Stoppered in Glass

Berkeley Museum Exhibits the Allure of Aroma

By Alexander Coates

“I want to share this other world I’ve found, of magic, history, scent and sexuality,” says perfumer Mandy Aftel. Bottled-up in her backyard, her other world beckons — The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents.

Open since July 2017, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is located behind Chez Panisse, in the cottage beyond the brick path at 1518-1/2 Walnut St, Berkeley, Calif. and admits the public Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.; admission is $20.

Curiously, the Aftel Archive doesn’t smell. The door to the cottaged museum swings inward onto olfactory silence.

“I don’t want this to be like the beauty counter at Macy’s,” explains Aftel, “with overeager salesgirls spritzing you as you walk in.” Instead, Aftel and her husband, Foster Curry, conjure the pregnant calm of an empty music hall, with whiffs and wafts of strange, alluring scents stoppered in glass — caught and placed on display.

But the spell of olfactory silence is soon broken. Curry, taking hats and coats at the door on the day of The BCC Voice’s visit, hands each visitor a small welcome-package and invites guests not only to peruse, but to partake.

Visitors are encouraged to use their eyes, hands, noses and even mouths as they open the apothecary chest drawers and handle the fragrant raw materials, unstopper bottles and inhale the distilled and extracted essences, and page through the antique perfumery manuals on display.


Papier-Mâché Musk Deer on display. Photo Credit: Alexander Coates

The archive juxtaposes modern and antique ingredients while deconstructing the perfumer’s process. Century-old distillates and essential oils sit side-by-side with their modern and synthetic counterparts, loomed over in a few instances by the stuffed skins of the animals from which they are sourced. One of Aftel’s own signature scent creations, the Aftelier-branded “Curious,” is dissected for display, appearing first whole-cloth as a finished perfume, then as a trinity of three-note “scent chords,” and finally as nine separately-bottled ingredients.

The archive itself is a similarly teased-apart component of the lauded Aftel brand — providing the top-notes of passion and genuine interest and an overwhelming desire to share. “I taught myself,” Aftel says, motioning toward a small collection of antique books atop the table beside her, “from books just like these.”

The books, and all of the archive’s contents, began as part of Aftel’s personal collection over twenty years ago. For many years, the collection was indistinguishable from the perfumery business that Aftel still runs from her home.

“I don’t want to be big,” claims Aftel, “I’ve never wanted to be big.” And true to desire, the Aftel brand remains an intimate undertaking. Aftel composes scents in a bright room on the ground floor of her home, plying her craft at the helm of a large perfumer’s organ which climbs from her desk toward the top of the bay windows behind it. “I don’t consider myself a businesswoman,” chimes Aftel, “I create new things as they strike me.”

The entirety of Aftel’s operation lies beneath her roof. “Mandy says this is the best gift I’ve ever gotten her,” confides Curry, his eyes and a hand pressing upon a dark wooden chest in the couple’s upstairs study, “It’s an old letterpress cabinet. And here,” Curry slides open one of the many wide, shallow drawers littered with precious glass vessels like so many rainbow river stones, “are all the different perfumes. We fill each order right here.”

The stationary, inserts and packaging materials that accompany each order rework and incorporate images and designs from the antique books and bottles on display within the archive. Aftel’s inspiration is the archive’s true exhibit. “This is the best thing I’ve done,” promises Aftel, the archive “has been this wonderful word-of-mouth thing.”

Aftel’s enthusiasm is plain. Greeting each visitor personally and making herself available to answer questions about the exhibits, she seems enamored of the responses her archive elicits — a wrinkled nose, a sigh of pleasure, or an eager “Oh! Smell this.”


Antique distillates and a copper still. Photo Credit: Alexander Coates

Even the artifacts that cannot be handled or inhaled swell with breath. Aftel’s collection of postcards from Grasse, France and the Cote D’Azur at the turn of the 20th century pictorialize a forgotten industry built on the sweat of labor in a field of flowers, that drew delicate, elegant designs from the hard harvest of agricultural workers to perfume the gloves of an aristocratic upper-class.

The postcards’ tinge of exploitation, like the musks and glandular secretions on hand, provide a depth and complexity to the curiosity the archive seeks to stimulate and satisfy within its patrons. While scent is often branded the evocateur of memory, Aftel’s archive reminds us that the scents harnessed by human hands carry a history and memory of their own, a legacy that lingers in the modern smells of laundry soaps and dish detergents, of toiletries, air-fresheners and even the finest of perfumes.

At the top: The Aftel Archive’s scent organ holds over 200 essences, extracts, distillates and absolutes, all available for perusal. Photo Credit: Alexander Coates

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