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.


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.

A Green and Searing Heart of Light – with a giveaway!

– a review of Aftelier’s ‘Haute Claire’

If I were ever to make a list of all the dozens of perfume notes I tend to gravitate towards and dote upon, the ones I tend to seek out as if compelled by some guardian angel of perfumery, at the very top of that list you would find that savage, green beast known as…galbanum.

Galbanum has been used since antiquity in perfumes and incense mixtures. The ancient Egyptians adored it every bit as much as Germaine Cellier, when she put it at the front and center of the greatest green perfume of all, Balmain’s Vent Vert. In the long list of my own personal great immortal perfumes, galbanum has been the green heart and common thread of most of them – Vent Vert, Bandit, Cabochard, Miss Dior, Dioressence, Silences, Chanel no. 19, even my latest favorite green, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ Vert pour Madame.

So imagine how excited I was to learn that in another perfume collaboration instigated by Nathan Branch, Mandy Aftel and Liz Zorn of Soivohle were exploring the challenges of two seeming contradictions – galbanum and ylang ylang. Galbanum, which sings in such a high, green pitch, and ylang ylang with all its lusciously sweet, tropical arias, not giving an inch, not even for galbanum.

Here I sit with Mandy’s ‘Haute Claire’, and since it arrived, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind, my nose and my words around it.

‘Haute Claire’ – sometimes spelled ‘Hauteclere’, meaning ‘high and clear’ or ‘noble and fair’ – was the name of a sword that belonged to the paladin Olivier de Vienne, the protector and teacher of Roland in the medieval French epic, ‘The Song of Roland’. Both the name and the contents suit each other completely, one as sharply defined as the other, both a testament to a unique artist’s sleight of hand that gives a perfect balance and a perfect reach.

First of all, I’ll start by saying this is like no galbanum fiend I have ever encountered before. Just as I had to, you can forget everything you know about green florals, chypres, and fougères.

Haute Claire is indeed very green, it is quite floral, it has slight intimations of chypre, and yet, it resembles nothing I have any kind of reference for, and oh, how I love it when that happens!

That sharp, green and resinous edge of galbanum glows just below a bright, emerald burst of lime and wild sweet orange, the kind to wake up all your sensory perceptions to high alert. Neither the lime nor the orange are so sweet they detract from galbanum, because throughout the complex development of Haute Claire, it beats like an untamed heart beneath every other element. Ylang ylang in both CO2 and extra dance so effortlessly with honeysuckle absolute and clary sage all along that searing galbanum blade, adding another dimension of floral, another, creamier shade of chartreuse to that pulsing heart, all the elements poised on the singular point of that metaphorical, perfume sword.

They whirl around in the emerald light…now ylang ylang in all its wonder, next the heady, sweet air of honeysuckle and the rounded, mellow tones of clary sage binding them together as they dance in tune along the blade…

So many of the notes in ‘Haute Claire’ are such inherent contradictions if not paradoxes in perfume that should cancel each other out and yet somehow they never do. That glowing, pulsing soul of galbanum and the heady ylang are seamlessly, effortlessly balanced in a fragrant duel where one is never stronger than the other. It never turns bitter and always remains green all the way through a spectacular drydown of vetiver and ethyl phenyl acetate with its hint of rose and vanilla adding just a feather-touch of soft and sweet, one final burnish of the blade. It wears equally well on men or women, I’d say, and lasts well past the four-hour mark, and that, too, is no mean feat of natural perfumery.

If ever a perfume were a testament to alchemy and artistry, to the juxtaposition of opposites and a balance of a paradox in essences, it would be Haute Claire. It smells like no other perfume, behaves like no other galbanum, and has an inbuilt architecture very similar to the sword that gave it its name, and that, too, I’ve never encountered before.

I’ve been sideswiped by Mandy Aftel’s skills as a perfumer with all nine of the perfumes I’ve been privileged enough to try. They have all evoked – and invoked – a wide range of responses and reactions, conjured different dreams and associations. But no other Aftelier creation has ever been like this one, both a paradox and a contradiction, yet such a seamless, perfect whole.

I could quote from ‘The Song of Roland’, but to be honest, I found something a little less dramatic and a lot less gory, that seemed to fit it equally well. If a sword can be immortal, then a perfume can be no less, and so I found this from Rumi…

‘Death came, smelled me
and sensed your fragrance instead
From then on, Death lost all hope of me…’

An immortal poem of immortal deeds, an eternal perfume…and a perfumer whose art makes it look as easy as a sharp, verdant edge…

‘Haute Claire’ is available in 30 ml EdP and in sample form from the Aftelier website.

DIsclosure: Sample provided by Aftelier for review.
Original image: ‘Ace of Skies’ from the “Chaos Tarot”, image of ‘Haute Claire’ provided by Aftelier.

Top: Galbanum, Mexican Lime, wild sweet orange
Heart: Ylang ylang CO2, honeysuckle absolute, ylang ylang extra, clary sage
Base: Vetiver, ethyl phenyl acetate, vanilla absolute

To read of the fascinating and sometimes frustrating process of creating ‘Haute Claire’ on Nathan Branch’s blog, start here.

Last, but not least – leave a comment! Thanks to Mandy’s incredible generosity, I’m holding a giveaway for a 5 ml sample spray of Haute Claire. One lucky reader will get to experience the Aftelier attention to detail in both perfume and packaging! So..leave a comment! The draw runs until July 25th at midnight CET, and a winner will be determined by