“Scents are one of the most subtle and delicate charms of life,” writes American perfumer Mandy Aftel in her new book, The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance. “They awaken sensibility, stir the mind, stimulate the imagination and revive memory.”
It’s true: The smell of gingerbread can take you right back to wandering that holiday market outside of London years earlier, and lavender can conjure up thoughts of a once-lingering summer day in France. In fact, just leafing through Aftel’s stunning compilation of olfactory magic is like being gifted a book of secrets, with chapters like “Botanical Treasure Boxes,” devoted to ways of displaying botanical raw materials such as the vanilla-smelling benzoin sap and calamus root, and “Ambergris,” all about the rich, musky marine scent that Aftel describes as “almost unearthly.” It’s filled with a bevy of perfume knowledge that’s been meticulously collected over time. But Aftel’s world isn’t limited to the pages. The author has a standalone cabinet of curiosities that you can actually visit in her own Berkeley, California, backyard.
Tucked away on a residential street within Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood (the home of Alice Waters’ famed restaurant Chez Panisse), a true room of wonder awaits. The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents opened in 2017 and has been drawing crowds since, from commercial perfumers with a nose for aromas to gardeners, cooks and others who’ve never even heard of styrax (a sweet floral scent that oozes out of tree trunks) or boronia (a delicate and expensive floral), but who almost always leave intrigued. Some come from as far away as Europe and Asia; others are inquisitive neighbors from just up the street.
Splitting exhibitions between the…