Choosing which chapter of Mandy Aftel’s gorgeous The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance to publish here was both pleasurable and painful. The pleasure was in lingering on passages and pictures that I loved, painful because we couldn’t excerpt the whole book! I highly recommend this generously illustrated book to the aromatically wise and naïve alike. The Museum of Scent was published last October and is a natural and cultural history of scent that was inspired by the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley—the first museum of fragrance in the US.
Aftel’s extraordinary knowledge illuminates fragrance materials as full of variety as the whole natural world. There are chapters dedicated to flowers, grasses, resins, the nether regions of mammals, shells, mushrooms, herbs—including clary sage, which scents my enclosed bookmark!—spices, and so much more. I was helpless to choose between these aromatic darlings, and decided to go with the following deep dive into the Museum’s Cabinet of Curiosities, which ends with a poem. It is, from beginning to end, enchanting, and also revealing, showing us a world where people indulged in the beauty and wonders of scent.
Chapter 17. Cabinet of Curiosities
Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life.
The cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammer (literally “chamber of wonders”) was the forerunner of our natural history museum, and the first cabinets of curiosities were in fact whole rooms where people displayed extraordinary and bizarre objects they collected from all over the world. Later “cabinet of curiosities” came to mean a piece of furniture in which such a collection was displayed. It was a miniature museum whose many drawers, compartments, and shelves brimmed with natural wonders: bezoar stones, shells, skeletons of strange animals, miniature laboratory glassware, bottles of unguents, hunks of ambergris, taxidermied specimens, musk pods.
The Aftel Archive’s cabinet of curiosities contains the strange, the rare, the botanical, the imaginative, the bizarre, and the handcrafted. Like earlier cabinets, it is designed to fill you with wonder and surprise, stop your forward motion, and drop you into a contemplative state of wonder at our curious aromatic world. Our tiger oak cabinet from the 1850s has curved glass doors and glass sides so you can see the curiosities in the round when you’re standing in front of it.
Rare Museum-Quality French Pomander, circa 1790
Pomanders (from the French pomme d’ambre, “apple of amber”) were open metalwork balls made to hold aromatic spices, herbs, and even ambergris (hence the name)—to ward off every kind of plague, pestilence, and bad smell of the day The crown jewel in our cabinet of curiosities—quite literally—is our rare and unique artisan-made pomander from the late 1700s. Worn around a French aristocrat’s wrist or neck, this superb pomander would have brought relief to the senses when lifted to the nose. Its pierced dome of sterling silver in the shape of an egg would have held a piece of fabric wadding doused with scent. In the lower section, the arched necks of a pair of serpents are twined around a gold stem. The sides are adorned with a solid gold poppy head, a cut ruby, and a turquoise cabochon. The perfume reservoir is capped with an extraordinary stopper in the form of a monkey playing the violin. The French inscription translates as “Live, little fish [as well- wrought art], that you might live on after me [the engraver]!”
Patches and Patch Boxes
Patch boxes came into use during the eighteenth century at the court of Louis XV, where the use of beauty patches was popular. A beauty patch was made of gummed silk and pasted on the face as a beauty mark to emphasize some facial feature, usually the cheek. The patches were made in a variety of shapes: circles, stars, crescents, diamonds, etc. Patches were carried by ladies in beautifully decorated small boxes designed for the purpose, sometimes bearing a small mirror in the lid.
The display includes, at bottom, original silk taffeta patches from the 1800s in various shapes. At top is an illustration from Eugene Rim- mel’s Book of Perfumes (1868) showing how they would have been worn.
The Aftel Archive’s patch boxes include this superb handmade Art Nouveau sterling silver niello example, marked by the French goldsmith Murat between 1897 and 1910. The regal gargoyle on the front is finely articulated, with shading on his wings, body, and claws as he blends in with the fanciful leaf motif framing his body. Sprigs of roses encircle the edges of the front and the back of the box; on the reverse is a beautiful portrait of the gargoyle’s impressive head with his tongue extended and flowers and decorations encircling him.
