Aftel Archive of Curious Scents offers intoxicating trip through history of fragrance

Olivia Staser/Staff

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There is something richly sensual about the olfactory sense. Perhaps it’s its interplay with almost every single one of our other senses, or its intimate ties to memories. The magic that’s in our sense of smell is often and easily overlooked, but local natural perfumer Mandy Aftel, founder of the famous Aftelier label, has made it her mission to share the beauty of natural essences.

The door to Aftel’s garage-turned-museum exhibit feels more like some mystical portal, as well it should. “I want people to understand that they’re in a different world here,” Aftel explained, sweeping past the lushly illustrated original 19th-century star maps lining the threshold to her space.

Aftel’s exhibit is not a conventional presentation of her extensive collection, but rather a trip through the time and space of natural scents; even its name — the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents — is an indication of Aftel’s aim to preserve respectfully, not to market. When she first set out to create the archive, Aftel was clear about what its purpose would be: “I wanted to take these things that I thought were very precious — that I’m not sure were so precious to anyone else — and set them like a jewel in here.”

That level of doting reverence is clear in every square foot of the shrine-like exhibit, which is warmly rendered in Douglas fir and flooded with natural light. Arranged around the perimeter of the space are small stations devoted to various aspects of the natural materials historically used in the creation of fragrances, from a drawer of dried deer tongue leaves that, when opened, releases notes of cinnamon and vanilla, to a small musk deer figurine standing aside the natural ingredients for the popular scent it is the source for, to what Aftel calls the ambergris cathedral, most spectacularly.

Long a popular scent that has made many fortunes, ambergris has less than glamorous origins, as Aftel explained: it is sourced from the stool of certain sperm whales, perhaps the result of indigestion after eating cuttlefish. Sitting beneath a sperm whale wall sculpture and adorned by historical artwork of the cetacean made famous by “Moby Dick,” Aftel’s ambergris cathedral contains a glass display case with fresh and aged samples of ambergris-rich whale stool as well as the beaks of the cuttlefish thought to prompt the sperm whales’ digestive systems to produce the scent.

Imad Pasha / Staff

” The Ambergris Cathedral.” Imad Pasha / Staff

Despite its scatological origins, ambergris has been a favorite of many historically and in the present day; Aftel is one of those fans. “It’s exalting of everything else, “ she enthused about the scent, comparing it to salt as a seasoning in cooking. “When you’re cooking and you add salt to something, if you do it right, you don’t taste the salt, but everything around it is enhanced. Ambergris is like that.” One whiff from the bottles of old and new ambergris atop the cathedral proves her right – the sweet, loamy fragrance, while intoxicating, is gentle and far from overpowering.

Aftel’s dedication to historical fragrances and essences goes far beyond ambergris; she has an extensive book collection that includes old Schimmel & Co. perfume records — the predecessor to the Avon catalog — and old apothecary books about natural remedies. The shelf in the archive — representing only a tenth of her collection — would probably take weeks to read, stationed at the plush window seat she has outfitted at the far end of the exhibit for this purpose.

At the center of the exhibit, angelically lit by the garage’s skylight, stands Aftel’s carefully crafted perfumer’s organ, upon which sit rows and rows of meticulously labeled essence jars. The organ, which actually took two tries to build to perfection, is without a doubt the centerpiece of the archive and organized with creation in mind. The organ invites interaction; visitors can lift any number of the glass-caps to sample the scents within.

Every fully fleshed out fragrance, Aftel clarifies, is composed of a bass, middle, and top chord — and thus, the organ is organized alphabetically into three sections, one for each. As in the musical, chordal constructions the organ draws its name from, the cooperation between the depth of the bass, the layered transitions of the middle, and the melodic frissons of the top is essential to the proper marriage of the notes.

She further brings up two important concepts in the relationships between aromas and flavors alike — locking, where two ingredients latch onto each other to create a fusion greater than the sum of its parts, and burying, where a strong note (for example, a smoky one) needs to be “buried” so that it doesn’t take over every other ingredient. Under Aftel’s tutelage, scents begin to come to life rather romantically; in her own words, fragrance is “a dynamic that’s in motion between ingredients. When you’re creating a flavor, things aren’t static. Things connect with one another in a kind of dance.”

Imad Pasha / Staff

 “The Perfumer’s Organ.” Imad Pasha / Staff

The musicality with which Aftel approaches fragrance is unsurprising, given that her lifelong artistic muse is Bob Dylan. Also Dylan-esque about her is her attitude toward independence. While her dedication to sourcing fresh ingredients for essential oils has earned her famous collaborators in the culinary world, from Salt & Straw to Atelier Crenn, Aftel admits to ending a few relationships with restaurateurs who decided to expand too much for her taste. Her closest collaborator is Daniel Patterson, founder of the socially conscious, award-winning eatery LocoL in Oakland and Los Angeles, with whom she has written two cookbooks. One of them, “The Art of Flavor,” comes out in two weeks.

After every tour, Aftel allows visitors to take home three scent strips saturated in the essences of their choice. While choosing from the hundreds-large collection on the organ presents a challenge, in the end, being able to keep close the scents of inexplicable importance to us really represents the gift Aftel gives in preserving this oft-overlooked art.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].

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