There are perfumers, and perfumers. And then there is Mandy Aftel, the woman to whom over the last few decades some of the world’s top artisanal noses have turned for inspiration. Aftel is a polymath of the fragrance world, by turns an historian, author, teacher, museum curator, speaker.
And, most intriguingly, she is also its self-appointed archivist. Witness the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, which she opened three years ago in the converted garage adjacent to her house in Berkeley, California. It’s a place that defies conventional categorization; equal parts museum, ultra-niche retail experience, interactive learning center, and old-school cabinet of curiosities. It’s also a place you’d expect to find in Paris, rather than Berkeley—all the more reason it’s become something of a point of pilgrimage, and a must on any Bay Area visit. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to give people the experience I’d want of a fragrance and aromatics archive,” Aftel says simply. “I feel like it was my own private world, and then I had the idea—the lunatic idea,” she laughs, “to open this up.”
Aftel’s desire to become a perfumer was sparked by books; while researching a character for a novel, she began reading about, and collecting books on, the world of fragrance. “I have over 100 turn of the century books, about all of the aromatics on the planet,” she says; all of them are in the Archive, available for visitors to peruse. The space is a trove of olfactory ephemera, from 100-year-old aromatherapy essences that have never been opened to actual antique cabinets, their drawers intricately divided into compartments holding the raw materials of some of history’s most important and evocative essences: vetiver, benzoin, calamus, frankincense; resins, seeds and raw grasses. The history of animal elements—those rich fragrance notes with sometimes slightly squeamish backstories—is told deftly with combinations of illustrations, art and taxidermy. Many are conceived to be as beautiful to look at as they are to smell: above a display of ambergris, she has hung a large sperm whale, carved from wood by a New England-based artisan whose whaling family came to America on the Mayflower.
The Archive is also deeply interactive, from the clever smell-me bottles (filled with scented air via an impregnator, so each visitor gets her own whiff of pure tincture), to the letter-pressed scent strips (each visitor leaves with three). “Normally I go over every hour or so, to see how things are going,” Aftel says. “I’ll say, ‘Talk to me, tell me what you think, what’s going on?’ And people’s reactions are incredible. They have stories, they’re excited, very often they’re moved to tears.”
Aftel herself has a deep sensory attachment to Berkeley, her long-time home. “When I walk outside my house, there’s a smell that makes me know I’m at home, and it’s been that way for over 40 years,” she says. “It’s a pastiche of aromas: the perfume from the hundred rose plants I grow in my garden, roasting coffee from the original Peet’s down at the corner, and fragrant jasmine blossoms from the copious vines in my neighborhood. Ovens firing up, garlic roasting, bread baking—when the sun would warm up in the afternoon the breeze would scent my whole house.”
Berkeley itself had a profound influence Aftel, who grew up in Detroit. “I found the bohemian ambience I had longed for, an energy that was palpable in the streets, in the restaurants and cafés and shops. It felt as if behind every Arts and Crafts façade there were people making pottery or jewelry, writing books, doing improv, inventing new recipes, collaborating in a kind of rampant cross-fertilization of creativity.”
Coincidentally, Aftel’s own house was right behind Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters had just begun to spread what Aftel calls “the gospel of locavorism”. “Three houses down from my front door Mr. Peet himself roasted the beans. My block was redolent with the smells of fresh coffee and of vegetables roasting.” In Detroit, her childhood home, “front yards had been clipped, manicured, rolled-lawn affairs, but in Berkeley people’s front yards overflowed with casual cottage gardens of fresh herbs and heritage roses, fruit trees in bloom, jasmine and wisteria climbing from basement to attic. I had never seen such a gift to the street!”
Despite Berkeley’s reputation as the epicenter of the counterculture, she says, “the aesthetic it was steeped in was simple, almost Old World. It spoke to me, and it played a great role in shaping my own aesthetic. Working with the best ingredients, doing only what needed to be done and no more—this became my creative mantra.” The nowhere-else-like-it Archive she has created is her testament to living that ethos.