I recently had a chance to interview one of my favorite people, Mandy Aftel (the artisan fragrance genius), about her book, Fragrant, one of the best books of the year, perhaps the decade. (Read more here, then make sure you pick up her book.)

As our conversation often does, it meandered around to the topic of luxury and pleasure. It’s easy to think that someone in the field of fragrance – and in particular the fragrance industrial complex with its preponderance of glitzy ads, celebrity scents, and its ties to the the 20th century’s notions of luxury and sensuality – might be sucked into the norms of the industry. But she’s honed her own sensibility, values and ethos along the way and precisely because of the prevailing norms, has come to think more carefully about it all.  Herewith, a random walk through those thoughts. All very alt luxe, and all words to live by.

What is pleasure, anyway? It’s the experience of quality and sensuality and being ready to receive. You can feel certain things of substance, but some things are more submerged and hidden. It’s an internal experience that enriches you. I know when I’m having it. I couldn’t say what it would be for anyone else.

Bottles for pleasure

Bottles for pleasure

On how to live more pleasurably: Living more pleasurably has to do with sensulity, and being present in the experience. It’s not about having it partially but really having the experience.  It has nothing to do with status, it’s not about money per se. It’s personal: it needs to connect with you to fire those neurons of pleasure.

It’s also about being alive to what you love. There’s so much I love and am curious about and I choose to spend my life focused on those things. It’s not as though there’s judgment, I just want to spend my time in a way that’s just great. I’m a creature of pleasure … I’ve always been that way.

Mandy Aftel research

The search for knowledge


How do you cultivate pleasure? I experience pleasure from something I find beautiful. I find beauty very restorative. Some of what’s beautiful can be simple, I like things that look like they could have been there forever. Certain kinds of grapes the leaves are many colors…it was like a carpet..it was timeless, the proportions were beautiful, the colors were beautiful. When I see it falling apart more, and a glimpse of things, the beautiful of certain things hits me.

What has fragrance taught you about pleasure? Everything starts with the oils….the finished product is very special and artistic enterprise for me…the oils themselves…I think of them as my friends. They’re different. They’re so alive, layered, beautiful, funky strange smells. They’re like another language or universe. They fill me with wonder make me happy, they have this complex beauty, make me feel more alive in the world.

Mandy Aftel at her Organ

Mandy Aftel at her Organ


What is the role of beauty? It’s a necessity, not a luxury. Beauty is something I really do believe in.

What is the way of beauty? I believe a great deal in the principles of wabi sabi. There’s a piece in my book about how beauty often thrives in austerity. In the rugged west of Ireland, cottages were built with small windows, which focused and framed the view, never allowing you to be overwhelmed by it. That’s such an important thing to keep in mind.

And what do you think of luxury? The wrong aspect of experience gets focused on. Not luxury, but consumption. I feel like this other experience….It doesn’t get focused on, it’s about shopping. But we need to think less about shopping and more about what is precious. Buy less, but buy better.

Buying what matters

Buying what’s precious

 All images courtesy of Mandy Aftel.