Private Follies

– a review of Aftelier Perfume’s ‘Parfum Privé’

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be a perfumer? To create bespoke perfumes and explore your creative vision through essence and absolute – what would that do to your personal preferences in the perfumes you wear for yourself?

When Mandy Aftel managed to obtain some very rare and very costly ambergris, she wanted to create a perfume for her own use to highlight it. So Parfum Privé, this most extravagant of Aftelier’s perfumes, came to be, and luckily for the rest of us, she decided it was far too good not to share.

Ambergris, that near-mythical substance excreted by sperm whales one way or the other, is unique in that it has to be properly weathered to be of any use in perfumery. Why or even precisely how it’s made is still a matter of some scientific debate, but what isn’t debatable is its singular aroma – at once floral and animalic and sweet, and its ability to fix other, more volatile perfume notes. Once you have encountered the true aroma of ambergris, you will never again be able to forget it or mistake it for anything else.

This is – stated solely on the basis of my past year’s exposure to some truly unbelievable fragrances that have done all sorts of things to my olfactory perspective – no ordinary perfume.

When I first applied that Barbie-sized rollerball applicator and let it dry, my first thought was….

They don’t make them like this any more.

Really, they don’t. Mandy herself states this is the most extravagant perfume in her collection, and considering the splendor of some of her other creations, that says something. The night air of Hawaii, she also says on her website, but I get something else entirely.

Parfum Privè reminds me of nothing so much as those all-out super-opulent Orientals of the Twenties, when opulence was not so hard to find or create. Back in the day when women would wear perfumes such as Shalimar, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond, or Arpège, to name but a few. Potent personal statements that would never dream of apologizing for their existence, statements that left a trail and a fragrant intimation of secrets both profound and tantalizing behind, statements that make you look again, perfume that stopped you in your tracks.

Something sexy this way walked, and that something was a woman with a capital W. And such a woman!

It has the vibrant feel of those vintage scents, and when I say ‘vintage’, I don’t mean ‘old-fashioned/musty/dusty/old lady-ish’ in the slightest.

Right away, there’s a lively, verdant kick from the bergamot and pink pepper, but the heady, spicy heart of orange flower, osmanthus and pimento leaf (which also gives us allspice) is right behind it.

This lady has flower and fire both in her soul, and she’s not afraid to show it, either.

I’ve read elsewhere that this is a perfume that shimmers on the skin, not in any literal sense, but in the way the notes wind around each other, fiery, sweetly floral and heady, not one of them taking a backseat to any other, all of them singing in flawless, fragrant harmony.

I’d say that it sparkles more than it shimmers, sparkles like the jet beads and sequins of the robe in the photo above, not so much revealing as accentuating the allure beneath the bugle beads and handsewn curlicues in jet on chiffon. You have to move exactly right to catch that sparkle in the light, but just like the drydown, it’s all silk and skin and ambergris underneath, once noted and never forgotten.

It’s been years and years since I encountered ambergris, once a major note in one of my all-time favorite perfumes, Dior’s Dioressence. I’m lucky enough to own a little vintage Dioressence, and when I compared the two and waited for the drydown, I noticed the common ground right away, even though they’re otherwise nothing alike. Both contain a generous amount of ambergris, which is warm, thick, floral, animal and sweet all at once, and not even that description comes close to evoking it. Just take my word for it – it’s not something your nose will ever quite let you forget.

I can’t get over the drydown of Parfum Privé. My nose must be deceiving me. It’s not the glorious ambergris, it’s not the musky temptation of ambrette seed, it’s…well, knock me down with a peacock feather already, because I could swear on an autographed postcard that I smell sandalwood, too. Not the sandalwood we know today, that chemically recreated approximation of another, more refined scent engraved on all our memories, but a sandalwood so perfect, so redolent, rounded and polished it positively glows. Sandalwood isn’t listed, but I swear it’s there, or else I’ve sniffed far too many perfumes lately and I’ve begun to have olfactory hallucinations.

