Can a perfume roar? Can it purr? Can it be ‘sex-in-a-bottle’…? If any single ingredient can create those effects, it’s musk. As the excellent fragrance blog Perfume Posse puts it, ‘Musk speaks carnally in whispers or shouts…’ And it’s in almost every scent we dab, spritz and splash onto our skins – because at the end of the day, most of us wear perfumes to feel more alluring…
But musk does more than this. It’s incredibly versatile, in a perfumer’s hands: it softens, balances, ‘fixes’ (adds staying power and keeps a fragrance on the skin, while stopping other short-lived ingredients from disappearing too fast). It smells like skin itself. It almost hypnotises…
And it’s controversial: the original musk came from a sex gland secretion from a specific a species of deer, the Tibetan musk deer, which became endangered – though since 1979 this creature has happily now protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Numbers of musk deer dwindled, unsurprisingly, because it took 140 musk deer to produce a kilo of perfume ingredient. But its use goes way back: musk makes its first appearance in the 6th Century, brought from India by Greek explorers. Later, the Arabic and Byzantine perfumers (including the famous Al-Kindi) perfected the art of capturing its aphrodisiac powers, and musk’s popularity spread along the silk and spice routes.
Of course we’ll never know someone, somewhere along the way, got the idea that it would be a good idea to try this potent ingredient out in a perfume: in its raw state, musk oil smells – well, a bit like poo… And yet, and yet – at the same time, strangely intriguing… A well-known German fragrance chemist, Phliip Kraft, brilliantly captures musk’s love-it-hate-it complexity. ‘The more one studies its character that of natural musk tincture, the more contrasting, vibrant and oscillating it becomes: repulsive-attractive, chemical-warm, sweaty-balmy, acrid-waxy, earthy-powdery, fatty-chocolate-like, pungent-leathery, fig-like, dry, nutty and woody, to give just some impressions’.
It’s said that if you added drops of natural musk oil to a handkerchief, you’d still be able to smell it 40 years later. Today, of course, it’s not the natural stuff that perfumers use, but a huge array of synthetic musks, ranging from sweet, powdery musks to almost metallic versions. Vast amounts of perfume industry research dollars have gone into creating alternatives to this cornerstone ingredient: patented notes like Galaxolide, Andoxal, Nirvanolide, Celestolide, Velvione, Helvetolide, among other inventively-named creations. (We secretly long for a job naming compounds like this…!)
Other ingredients, too – like extracts of ambrette seed, galbanum and angelica root – can also deliver a musky sensuality to a perfume. Although if you have trouble smelling musk, you’re not alone: ‘anosmia’ to some – or all – musk ingredients is actually pretty common…
Smell musk (or try to!) in:
Body Shop White Musk
Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mûre et Musc
Miller Harris L’Air de Rien
Narciso Rodriguez Essence
Narciso Rodriguez for Her
Nasomatto Silver Musk
Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan