There are thousands of things to stick your nose into at the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, a tiny museum in Berkeley devoted to the sense of smell. You can submerge your face in a pile of Provencal lavender buds, or a handful of Somalian frankincense pebbles, or slivers of Venezuelan tonka beans. You can open jars of volatilized oils that will shock you with their novelty — the jammy fruitiness of fir absolute; the powdery sweetness of coumarin — or make you feel like you’re smelling something familiar, like mint, peach or butter, clearly for the first time.
So varied and numerous are the museum’s aromas that ranking them, you’d think, would be an impossible task. But ask owner Mandy Aftel, and she doesn’t hesitate.
“The best smell in the whole place is ambrein,” Aftel says, referring to a molecule present in ambergris, the secretion of a sperm whale’s digestive system. She picks up a tiny vial that contains an ambrein tincture, holding it up to my nose. It’s musky, mainly, but also floral and sweet. The sensation is completely unfamiliar, but Aftel’s right. The ambrein smells sublime.
Ambergris is something of a white whale — excuse the pun — in the world of perfume: rare and expensive, and riddled with ethical issues. Aftel bought hers, all antique, from a collector of whale paraphernalia in New England. (She does not condone harming animals.) Sometimes referred to as “whale vomit,” the substance gets its own mini-exhibit here in Aftel’s museum. There’s a wood carving of a sperm whale, which she commissioned; glass cases filled with raw ambergris, which look like nondescript, grayish stones; and vials of ambergris and ambrein tinctures, for your sniffing pleasure.
Still, ambergris is far from the only rare aroma in the Archive of Curious Scents, which is housed in a former artist’s studio adjacent to Aftel’s home, abutting the back of Chez Panisse. For the $20 price of admission, you can also inhale oud, a resin-soaked wood from the Southeast Asian agar tree that costs $44,000 a kilo. You can nose Boronia, a tiny Tasmanian flower whose odor is reminiscent of raspberries, a relative bargain at $14,000 a kilo. At the end of a visit, you take home letterpress tabs soaked in three fragrances of your choice, and two pieces of chocolate sprayed with Aftel’s culinary oils in flavors like pink peppercorn, saffron or magnolia.
The Archive of Curious Scents, which has hosted about 3,000 visitors since opening in July 2017, is a passion project for Aftel. Her main gig is as a perfumer, and she has carved out a successful niche for her Aftelier brand as a producer of handcrafted, entirely natural fragrances. Whereas most commercial perfumes are made from synthetic materials, Aftel — who has also written eight books about fragrance, including two co-authored with chef Daniel Patterson — has long been an advocate for natural perfumes. It’s a movement with a strong history in Northern California — East Bay fashion designer Erica Tanov is launching her first natural fragrance this month — that’s gaining steam nationwide as a new generation seeks out natural beauty products.
Aftel believes that naturals, whether derived from a flowering plant or from animal excrement, are not only more beautiful and more complex than synthetics, but also that experiencing natural fragrances can reveal a dimension of the world that we seldom access in this modern age.
She hopes the museum will spread that gospel. “All the perfume that people have a relationship to is synthetic,” Aftel says. “I want people to connect to these precious specimens, which are vanishing from life.”
Skeptical? Smell for yourself. In one corner of the museum, Aftel has set out synthetic versions of jasmine, rose and vanilla alongside their natural counterparts. To my nose, the synthetic scents all feel familiar — the vanilla recalls Bath & Body Works lotion, or a Yankee Candle, while the rose wafts a harsh, chemical-laced note that suggests a cleaning product. Smelling the natural versions is like the olfactory version of removing a cataract from your eyes and suddenly seeing the world in vivid color: The natural vanilla is herbal and spicy, nothing like the cloying, frosting-like odor I’m anticipating. The rose smells subtle and soft; the word that comes to mind when I sniff it is “nourishing.”
It’s not all roses, though. Beyond the whale vomit, the Archive of Curious Scents exhibits other “fecal florals”— that is, aromatic waste products from animals like beavers (whose castoreum smells leathery and spicy), civets (whose gland secretion smells a little like honey) and musk deer (you guessed it — musky).
Aftel warns me, before I open a vial of hyraceum tincture — made from the urine and feces of the hyrax, a small African mammal — that I may find it offensively putrid. But once I get over the mental barrier of smelling animal poop, I actually find the hyraceum very pleasant: earthy and fruity in a way that evokes chocolate. Aftel uses hyraceum in a perfume she calls “Fig,” where it provides a kind of funky yin to the floral and fruity yang of lavender and citrus.
“I’m a hunter,” Aftel says, referring to her search for rare botanicals. Half the fun for her is tracking down the precious ingredients that she uses in her perfumes, like, say, a specific type of gardenia from Tahiti, which she believes no other perfumer in the world possesses. Throughout the museum are her other rare finds, the loot of 30 years of collecting: turn-of-the-century books about fragrance; antique postcards depicting perfume production in Europe; vintage art, like Elijah H. Burritt’s fantastical “Maps of the Heavens” (1835). Many of the fragrances themselves are over a century old.
Perhaps the most impressive find is a signed drawing by Leonard Cohen, hanging above the “organ” — a wooden shelf that is the museum’s centerpiece, which holds hundreds of vials of essential oils. The musician was one of Aftel’s most loyal customers before he died. His scent, she reports, was the Aftelier Oud Luban, a smoky, resinous mélange of oud and frankincense.
If you go Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, 1518 ½ Walnut St., Berkeley. 510-841-2111. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. Reservations recommended. Admission: $20. www.aftelarchive.com
I consider myself a professional smeller: I’m a wine writer. But as I make my way through a few dozen of the tinctures on Aftel’s organ, lifting their tiny lids to my nose, notebook in hand, I find myself consistently stumped, unable to put into language what I’m sensing. I’m fluent in finding bing cherry or forest floor in a glass of Pinot Noir, but that exercise in imaginative metaphors seems futile here. How would you describe this vial of fresh ginger as anything other than, well, fresh ginger? How to distinguish, verbally, between cade and pine tar and Peru balsam, each a different, delicious register of smoky?
Then something happens that hits me with an emotional force equivalent to the weight of a sperm whale. I smell my grandmother. Afterward, I won’t be able to remember in which of Aftel’s tinctures I smelled her, or how I knew it was my grandmother, who died seven years ago. Was I recalling the scent of her old leather purse? Her breath mints? Her Crabtree & Evelyn soap?
Aftel, whose first career was as a psychotherapist, assures me this is common. She’s seen several visitors moved to tears by an aroma at the museum, sometimes unable to explain why.
“Our sense of smell comes from a deep, internal place, far from language,” she says. “It’s such an animal part of who we are.” Smell, she says, awakens us to memories we can sense but can’t quite articulate. There are no words, nor should there be.