Aftelier: The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents

Tucked away in a North Berkeley driveway is a tiny gateway into a vast universe of scents.
The vision of perfumer Mandy Aftel, the petite museum is spare and serene, yet packed with smells familiar and strange, as well as the history behind fragrance, its ingredients and its methods. Ms. Aftel was there during our visit, and while both she and her son were gracious and knowledgeable docents, your experience is mostly self-guided (which I loved). The exhibits are arranged in no particular order so you’re free to wander about and inspect whatever intrigues you.

One display invites you to smell an entire perfume, Aftel’s own Curious, deconstructed into individual top, middle and base notes, as well as the top, middle and base chords that make up the fragrance. Another pits natural forms of common scents like vanilla and rose against their synthetic counterparts. There are sets of wooden drawers filled with the raw ingredients from which scents are distilled (sarsaparilla, juniper berries, deertongue, pine resin, just to name a few).

The centerpiece is the perfume organ. A special series of shelves designed to hold all the tiny bottles of scents that can be used to concoct a fragrance, it’s organized into sections of top, base and middle notes. The sheer number of things to explore and smell was so exciting it made my heart race. It was a fascinating combination of familiar scents that were satisfying to smell in their pure forms (butter! olive absolute!), semi-rare scents you may have smelled but not as often (oud, clary sage, hinoki), and some that were downright strange and sounded like they came from outer space — methyl methyl anthranilate, gamma dodecalactone, opoponax absolute. For a word nerd like myself, taking in all these names as well as the scents added to the sense of intoxication. Even the way you smelled the scent contained in each tiny bottle, by lifting just the small, glass octagonal lid to your nose, felt ritualistic. As part of the tour, you are given three beautifully thick, letterpressed pieces of paper featuring the museum’s nose of David design which you may dip into your three favorite scents from the organ. I chose methyl methyl anthranilate, gamma dodecalactone, and perhaps my favorite, vetiverol.

Between the tiny entrance and all the charming apothecary bottles with ‘smell me’ tags hanging from their necks, the place has a definite Alice in Wonderland vibe, and it’s not unlike falling down an rabbit hole. One hour later, I was not ready to leave (I hadn’t smelled every single scent in the organ!), and hadn’t really thought about the outside world at all since I’d entered. I loved that the entire experience was incredibly sensory and had nothing to do with technology. A delightful sign announcing the library of carefully collected books on fragrance — some quite old, some in French, some of the common housewives’ handbook variety — invited you to ‘Please experience and appreciate these actual printed materials.’

Mostly, everything smelled good. Even the hyraceum deposits — stone-like objects formed from the excrement of colonies of small, furry hyrax — smelled less outright awful than you might think. It brought to mind the barnyard-y brett smell of certain wines, and the exhibit pointed out that it has been collected for centuries and is used to lend a ‘dirty note’ to overly sweet or fresh smells. Couldn’t more things in life use a dirty note?

The museum is home to another olfactory oddity: ambergris. Ever since I learned of this prized substance, I’ve wanted to smell it. Being made up of whale excrement, it sounds vile, but is in fact highly sought-after and has been used in fragrances, incense and high-end artisan perfumes for centuries. Some articles describe people happening upon balls of ambergris on the beach — finds worth thousands. The combination of its strange origins and the miraculous chance to come into some money makes it sound like a plot device in an odd fairy tale, but I think the truth is that there are professional ambergris hunters who probably have made finding it more a science than the art of happenstance. In any case, I was excited to smell it. Rather than anything off-putting, this particular sample smelled like the essence of perfume smell. When you were a kid did you ever make a soda ‘suicide’ with all the different flavors combined? Ambergris smells like a perfume ‘suicide.’ 

To top off our visit, Mandy signed a copy of her book Essence & Alchemy that I picked up. Normally, I might not want to give such a detailed description of an experience, or read one before experiencing something myself. But in this case, there’s no risk of ruining the experience, since you need to follow your own nose to have it.