At the Museum of Scent
A visit with Mandy Aftel and her new book
I’ve known Mandy Aftel for a long time. We met in 1997 at a fragrance industry function in Manhattan. A couple of years later I was commuting from the East Coast to Oakland, California to work for Digiscents. While there I tossed her a bit of business—a custom perfume brief. It was to be a signature scent for the Lara Croft character of the Tomb Raider video game. (Digiscents was looking to bring scent to gaming). Mandy came up with a couple of beautiful mods that expressed Croft’s mix of fearlessness and femininity. Digiscents paid her for the work, but never took advantage of it—one more brainstorm by the company’s co-founders that they never followed through on.
In any event, I got to visit her beautiful house in Berkeley and we struck up a friendship that continues to this day.
This May I was in the Bay Area and dropped by for a visit. The house—a classic shingled exterior with beautiful wood trim on the inside—is where Mandy lives and has her studio. Along with her husband Foster, we sat in the backyard garden among the usual phantasmagoria of blossoming plants and caught up on her latest projects, the biggest of which is her upcoming book.
Mandy’s garden seen from the Archive of Curious Scents
Called The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of fragrance, it is set for release on October 31st. The museum of the title is, in fact, a structure in Mandy’s backyard. Renovated and enlarged by Foster, it houses the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, a collection of rare books, antique objects, and fragrance raw materials. After it was completed in 2017, Mandy regularly opened it to the public on Saturdays. Always vivacious and eager to teach, she enjoyed introducing visitors to the wonderful and esoteric items on display. The covid pandemic forced her to pause the open house days, as well as her popular in-person perfumery courses. Comparing students’ fragrance trials around the table was an integral part of her training sessions. Having been forced to a live-online format, Mandy figured out how to distribute each session’s trials back to everyone, so the sense of community and cooperative learning could continue.
After we caught up in the backyard garden, Mandy and Foster left me to my own devices in the archive building. Her collection of objects—antique perfumer bottles, pomanders, prints, and vials of scent for the sampling—is mesmerizing. I could have spent hours just leafing through historical fragrance catalogues, chemical monographs, and books. Any one shelf holds the materials for new historical essays and fragrance projects.
The Museum of Scent gives you a sense of this richness and depth of Mandy’s knowledge of natural perfumery. It is a beautiful, copiously illustrated, volume that tells the history of fragrance materials based on the extensive collection in her archive. Mandy’s text is accompanied by photos and antique prints that she hand-colored herself. I own all of her previous books and I’ve already ordered this one.