Anyone who considers themselves a perfumista will recognize the name Mandy Aftel. She’s the owner and esteemed nose behind the perfume line Aftelier as well as the author of four books on natural perfume. She wrote Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume, which won the 2001 Sense of Smell Institute’s Richard B. Solomon Award. She’s been recognized in Perfumer and Flavorist on their “it” list of perfumers, chosen on Basenotes as one of the 25 most influential people in perfume, and named by Forbes as one of the top seven bespoke perfumers in the world.
In July 2017, she opened the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley, CA, which is the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to perfume.
By lucky coincidence my daughter has just enrolled in the MBA program at UC Berkeley, making a family trip to visit her the perfect excuse to check it out. The museum is only open on Saturdays from 10:00-6:00 for one-hour appointments so I booked two $20 tickets in advance online. My husband and daughter had scheduled something else that morning, leaving me and my son – who’s also a fragrance enthusiast — on our own. Perfect!
The museum is housed in a converted garage in the backyard of her North Berkeley home, surrounded by a garden of unusual roses. The first words you’ll read on entering the Archive of Curious Scents is “Welcome to another universe”. Needless to say we knew we were in for a unique adventure.
We were personally greeted inside the door by Aftel’s son Devon, who gave us a short orientation before handing us a smelling kit and leaving us to explore the exhibits at our own pace. About 15 minutes in, Mandy arrived and warmly introduced herself to us and the other museum patrons individually. She and I had a brief discussion about natural perfumery and I enjoyed hearing her stories about some of the more exotic scents and the intricacies of the perfume-making process. She’s so knowledgeable and fascinating that I could easily have listened to her for hours. However, the clock was ticking and I knew we still had a whole lot of sniffing to do.
The museum is the work of over 30 years of scent and artifact collection. The love and care that Mandy Aftel has put into this enchanting space is obvious from the get-go. You are able to smell more than 300 natural essences derived from flowers, fruits, trees, grasses and other natural sources. It’s very cool how you can compare essences that have been aged for a century to their modern counterparts.
Smelling the natural essences alongside their synthetic versions was also really interesting. Bibliophiles will especially appreciate being able to pore over more than 50 antique books from Aftel’s personal collection, learning about the amazing history of fragrance.
The exhibits are in no particular order and have a sign to explain each one. Many of the bottles have “Smell Me” tags, allowing you to lift the lid and smell what’s inside. The ability to open drawers and touch raw ingredients – which is encouraged here – was an unexpected delight.
It’s easy to get lost in the variety of essences on display on the perfume organ, which is arranged from top notes, heart notes and base notes. The Aftelier Natural Fragrance Wheel, given out when you enter the museum, is a great tool to understand the relationships between scents and scent families as well as whether they register as top, middle or base notes. The wheel can can purchased on the Aftelier website for $10.
There are five exhibits allowing you to experience scents derived from animals: ambergris (sperm whale), civet (cat-like animal), musk (musk deer), hyraceum (hyrax) and castoreum (beaver). These smell revolting to most of us on their own but are often-used fixatives in perfumery. Upon dilution they reveal an incredible delicacy and can have an amazing effect on the other ingredients in a perfume. I’m pretty sure smelling these were the highlights here for my son.
The finale to our multi-sensory experience was two pieces of dark chocolate sprayed with our pick of the collection of Aftelier Chef Sprays. My choices were the Red Grapefruit and Cinnamon and they were both delicious!
For those who catch the perfume bug and are interested in creating their own natural perfumes, information about ordering Mandy Aftel’s essential oils or enrolling in her studio classes can be found on the website.
Visiting the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents was well worth the price of admission and then some. The next time I’m in Berkeley I plan on returning. An hour is simply not enough!
Now back in New York, I’m looking forward to the Sniffapalooza Fall Ball two weeks from now. I posted about one of their other events a while ago – Spring Fling – and in case you missed it you can find it here.
In case it’s not totally obvious I’m always looking for places and situations where perfume is the main event. If you know of an interesting venue or perfume event coming up please share!
Until the next time,