The Ghosts that Time Breathed In

–  a review of Aftelier Perfumes’ Sepia

In this overlooked corner of the old world, with it history dating back at least to Neolithic times, where the past can be seen in both buildings and landscapes, river valleys, stone dolmens and peat bogs, there’s no shortage of ghosts. Dolmens crowning hills or appearing in a beechwood glade, medieval castles fallen to ruins by a lake, the eerie, numinous presences haunting a peat bog on a midsummer midnight while the elderflowers exude their magical siren song of summer…there are plenty of ghosts if you know where to look.

But ghost towns, the abandoned ruins of towns left entirely behind, are something Europeans tend to tear down, plow over and rebuild, unless they’re kept for memorial purposes our ravaged history only wishes we could forget.

Yet in the US, and particularly in the Southwest, ghost towns abound, echoing what was once a gloried past in a brief and fleeting instant, when they teemed with life and dreams and hopes that maybe this time, maybe even you could get lucky, maybe even you could strike it rich and realize a dream before the veins ran out and the river ran dry.

I’ve seen a few ghost towns in my time in the US, deserted under a blazing sun and a searing blue sky, the tumbleweeds bouncing down the empty street in the wind that sweeps the past away but leaves the shell of it behind, where the coyotes sing their songs at night of dreams dead and abandoned to fade like the buildings that contained them, oh, so many years ago.

The ghost towns of the California Gold Rush of 1848 were also the inspiration for Mandy Aftel’s latest collaboration with Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studios on Nathan Branch’s blog, and here we have the result, Aftelier’s Sepia, her ode to the ravages of time and the beauty of decay found in those empty shells of life, dreams and hopes.

One of my favorite things about Mandy’ work is how it continues to surprise me, continues to evolve, and continues to reject all the obvious choices to expand upon and challenge our perceptions of both beauty and of perfume, for her perfumes are nothing if not surprising, unique and more often than not, uniquely resistant to analysis, but they are also always uniquely and surprisingly beautiful. Sepia is no exception.

How many times have you encountered a perfume that begins both light and dark? That sounds like such a contradiction, like some conjuring trick that can’t be done. Yet I tell you, it can and it has, because Sepia starts with a sunshine burst of citrus, that fragrant clarion call to awaken your perceptions and at the same time, the blood cedarwood adds its own brand of some dark and diaphanous wash of ink, damping down the sunshine, deepening the story to come, almost, as Lucy of Indieperfumes also noted in her review, as if it evolves in reverse, bringing forth hints of the base that recede like shadows beneath sunlight, shifting and changing.

Time never does stand still and neither does Sepia, emanating its many tales in a multi-hued and many-layered middle of lotus and jasmine, strawberry and cocoa and coffee that manage to elegantly sidestep any associations you might have of gourmand, all of them combined instead giving me one olfactory childhood association in particular that to me is uniquely American and that I have never, ever encountered before in perfume, one that exudes a distant, faraway memory of time more than almost anything else I know – and that is…sassafras. Not the taste of it – root beer will be the very last thing on your mind with Sepia – but the scent and ‘feel’ of it, with its floral high notes and earthy, unusual base, the coffee and cocoa added in such delicate amounts they never detract from the opulent jasmine or the otherworldly lotus, the strawberry somehow bridging that impossible leap between flowers and coffee, smoothing the path that lies ahead for the richer, darker base to bloom, flowering tobacco and spiky, woody oud, earthy labdanum and cepes anchoring it all somehow back to Earth and back in time, all wrapped around a golden base of ambergris that expands and enriches this ode to time and decay and evokes the sepia tints of long-ago and near forgotten daguerrotypes of lovers and sinners, losers and winners, memories of time, of space and of place. When thousands of dreamers with nothing to lose left everything they knew in search of a golden dream that was there for the taking and the daring, just waiting for discovery in the mountain streams of a state that even today seems more dream than reality.

I can breathe in Sepia and see it happening as I breathe, breathe it as I dream. I’m standing on that deserted street in that ghost of a town, seeing the sun-seared, time-blasted wood of the derelict houses that once sheltered those long-ago dreams of fortune and fame, hearing the wind whistle its way through them as the tumbleweeds dance and bounce. As I do, as I inhale and even I dream, I can sense how the color slowly seeps back into the landscape like a developing old-fashioned color photograph before my eyes, growing richer and deeper. Before long, echoes of sound are added, the shouts of lost voices, the whinny of horses and the rumble of carts through the dusty streets, of prospectors and miners returning with everything or nothing, gold dust and nuggets burning holes in their imaginations and their pockets or else scorching their broken dreams to cinders and ashes, charlatans and women lurking in the shady confines of the saloons and parlors, waiting to realize their own hopes and dreams in that flood of possibilities and gold in the hills. I can breathe Sepia and remember…all the ghosts that Time breathed in and soon forgot.

Yet no life is ever forgotten. All the ghosts of that forgotten town lay in waiting to be found and bottled by a perfumer who told their many tales and sent them on to a dreamer half the world away, who breathed it in and breathed them back to life and all of it entire contained in a perfume… called Sepia.

Notes:

Top: Blood cedarwood, yellow mandarin, pink grapefruit

Heart: Pink lotus, strawberry, jasmine grandiflorum, cocoa, coffee

Base: Flowering tobacco, oud, indole, ambergris, cepes, labdanum 

Sepia is available as both eau de parfum and pure perfume from the Aftelier website, where samples are also available.

Disclosure: A sample of Sepia was sent to me for review by Mandy Aftel.

Follow the process behind the evolution of Sepia and Laurie Erickson’s ‘Forest Walk’ on Nathan Branch’s blog series ‘Letters To A Fellow Perfumer’ here:

Part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5

Photo from Bodie, California.

3 thoughts on “The Ghosts that Time Breathed In

  1. Dear, Dear Sheila, you have truly outdone yourself! I so appreciate your exquisite writing – you explore and breathe life so fully into the experience of Sepia!
    xo Mandy

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