natural perfumer and her book is a testament of her in-depth knowledge in the world of perfumes. Perfumes are gifts of two worlds, art and science, and Aftel tells the story behind perfumes. She discusses how perfumes and scents go way back in history and how it evolved into modern perfumery. She describes the alchemy behind them, and how the nose is one of the most neglected senses of our bodies. While the book covers both realms of perfumes, it feels as though it's undecided on what kind of book it is. It's a cross between a history textbook and a perfume cookbook, so it feels like the writer is straddling between genres. The book contains many interesting pieces of information: how people of the past use animalic essences for sexual purposes, and the description of ingredients used in perfumes, in particular. However, if the book is written in a more organised fashion (e.g. first half covers historical aspects while second half covers the scientific), then the book becomes a better read. This book is nevertheless entertaining to read and would be a start to other books that I will pick up to learn more about olfactory pleasures bestowed by perfumes. NEXT BOOK: "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values" (2010) by Sam Harris.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

    I perhaps should have expected a book on perfume to waft about. Very emotional, romantic, idealistic writing. Which I was fine with actually. I appreciated and enjoyed her passion for perfume and her strongly held opinions on it, though I may not agree (I am fine with synthetic scents). And I personally wasn't bothered by the magic/alchemy bits either. But the way the information jumps around! I was reading aloud some parts to my boyfriend, and he asked for a definition of volatile. So I told hi I perhaps should have expected a book on perfume to waft about. Very emotional, romantic, idealistic writing. Which I was fine with actually. I appreciated and enjoyed her passion for perfume and her strongly held opinions on it, though I may not agree (I am fine with synthetic scents). And I personally wasn't bothered by the magic/alchemy bits either. But the way the information jumps around! I was reading aloud some parts to my boyfriend, and he asked for a definition of volatile. So I told him, something about how easily a substance evaporates. Then about 5 pages later a definition of volatile is given. 5 pages after the word! I thought, well either do that after the word first appears or don't define it at all. Just an example. The book does that sort of thing pretty often, but that's the example I told myself to remember. Other than it, she does tell you her perfume making process and recommendations for how to train your nose to appreciate scent. Those were the best parts of the book. Just wish it was written clearer and more succinctly! I am interested in the author's other books, written with a more specific idea. This book just being on perfume, generally, doesn't seem to have been doing the author favors, focuswise.

  26. 5 out of 5

    picomango

    A rambling, philosophical treatise that delves into the makings and workings of perfume. As the title implies, Mandy Aftel draws many parallels between the perfume-making process and alchemy, both in the functional details as well as the more abstract notions of the pursuit of perfection/enlightenment/eternity. The text is pretty evenly split between technical details and explanations of scents and how to combine them, and sudden delvings into such topics as religion, love and sexuality, society A rambling, philosophical treatise that delves into the makings and workings of perfume. As the title implies, Mandy Aftel draws many parallels between the perfume-making process and alchemy, both in the functional details as well as the more abstract notions of the pursuit of perfection/enlightenment/eternity. The text is pretty evenly split between technical details and explanations of scents and how to combine them, and sudden delvings into such topics as religion, love and sexuality, society, and economy - and their relationships to scents and perfumes. Aftel has some clear preferences about what makes good perfumes (definitely pushing natural essences over synthetics by touting the former's complexities and vitality as virtues compared to the latter's straightforward but boring, 'dead' nature). That said, it was enjoyable to read, even if it's easy for the uninitiated to feel lost in the written descriptions of perfumes (what does a 'round, voluptuous scent' mean?). This was far from discouraging, though; the book piqued my interest in looking essential oils and aromatherapy (and has a good Further Readings section by subject!), as well as just paying more attention to the role our sense of smell plays in our life.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I picked this up for the history of perfume part. Content-wise it was fine, but I found Aytoun Ellis's The essence of beauty : a history of perfume & cosmetics a more enjoyable read. If I had been reading this as a how-to manual on sourcing and mixing essential oils to create my own compositions, I think I would have found it more useful. I picked this up for the history of perfume part. Content-wise it was fine, but I found Aytoun Ellis's The essence of beauty : a history of perfume & cosmetics a more enjoyable read. If I had been reading this as a how-to manual on sourcing and mixing essential oils to create my own compositions, I think I would have found it more useful.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Patricia Joynton

    I read this book b/c my daughter Stefanie and I were going on a trip in California to a naturalist place and making perfume was an activity of the resort we were going to. I was getting ready for the trip, but then a mud slide took out the road to the resort and we had to cancel. Glad I found it. Think I will make my own from my garden. I've always considered fragrance when I order my plants, especially roses. I read this book b/c my daughter Stefanie and I were going on a trip in California to a naturalist place and making perfume was an activity of the resort we were going to. I was getting ready for the trip, but then a mud slide took out the road to the resort and we had to cancel. Glad I found it. Think I will make my own from my garden. I've always considered fragrance when I order my plants, especially roses.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Katey

    I loved the author's attitude to the art of perfume making, but this book partly reads as a "how-to" book. But it does give you great insight into deconstructing the fragrance you wear. But for some, (me included part of the time), sometimes you just want to enjoy a beautiful scent, like a beautiful piece of art, without breaking it down beyond the sum of its parts. I loved the author's attitude to the art of perfume making, but this book partly reads as a "how-to" book. But it does give you great insight into deconstructing the fragrance you wear. But for some, (me included part of the time), sometimes you just want to enjoy a beautiful scent, like a beautiful piece of art, without breaking it down beyond the sum of its parts.

  30. 4 out of 5

    余馨

    so far so bad. assumption-laden and factoid ridden. irritating and ill-informed. there's some fascinating writing about olfactory processing in humans. this is not it. I plugged on for a while as she has a vast collection of antiquarian perfume and alchemy books. I had a vain hope some distillate of that history might have infused these pages. so far so bad. assumption-laden and factoid ridden. irritating and ill-informed. there's some fascinating writing about olfactory processing in humans. this is not it. I plugged on for a while as she has a vast collection of antiquarian perfume and alchemy books. I had a vain hope some distillate of that history might have infused these pages.

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