Book Review: Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel- Essential Oil Reading


When I reviewed Mandy Aftel’s recent release Palimpsest she mentioned it was inspired by the research she did for her new book, “Fragrant- The Secret Life of Scent”. I received my review copy a little over a week ago and spent this past weekend completely enthralled by Ms. Aftel’s new book. This is Ms. Aftel’s fourth book on scent and it is by far her most accessible.

Ms. Aftel starts off with an introduction on how she fell in love with making natural perfume after a number of previous careers. She realized that scent was important to her and that she wanted to learn how to create perfume. She immersed herself in the history of perfumery and after her years as a perfumer she has come up with a simple truism, “Scent is a portal to these basic human appetites- for the far-off, the familiar, the transcendent, the strange, and the beautiful-that have motivated us since the origins of our species.” That sentence encapsulates what great perfume does for me and what it aspires to.


Mandy Aftel (Photo: Foster Curry)

For this book Ms. Aftel decided to focus on five raw ingredients: cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each ingredient gets its own chapter. It starts with a history of the ingredient but there are delightful tangents as well. One of my favorites comes from the Cinnamon chapter where she found a set of five rules for perfumers in ancient Constantinople. It directs where the perfumers can ply their trade so the pleasant smells will drift up into the Royal Palace nearby. They are also directed that, “They are not to stock poor quality goods in their shops: a sweet smell and a bad smell do not go together.” I think there are some modern perfumeries which could be reminded of these old rules.

The last section of each chapter is dedicated to experiencing the ingredient as a raw material and it includes recipes for different fragrances and ways to use it in cooking. For an even richer experience for these last sections; on the Aftelier website there is a Companion Kit which has all five of the ingredients to allow you to actually play along as you read. I received one of the Companion Kits and it greatly enhanced my experience. Plus there is enough to allow the reader to choose to use some in whatever way seems apt.

Ms. Aftel’s previous career as a writer along with her experience as a natural perfumer allows for a perfect synergy as the author is also the expert. It is an important distinction when it comes to describing a sensory experience in words. I believe it is Ms. Aftel’s intimate relationship with these materials which allow for her to communicate about them so effectively and beautifully.

There are very few books which can reach outside the small circle of those of us who are obsessed with perfume. I believe Fragrant is going to be a book which does have a much wider reach because it is as easy to read as a true-life adventure. For those of us who love perfume and the raw ingredients within them Fragrant is going to give you new perspective on these ingredients. I learned so much I didn’t know about ingredients I thought I knew a lot about.

The section of my bookshelf which houses the books on scent and perfume that I think are essential is pretty small. With the publication of Fragrant it just got one volume bigger.

Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of Fragrant provided by Riverhead Books.

Mark Behnke

Olfactory Chemistry: Ambrox-Chemical Gold


One of the biggest perfume synthetic raw materials is Ambrox. I mean big in both senses of the word. Ambrox is widely used as one of the most common basenotes. Ambrox is also a big molecule as you can see below. It is the size which allows it to linger on the skin for hours and hours. Like many of the synthetic molecules in this series Ambrox came about as a synthetic equivalent to an expensive natural ingredient.


The natural ingredient I am talking about is ambergris. Ambergris has become so prized that it has been called “floating gold”. The price of ambergris has done nothing but go up so synthetic chemistry comes to the rescue again. Natural ambergris was analyzed and Ambrox was determined to be one of the major components. The synthesis was accomplished via a process called semi-synthesis. It is where you take an easily isolated natural product as an advanced starting material and then over a few steps you transform it into the desired product.


For Ambrox the starting material is an isolate from clary sage called Sclareol. It takes six steps to convert Sclareol to Ambrox and it is still pretty labor intensive. As a result ambrox is not one of the cheaper synthetics you can employ, although it is significantly more economical than ambergris. There is a more efficient synthesis starting from a natural product isolated in labdanum but even though it is two steps shorter the chemical reagents necessary to carry out the transformation are more expensive and that makes the shorter more chemically efficient synthesis less economically efficient.

Ambrox made its first widespread impact as a component of the base of Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. Ambrox would go onto star in Geza Schoen’s Escentric Molecule 02 just as a single dilution of pure Ambrox. If you try that perfume you will see that Ambrox carries some of the briny musky quality of ambergris but it also has significant characteristics of light woodiness. It is that latter quality that really has been used by perfumers to really bring Ambrox to the foreground. Two of my favorite uses come from two different Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle perfumes by perfumer Dominique Ropion; Geranium pour Monsieur and Portrait of a Lady. In Geranium pour Monsieur it provides the austere muskiness at the base. In Portrait of a Lady the woody aspect is more pronounced. Just those two perfumes by one master perfumer show how much versatility this aromachemical has. I also think there is a downside to Ambrox when it is used poorly it often has an overbearing unbalancing effect on a perfume. There have been perfumes I have liked until the Ambrox explodes upon the scene obliterating any nuance. It makes me wary when I see it on the ingredient list because if it is not used well it can single-handedly ruin a perfume for me.

The bottom line is Ambrox is here to stay and over time perfumers have learned how to use it in multiple creative ways. When it is used well it can be chemical gold in a perfume.

Mark Behnke