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close-up of bottles at the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley California
Christine Sarkis

The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents: This Tiny Museum Is a Sensory Wonderland

The first thing you notice upon entering the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is, curiously, the absence of scent. There’s no perfume counter one-two punch as you open the wooden arts-and-crafts-style front door of the tiny museum in Berkeley, California. Instead, a visual feast awaits: gently lit manuscripts, ancient maps, and the sparkle of tiny glass bottles—capped and waiting for you to come discover them—arranged throughout the single room.

Mandy Aftel—a renowned boutique perfumer who created the space and runs it with her family—says that, as she was designing the museum and exhibits, the thing she kept coming back to was the urge to create a dreamy space where the rest of the senses could take a break. “I wanted to let the nose lead the way,” she explains. Based on the collection she had built over many years, the resulting Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is a jewel box of a museum that feels like a carefully curated cabinet of curiosities, each beckoning to be discovered, to tell its story.

“It’s not a museum about perfume,” Aftel says. “It’s about scent, and about going back and teaching people to smell again.”

The education starts simply. Whether you’ve made a reservation for the one-hour experience in advance or simply stopped in on a Saturday (the one day of the week the Archive is open), you’ll be welcomed with a quick introduction: “We want to give people just enough information to get oriented, but not so much that they get too into their heads about it,” says Aftel. You’re then handed your tools of exploration, which include a small piece of felt (a neutral scent to help your nose reset in between inhales) and three delicate paper sticks for dipping into your favorite oils to take home.

“Everything in here has magic,” notes Aftel. The trick is to get your brain out of the way and let your sense of smell lead the way. Open drawers to smell and touch your way through dozens of the ingredients—barks, roots, resins, and leaves among them—from which essential oils are derived. Compare 100-year-old and newer scents for a lesson in the ways age can deepen and change a smell like vanilla or jasmine.

It’s a place that unpacks the complexity of scent into its components, an experience not unlike hearing the individual notes and instruments of a symphony for the first time. Natural rose has more than 200 molecules that combine to create the scent we think of as, simply, rose. Individual exhibits delve into the interplay of top note, middle note, and base note scents that go into single scents such as rose. And the room’s crowning glory unites scent in the massive scent organ. Build to resemble the organ Aftel uses in her own custom perfume lab, it’s a veritable amphitheater of smells, divided into these top, middle, and base notes. It’s here that you can uncap tiny bottles individually—almond, cedarwood, butter, bergamot, and dozens more—and discover the scents that transport you, shake loose memory, and inspire joy.

Woven in with these sensory experiences are more intellectual pursuits. Mounted on the walls, original maps trace the history of scent around the world. And next to a welcoming window seat is a small bookcase packed with 150 antique texts—some with notes and personal recipes jotted in the margins—detailing the medicinal, ornamental, and traditional uses of aromatics.

To visit for an hour is to emerge changed, more attuned to scent and the way it wraps itself around everything else—travel, food, even the change in the air when day turns to dusk. It’s an entire world that’s never more than a deep inhale away, whether you’re close to home or thousands of miles away.

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Christine Sarkis loves Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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