Mandy Aftel – Alchemist

August 2nd, 2008 — 10:22am

I picked my boys up from camp yesterday, and got them fabulous cupcakes from Love at First Bite — a cupcakery (who cares if that’s a word) smack in the heart of Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto”. (The boys each wanted crushed oreo cupcakes. I, in a fit of rare discipline, declined). As we were walking back to our car, I told them I wanted to show them something cool. I pointed out the window of Mandy Aftel’s workshop, filled with antique perfume bottles. Mandy is a perfume maker, and I had interviewed her for a piece I wrote several years ago on cooking with essential oils. Just as I was pointing out the different shape bottles, the door opens, and out steps Mandy with her boyfriend.

“Hi Mandy,” I said,  reminding her of who I was. Knowing this was a rare chance to bring my boys into her perfume studio, I asked her if I could briefly show the boys her workshop. She very graciously said, “of course.”

I knew my boys would love her space, because it’s magical. She has a perfume “organ,” a three sided workspace that allows her to mix scents within easy reach. Stepping into her workshop is like stepping back in time, when alchemists and witchcraft reigned. My son Jack asked her if he could smell some rose scent, and Mandy began describing the difference between Moroccan Rose and Oman Rose, the difference between essential oils and absolutes, and top, middle or base notes. We smelled Frankincense, Oakmoss, Lavender, Tobacco, and my personal favorite, Black Spruce.

We spent about a half hour there, as Mandy kindly entertained my boys questions. Smelling her perfume mixtures is a completely different experience from anything you’ll find in department stores (I don’t wear perfume for this reason — they smell, and in fact, are synthetic), and while I can’t say I love all of Mandy’s fragrances — I find them all interesting (she’s coming out with a black currant fragrance this fall that is wonderful, deep, earthy, and berryish).

As we left, I said, “Fellas, you’ve just met a witch, and I mean that in the very best possible way,” to which Mandy gave us a big smile.

Magic is still alive and well in the world. And Berkeley seems to have a higher than average amount.

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