I could imagine, if I sniff, close my eyes and let my imagination take flight, that Parfum Privé could have been chosen as the perfume of a Ziegfeld girl like the one pictured above, carefully cultured and costumed to her best, most alluring self, epitomizing the apex of a specific feminine ideal that the rest of us may also aspire to, hinting at the depths we contain rather than putting them all on public display. A woman that knows the value of inciting a sense of mystery and intrigue, of showing only enough to make her admirers curious enough to know more, a woman who knows that creating a sense of anticipation can be very much more fulfilling than promises she might not want to keep. Some secrets are no one’s business but her own. Except for those rare occasions every once in a blue moon, wrapped as you are in a cloud of decadent perfume, cocooned in that heady, mythical ambergris and a swirl of jet-embroidered chiffon, you come across a private folly…that’s far too good not to share!

Parfum Privé is available from the Aftelier website.

Top: Bergamot, pink pepper CO2
Heart: Orange flower absolute, osmanthus, pimento leaf
Base: Ambrette, ambergris

Image: Ziegfeld girl Anne Lee Patterson in an Erté (Romain de Tirtoff) designed costume, photographed by Alfred Cheney Johnston, 1920, taken from A larger version available here.

Disclosure: Sample provided by Aftelier for review.

16 thoughts on “Private Follies

  1. This is one I've yet to try, but I swear I can imagine what it's like from reading this. And I know what you mean about Mandy's sandalwood- she doesn't mess around, only the best. Which is fortunate for US, since we are only truly moved by the best. 🙂

  2. Mmmm, this sounds decadent and yet chiffon-like at the same time.

    I have a small via of tinctured ambergris that I purchased from Linda at The Perfumer's Apprentice a few years back. It's great for layering beneath other perfumes…not only gives them greater wearing power, but almost makes each scent molecule feel quilted, fatted, more…hmm, not sure there's even a word to describe the effect!

  3. What riches! A beauty through and through.
    And I love that image and how you tied the perfume and the photo together in such depth — sometimes the vintage-photo depictions of beauty are so moving, and well matched with the natural fragrances.

  4. The photo is by Alfred Cheney Johnston. He did a lot – more and better. Worth a trip to the LIbrary of Congress web site to see them.

  5. The photo your writing and the perfume are perfect together: placing Prive in the glamourous past. I see and experience it that way too — that this is from another time that maybe existed in reality but more so in our imaginations.
    Thank you so much for giving yourself over to this perfume with all of your talent and imagination and making me feel so understood as its creator.

  6. Carrie…you have got to try this some day. And you're right about that sandalwood…it's like no other sandalwood I've ever encountered, and just like you said – we're only truly moved by the best! 🙂

  7. Suzanne, I totally get what you mean about the ambergris. It “fattens” everything – or should I say, it makes everything more…brocaded/quilted&embroidered, maybe? That still doesn't quite describe it, either. But decadent…yes! Chiffon-like…yes! Try it! Yes! 🙂

  8. Actually, Lucy – here's how I review. First, going on the time-honored cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words…I find the image that fits my own associations. It gives me a focus when I write my review. Then, as sometimes happens and can occasionally be hoped, I write it and all three – image, perfume and words – come together. All I can hope is that none of them sing out of key! 😉

  9. Anonymous – I stand corrected! As you can see, I've amended the image credit, and was even lucky enough to find out the woman's name – Anne Lee Patterson. As for Alfred Cheney Johnston…geez, Louise, such photos! All I can say is…they are as good as it gets! Thank you for pointing me in the right direction!

  10. Mandy, all I can say is…opportunity is everything! I was given the opportunity (And thank you forever, Lucy, for that!) to try some of your stupendous creations.

    My horizons shifted, my perspective altered and my world was never quite the same again.

    The best that I could hope for was to find the words that did them – and you as their creator – the justice they surely deserve. And as sometimes happens, there is a meeting of minds and associations that take flight – and take on a life of their own! 🙂

    You made Parfum Privé, and sent it to an aspiring writer half the world away. All she had to do was to sit still and listen to the story that rose off her skin!

    As you surely know, that's a kind of alchemy, too! XO

  11. Sigh…

    “The night air of Hawaii”, “flower and fire”, “singing in flawless, fragrant harmony”…

    It's like my fantasies have been chanelled through Mandy's perfume and your writing.

    Did Jung know about the collective perfume unconscious?

  12. Channeling your fantasies, JoanElaine – wow, that's high praise indeed! If anyone could have believed in the collective perfume unconscious, surely it would have been Jung who understood. That Mandy Aftel understands, we already know! 🙂

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