A Visit to the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents

Top: Mandy Aftel smells the roses outside her Berkeley museum. Middle: An antique civet preserved through taxidermy accompanies “smell me” bottles of both modern and antique civet essence, which is derived from the animal’s glandular secretions. Bottom: Among Aftel’s collection of 100-year-old bottles are many that once held various ambergris tinctures and extracts.

 

Mandy Aftel wants you to get to know your nose. Smells—both pleasant and unpleasant—are all around us, but we often take them for granted. Opening our senses to the world of scents can heighten our awareness and bring daily pleasure.

This was Mandy Aftel’s midlife revelation. She established the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in 2017 as a way to heighten such awareness for others. “Whether [we’re] making a cup of tea, making dinner, experimenting with essential oils, or buying a product,” she says, “[we can experience] that pleasure that humans have had throughout time and across the globe of enjoying scent and natural aromatics from plants.”

This curator’s unique, intimate, and inviting museum is one of Berkeley’s hidden gems and a labor of love that took years to come to fruition. During her long career as a psychologist serving writers and artists, Aftel worked on her own writing project, a novel about a perfumer. Her research led her deep into the world of fragrance and natural essential oils. She collected old books about fragrance and found herself wanting to smell those scents in order to describe them in her writing. When she enrolled in a perfume-making class, she discovered a knack for blending aromas.

Aftel’s collections on fragrance expanded to include rare and hard-to-find artifacts and essences as people started approaching her with fragrance-related items they wanted to sell. As a way to display the expanding trove, she set up a museum in a cottage next to her home. Her husband and son, Foster and Devon Curry, are deeply involved in both the museum and Aftel’s successful perfume business. It is typically Devon who greets you as you enter the museum space. Once inside, you might expect to spend an hour learning about fragrance through thoughtful exhibits, many of which you can see, touch, and smell, and there’s a special treat you can taste, thanks to Mandy’s longtime collaboration with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson. Aftel is constantly observing her guests and tweaking the exhibits. She likes offering ways to compare, say, natural versus synthetic scents, or young scents versus those that have been aged for 100 years. One display breaks down a perfume into its base, middle, and top “chords,” and then divides those into its individual “notes.” The centerpiece is Aftel’s perfume organ, which contains over 300 different vials of individual aromas.

Aftel’s favorite scent is antique ambreine, a molecule that comes from ambergris, a solid waxy substance originating in the intestine of the sperm whale. She describes it as having a “twinkling” aroma. “It’s so miraculous, where it starts out and where it ends,” she says. “It’s so extraordinarily beautiful to almost everyone. It makes the point that this is all full of wonder. Full of mystery. But it’s also just plain gorgeous.”

Aftel’s enthusiasm is contagious. It’s hard to leave the museum—or a conversation with its creator—without engaging with your senses and the world in a whole new way.

—By Nikki Goddard, whose wine-nerd nose now knows a few more things about scents

 
The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is located in the cottage at the end of the brick driveway at 518½ Walnut Street in Berkeley. It’s open on Saturdays only, 11am to 6pm. Admission is $20 ($12 for kids under 18, free for babies in arms). Info: aftelier.com