The Museum of Scent by Mandy Aftel

The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance photo collage by Michelyn all photos courtesy of the Author

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. ~ G.K.Chesterton, English author, philosopher, and literary/art critic

Aftel Archive with Mandy Aftel

Mandy Aftel standing outside the Aftel Archive

It has been a very long while since any volume revolving around olfaction has moved me in the way that artisanal natural perfumer Mandy Aftel’s latest work, The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance has. No disrespect is intended with regard to the scholarly expositions of other experts in this particular field; we do not lack for a bevy of excellent books on the history and artistry of aroma, the science surrounding it – nor the passion which scent triggers. One of the pivotal elements which distinguishes Ms. Aftel’s latest book is the lyricism with which all aspects of fragrance are imbued. Mandy Aftel is a natural-born writer at baseline – a storyteller-cum-pedagogue supreme – and her prose, like her aquarelles – flows effortlessly into our consciousness without any murmur of pretension. Writing, painting, educating, mentoring, composing – each seems to emanate from her being like breath. We are seduced by knowledge accrued over her lifetime of exploration and her insatiable curiosity. One of the dividends of The Museum of Scent is that we become ensnared in the process and eager to read further. How many other academic works can you last recall had this effect? Precious few, I’d wager.

By way of introduction: the foreword penned by renowned author and Jungian psychoanalyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés Reyés (author of Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype) is a glowing testament to Ms. Aftel’s talents, attributes, and their long association. What might interest our readers is that Mandy was a psychotherapist at the beginning of her professional career: she co-authored a book in 1985, entitled When Talk Is Not Cheap, which centered around how to find a therapist who would be a good fit. In 1997, she wrote The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience. It wasn’t until 2000 when Ms. Aftel launched a line of natural fragrances that was hers alone – that which we know as Aftelier Perfumes; prior to that year she had collaborated with a partner. I mention this because these facts add supplemental dimensionality to an already complex and fascinating individual.


Museum of Scent illustration

watercolor of flowers by Mandy Aftel

Ms. Aftel then proceeds to reveal her journey to present day, which is strewn with her passion for time-honored texts, herbals and other illustrated tomes dating back to 1590-1604 (Symbolorum et Emblematum, written by Joachim Camerarius the Younger, currently part of the Cornell University Library archives), and John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum of 1640 (now housed in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library). The engraved emblem plates and woodcuts she unearthed were revelations in themselves; Mandy assumed the task of bringing them to life via her artful employment of a fitting watercolor palette. Her book is filled with an accumulation of many such texts, illustrations, rare photographs, and even vintage postcards; all are on display in her book, and all of her coveted archival volumes reside in her museum. As a frustrated academic, I only lament that they are not mine, and that I live far away, in South Boston – not anywhere near Berkeley, California.


hand painted resins by Mandy Aftel detail from Chapter 13

The heart of The Museum of Scent explores specific absolutes, essential oils, CO2 extracts, resins, animalics, and natural isolates – all accompanied by colorful visuals hand-painted by the author herself.  Mandy familiarizes her readers with these materials while regaling them with tantalizing descriptions so vivid that they are not only envisioned, but also smelt. In this manner we find ourselves enlightened – not cudgeled by information. There are vintage photographic images of priceless antique materials, as well as the exceptional images taken by her husband, Foster Curry.

museum of scent cabinet of curiosities

Museum of Scent Cabinet of Curiosities Chapter 17

We are treated to intimate views of her olfactory museum, the sanctum sanctorum – and many arresting related objects: the cabinet of curiosities, laden with precious teacups depicting musk deer; antique pomanders, ornate silver boxes; a venerable hyrax (thanks to the art of taxidermy!) and its secretions, contemporary sculptures of the beaver and musk deer.


The Scent Organ in the Museum the artwork inscribed by Leonard Cohen

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Mandy has, in addition to her customary perfume organ (which is immense) – amassed historical collector-coveted absolutes and oils, flacons of every kind, and texts concerning alchemy. For such a compact space, the museum possesses and exhibits an embarrassment of riches. Mandy includes charming (and often humorous) tidbits for our delectation: recipes from times gone by and more modern ones, which open a window onto the many uses of natural materials (both the somewhat scurrilous and the proven!) as described by pharmacists, apothecaries, alchemists, sorcerers and physicians. One shining example comes from Alexis of Piedmont (the museum’s copy was printed in 1595):

The Museum of Scent in Berkeley

From The Museum Archive

“To make one have a good memorie.

Take a tooth or the left leg of a Badger and bind it about your right arm next to the flesh, take also the gall of a Partridge, and rub your temples with it, that it may soak into the skin and flesh once a month, and it will make you have a good memorie.”

If you, like myself – find such morsels as irresistible as catnip – you will find yourself revisiting The Museum of Scent over and over again. Mandy’s colored plates are even more relevant when you consider that each absolute and essential oil displays the precise hue of the material itself as it appears in its own flacon. In recent conversation, Ms. Aftel emphasized her desire that this book offer a different perspective from the museum – and her other published works. It took the best part of three years to come to fruition, and many years collecting the rare written and aromatic sources which had become her ongoing passion. Mandy’s hope was that those who might not be able to visit her in Berkeley would be able to share in the experience remotely, and those who had visited would find themselves spurred to return and seek out some of the myriad curiosities that they might have missed during their visit.


The Museum of Scent Treasure Box

detail of the Museum of Scent Treasure box

To summarize this intricate compendium and Meisterwerk is challenging, as I don’t wish to leave anything out. Ms. Aftel’s The Museum of Scent is a riveting read, a visual feast which is accessible to all, regardless of the reader’s level of scholarship. It contains all the kernels of fascination: maps and facts for the historian; lush images for the hedonist; and insights for the mystics amongst us. It is her desire (and mine) that this volume will inspire the reader to explore the enticing universe of scent.

My book and Michelyn’s book were gifts from Mandy Aftel – hearty thanks! We are truly grateful to her for her generosity and kindness over the years. The review is solely by Ida. Art direction by Micheyn

~ Ida Meister, Deputy and Natural Perfumery Editor


The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance

The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance photo courtesy of Mandy Aftel

We at ÇaFleureBon feel privileged to be able to offer, courtesy of her unfailing largesse – one autographed copy of The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance by Mandy Aftel for one registered reader worldwide. The giveaway is for registered readers only, so be sure to register if you have not done so. To be eligible please let us know what sparked your interest in Ida’s review, and why you would like to own The Museum of Scent. Do you own any of Mandy Aftel’s perfumes or books? Draw closes 11/11/23

Mandy Aftel received a ÇaFleureBon Best of Scent in the Hall of Fame category 2021

Ida awarded Aftelier Perfumes Joie de Vert a ÇaFleureBon Top 10 perfume of 2021

Cepes and Tuberose was inducted into our ÇaFleureBon Hall of Fame by Ermano

Einsof’s review of Fragrant: The Secret Life Of Scent by Mandy Aftel

Please read Michelyn’s Interview with Mandy Aftel here

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