Did You Know California Has a Museum of Scent?

The perfume organ at the Museum of Scent. The artwork hanging above it is inscribed to Mandy Aftel, “the muse of the laboratory,” by Leonard Cohen. (all images courtesy Mandy Aftel/Abbeville Press)

The word “inspire” comes from Latin roots that mean “to breathe [in],” suggesting that smell might contribute in no small part to inspiration. This is old news to Mandy Aftel, a collector of natural essences, perfumier with three decades of experience, and author of several books about scent-making and related topics, including cooking. Her newest publication, The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious & Wonderous World of Fragrance (Abbeville Press, 2023) is not only a detailed compendium of her decades of research and experience with pure scents and their infinite combinations, but a counterpart to her most recent — and ambitious — undertaking: an interactive archive of scent based in Berkeley, California.

Aftel had the idea for the museum nine years ago. In 2017 she opened the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, following years of feverish work with the help of her family. Museum operations were halted and reimagined during the peak of the pandemic. Reopening in late 2021 with COVID-19 safety procedures in place, the archive has found poignant purpose in the wake of a disease that notoriously affects some people’s ability to smell.

“The topic of sense of smell became very active during COVID — in a negative way,” Aftel noted. “People would buy oils from me to retrain their sense of smell. From my point of view, I really believe that anyone can become very good at being able to smell, if they pay attention to it.”

museumofscent whale
Whale bile, or ambergris, was used through the ages as a base for perfume-making, one of many factors driving whalers to hunt the creatures to near extinction.

Aftel’s archive certainly offers ample opportunity to practice. The museum’s “perfume organ” — stacked shelves with an array of bottles containing pure scents, each of which represents a “note,” like the pipe organ for which is it named — has 230 different essences, sourced from natural ingredients spanning the globe, 50 of which can be directly sampled by museum visitors. The Museum of Scent book catalogues each of these essences, grouped by family and described in text accompanied by a visual of their source element (often flowers, but sometimes ancient wood, spices, or other materials) and a watercolor representation of their bottled form, color-matched by Aftel.

“I sat there with my watercolors and painted the colors of the oil so people get just a sense of how beautiful those oils are,” she explained. “There’s an old book in the museum called the Symbolorum et Emblematum, which is just to die for, and at the beginning of every chapter I watercolor an image from there that relates to the chapter, but it’s kind of mystical.”  

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Much like color theory, scents can be grouped by family and calibrated as top, middle, and base notes.

An entire chapter of Aftel’s book is dedicated to the Symbolorum. It is also a cornerstone of the archive’s manuscript collection. Visitors receive a welcome kit that includes a white cotton glove for handling archival tomes, a personal “AromaCone” (picture an ear trumpet for the nose) that helps them focus on one scent at time, and a square of wool that serves as a palette cleanser between scents.

“Coffee beans don’t work,” Aftel said, referencing the practice of smelling the beans in between scents to reset one’s olfactory sense. “If you inhale three times in a piece of wool, your sense of smell comes back.”

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The museum also displays many of the source materials from which pure scents are derived.

Looking over Aftel’s life work, one is inclined to believe anything she has to say about smells. The book is a codex in the truest sense, but it is also a kind of cabinet of curiosities that encompasses elements of Aftel’s research, related ephemera, the history of natural botanicals, animal-based musks, artisanal production, scent combinations, and much more. Connected to culture, nature, food, history, trade, and the simple fact of breathing, it seems like scent might be among the most shared of human experiences.

“The book really gives me an opportunity to share the beauty and the weirdness and the curiousness of this world I found 30 years ago,” Aftel related. “But also the universality of these materials in our lives as humans across the globe and across time, all the way back into every culture that ever existed. It’s not about the commerce piece of it. It’s about this thing we all share.”

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Resins encompass some of human society’s oldest scents.
p.213 Onycha Exhibit DSC00301
The book and archive also feature collected materials related to the production of scents, like this exhibit on onycha, used in incense in Ancient Egypt.
museumofscent essence ylang
Aftel’s book serves as a functional codex of known essential scents from around the world.
3 Musk deer without engravings
Musk deer, musk ox, civets, and hyrax are all animals whose glands have been used in the production of perfumes.

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