Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: Fragrant, Mandy Aftel

I picked this up from the library, because I love reading books about perfume (there are several on my wishlist, including The Book of Scented Things, which is a collection of poetry). Mandy Aftel is the perfumer behind Aftelier Perfumes, which are all made by hand from "pure and natural essences" in small batches - they contain no synthetics, although they are not, as far as I can tell, vegan.
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I haven't read any of her earlier works (either the chef collaborations or her earlier books on fragrance), and I've never sampled any bottled scents from Aftelier Perfumes, although I gather that Aftel is a much respected and lauded artisan. Fragrant is arranged around five key notes - cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, jasmine - and their histories, purposes in fragrance blends, and the questions (and answers) that they inspire. The book is an easy read, filled with interesting trivia, perfume and edibles recipes, and musings on how each of these notes - and the experiences tied to them - have shaped Aftel's craft and leanings as a natural perfumer. There is much said about the composition of fragrances - the intensity and volatility of individual notes, how they must string together like a chord, how dilution is important and what each family of notes is known for. I took notes as I read, because I do write about perfume here, and I often take notes as I read, both fiction and non-fiction.

However, I can't say that I whole-heartedly loved this book. Some of it does come off as preachy (repeated criticisms about the cheapness and shortcomings of synthetic molecules without balanced statements about their use or invention, an elevation of all things "natural" without really clearly defining the criteria for such) and I don't respond well to that. For example, extractions of florals to create "natural" absolutes are commonly performed with hexane (alternatives do exist, although to be honest, I don't know what a "benign" solvent is. Solvents are sort of like venomous creatures - a scale of nasty to nastier).

I will fully admit that I don't know much about the perfume industry, but the creation of the juice does boil down to chemistry - recipes and formulations, extractions, distillations, dissolutions - and I don't think the "natural world" (whatever that means) can be separated so easily from that of scientific method and advancement. I heartily support the locavore movement and creating art, sustainable food and eco-conscious lifestyles - and S. and I do try to buy local, support CSAs and farmer's markets, cook at home most days with fresh produce - but I would have appreciated a more balanced view in this book. I also found her treatment of animal-derived essences a little lacking; that is a big issue (and made me appreciate vegan perfumeries that much more) but it was breezed over rather quickly without a large mention of the controversies behind it (she does mention that many of the animals originally used for cultivation of such essences are seriously endangered now, like the musk deer). But I can understand that it would be like opening the proverbial can of worms, and that wasn't necessarily the point of the ambergris chapter.
Yeah, that's not a beaker - it's a graduated cylinder.

Lastly - this annoyed me. It's a small detail, but all introductory chemistry courses go over basic glassware. I point this out because the precision allowed with each type of glassware is different; calibrated micropipets are the most accurate, then volumetric flasks, then graduated cylinders, and beakers are really only good for holding and mixing solutions. One might argue that this book is intended for the masses, and who cares? But there's no reason at all for it to be mislabeled; if you're going to call it something - call it by its correct name. Especially if you are going to suggest that someone purchase one. [Edit: The author clarified that the images in the text are aesthetic only, taken from early 19th century textbooks. My comments about the precision of glassware are still relevant, though.]
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Despite these complaints, I did still enjoy the book immensely and found it full of interesting information and poignant questions about human nature and our perceptions of beauty and luxury and art. You might be thinking, oh Larie, get your jaded scientist self out of all this art, but seriously, I do appreciate the complexity and resourcefulness of devoted natural artisan perfumery, and the invocation to appreciate the beauty - fleeting as it is - of the world around us. The indie perfume movement is an important one to the industry and the art, and I can't deny that Aftel is a significant contributor. I would definitely recommend Fragrant to anyone who has an interest in perfume, or even just a fragranced take on investigating human nature. I've put her earlier book, Essence & Alchemy, on my list.