Green Man Tray
The repousse decoration of this Art Nouveau calling-card tray features flowers, birds, and five Green Man faces! In many cultures around the world, the Green Man is a legendary being who symbolizes rebirth and the cycle of new growth in spring.
A Valentine for the Lovelorn, 1884
This love token is made from an 1884 Queen Bess perfume card. The giver cut his head out of a tintype photograph and then painstakingly embedded it in a corresponding cutout from the flower. An early instance of Photoshopping a selfie!
Lalique Bronze Plaque for Parfums Fontanis, Paris, 1925
The three panels depict two women dressed in robes going through the stages of perfume production: gathering flowers, pressing and extracting the fragrance, and storing the essences. The plaque was made by the famous House of Lalique, with gold finish and a hinged easel stand.
Victorian Perfume Buttons
These special buttons have an internal cavity with a piece of cloth that could be doused with fragrance. The Victorians loved fragrance, both for its help in distancing them from the miasma of the cities and for the way that it uplifted their common surroundings. They put perfume buttons like these on their clothes, and also wore pomanders or mounted them atop walking sticks.
S. Clifford, Romance of Perfume Lands, 1881
This book was meant to be treasured, as you can tell from the metallic stamping on the cover, recalling a gold-tooled flying carpet. Published by a Boston drugstore, Clifford Pharmacy, it is an adventure story of travel to faraway places. The protagonists encounter perfume materials along the way—and quite fanciful stories about them, complete with woodcuts. One of the most imaginative is a poem about the tonka bean, the tale of a haughty and cruel princess who sends hundreds of men to their death in shark-infested waters as they compete for her hand in a swimming competition. Repentant, she drowns herself, and a tonka bean tree springs up in her place. Here are the final four stanzas of the dramatic seventeen-stanza poem.
From “The Legend of Beautiful Tonka”
Years having passed, the rolling tide
From off that dreadful spot had dried;
When from the soil a shoot sprang forth, and grew
Into a beauteous tree and bloomed,
Its fruit full richly was perfumed;
Tree, bloom and fruit were very fair to view.
And children played within its shade:
One day a tiny little maid,
In joyous sport broke ope the nut-brown shell;
When lo! before her enraptured eyes,
To her great wonder and surprise,
Into her hand a tinier hand there fell.
Go now, behold! this wondrous tree!
And pluck its perfumed fruit, and see
That in each seed a maiden’s hand there lies.
’Tis for the swimmer bold, who died,
And perished in that bloody tide,
A maiden’s hand to gain; that tempting prize.
’Tis thus we find the Tonka tree,
Sprang from a maid beneath the sea;
Tonka, her name, means “fairest in the land.”
Redeemed, the maiden’s pledge she gave,
The while she sank beneath the wave,—
“I go to give my lovers, each, my hand.”
—More About the Book and the Author—
Inviting readers on a sensuous, imaginative journey, The Museum of Scent: Exploring the Curious and Wondrous World of Fragrance (Abbeville Press, 2023, $40) is packed with evocative artifacts and ephemera from Mandy’s remarkable collection, accompanied by fascinating facts and lore. In exploring the origins of the ingredients in natural perfume, the book delves into the different families of botanical fragrances—flowers, herbs, leaves and grasses, woods, resins, etc.—depicting each plant with an exquisite hand-colored antique woodcut accompanied by historical and cultural facts. Other chapters in the book are devoted to the rarest and most precious fragrances and to antique essential oil bottles, handwritten fragrance recipe books, and other treasures from the Aftel Archive.
As one of the preeminent bespoke perfumers in the world with a clientele ranging from singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen to Ivy Ross, head of hardware design at Google, Mandy’s passion for her subject and her in-depth knowledge shine through on every page.
*Read our interview with Mandy Aftel HERE!