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Scents and Sensibility

The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley is a cornucopia of aromatics and their history.


Aftel’s collection includes more than 300 bottled essences.

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Fragrance lovers find inspiration in some of the most unlikely places. Take Mandy Aftel—a perfumer, author, and collector of scents who sings the praises of something few people might think to sniff. “Whale poop is magical,” she says. “It’s shimmery, luminous, and has an indescribably beautiful scent.”

It’s an unusual obsession, to be sure, but Aftel offers a scientific explanation: “After sperm whales swallow indigestible things like squids’ beaks, they excrete a rare substance called ambergris, which is probably the most wonderful thing I’ve ever smelled in my life.”

Aftel’s passion for rare odors—whale poop being one of many—inspired her to create the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, which she opened last year in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. A mini--museum devoted to all-​natural ​aromatics, the archive features more than 300 essences that visitors can smell, touch, and study. The collection also includes apothecary-​style drawers full of botanicals; antiquarian books and ephemera about perfume’s history; and replicas of animals like musk deer, hyrax, and civets, which produce ingredients coveted by perfumers.

Museum guests will discover the history and provenance of rare and prized fragrances. Photo by Joel Bernstein.

The archive’s offerings run from the familiar (jasmine, gardenia, tuberose) to the outright funky (onycha, which comes from a snail-like mollusk found in the Red Sea). Aftel has also created a special display in honor of her beloved sperm whale, which includes a fragrant specimen of 100-year-old ambergris.

The author of numerous books about the alchemy of scents and flavors, Aftel is also a custom perfumer whose client list has included Kate Hudson, Madonna, and the late Leonard Cohen. Addition-ally, she collaborates with leading chefs on the use of essential oils in foods and drinks; her latest book, The Art of Flavor (co-written with chef Daniel Patterson), takes a deep dive into what makes food delicious. But of all her activities, the archive holds a special place in her heart. “I love what happens when people dis-cover this world that I love because scents can reflect a person’s mood and feelings,” says Aftel. “I’ve seen visitors become totally transformed by the experience they have here.”

The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to ​6 p.m. Tickets cost $20. .


More Quirky Collections

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia
Every Pez candy dispenser ever sold can be found here, making the collection more than 1,000 pieces strong. .

Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles
This Berkeley museum and shop includes thousands of specimens of vintage and contemporary lace, as well as related tools. .

Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE)
The Oakland-based MADE is a gamer’s delight, with more than 5,300 playable video games and related paraphernalia. .

Rancho Obi-Wan
The world’s largest privately owned collection of Star Wars memorabilia can be found at this museum on the outskirts of Petaluma. .

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