The Aftel Archive: A new museum devoted to the history of scent

Old perfume bottles (left) and a modern still for making cassia essential oil (right). Photo: Melati Citrawireja

The first words you’ll read on entering the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, Berkeley’s newest museum, are ‘Welcome to another universe’. It’s perfectly à propos for what lies ahead.

The Aftel Archive is the most recent endeavor of esteemed natural perfumer, author, and long-time Berkeley resident Mandy Aftel, and is the only perfume museum in the U.S.

Located in a converted studio in the backyard of her North Berkeley home, surrounded by her garden of unusual roses, the unassuming building is filled with rare treasures that span several centuries, many of which you can touch and smell yourself.

For more than two decades Aftel has been collecting natural essences, absolutes, resins, and peculiar artifacts that are all, in some way, related to our fascination with smells. Until now, her collection has primarily been an intimate pleasure shared with friends, but now she cordially invites both the distinguished nose and the curious novice to engage the most powerful of our five senses. This could be by say, uncorking a bottle of ambergris or taking a close look at a ‘book of secrets’ from the 16th century. Touching and smelling (most) ingredients in the museum is encouraged.


“I wanted to place this across time, across countries. For me it’s really in danger of disappearing,” says Aftel.

Scent strips dipped in essences from the perfume organ. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Sperm whale carved by a descended of someone who sailed over on the Mayflower, and a collection of ambergris bottles. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

The museum is open on Saturdays for one-hour appointments. For the $20 admission fee, one may find oneself flipping through yellowed formula manuals scribbled on by their former owners, inhaling the many floral, or leathery, or slightly ‘indolic’ essences on Aftel’s ‘perfume organ,’ staggered shelves of scents, or dabbing a bit of the olive-colored ‘Curious’ perfume on the wrist (Aftel’s newest scent made in honor of the museum itself – loamy, woody, and good on every skin.)

Aftel says this museum is an education in natural perfume and the many ways humans have interacted with scents over the centuries. Here we get a glimpse into the many meanings of scent – religious, medicinal, sensual, purely for delight. It’s a whole new lesson in the history book, reflecting a place and time in a manner words and imagery just can’t quite capture.

It’s also intended to be “a contribution to people understanding gardening and eating. I’d like that pleasure to go into their lives,” she says. The hope is that each visitor leaves invigorated and ready to re-engage the senses in their everyday life.

Coinciding with the opening of the museum, Aftel and well-known Bay Area restaurateur Daniel Patterson (Coi, Alta, Loco’l), have a new book, published in August, titled The Art of Flavor. It’s both an engaging exposé into how flavor is scientifically constructed, and a practical guide to pairing flavors, so that even the week-old vegetables in the back of your fridge can be made into a delicious meal.


For more information about the Aftel Museum, and to book an appointment to visit, visit Aftelier Perfumes.

Aftel sitting with her collection of rare books. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Collection of old ambergris bottles. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Old perfume manual. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja