Friday, February 7, 2014


(To skip straight to perfume reviews, scroll to the bottom of this article)

Sweaty, indolic, faecal, animalic, catty, urinous, warm, glowing, barnyard.. 

All are terms used to describe 'musk' in perfume, and with the exception of 'glowing' you'd be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to spray such essences on their skin in the form of perfume.

But as Duchamp's Urinal attests, it's all about context!

I'm neither a perfumer nor a chemist, so I'm not going to go into any great detail about the components of musk and its myriad manifestations in perfume. (for those of you with a deeper interest in perfume chemistry though, I highly recommend this 3-part series from the the perfume blog Perfume Shrine: Musk -  Series 1  Series 2  Series 3 )

Suffice to say, musk in perfume can be natural or synthetic, but nowadays for ethical and economic reasons it's more often synthetic. Historically, musk pertained to the substance taken from the anal pods of the musk deer, or glands from the civet cat which produce a 'fecal' note, also castoreum from beavers which produced a 'urinous' note, reminiscent of leather

The question is, why on earth would anyone want to smell like cat pee or deer's anus? The simple answer is, partly, longevity. Nature in its wisdom has ensured that smells pertaining to our reproductive organs will be very lasting, also pervasive.

If you add musk to a fragrance, it works as a kind of fixative, and without getting too detailed here, the theory is that it's basically to do with the shape or size of molecules, with musk being one of the more weighty, therefore the slowest to 'take-off' from the skin (lemon would be one of the lightest). This current theory (disputed by some scientists, most notably Luca Turin) is that the shape of these molecules interacts with our nose membranes.

But musk is not just about longevity. In nature many of the smells we love the most -  such as woodsmoke, leather, jasmine, orange blossom, honey fresh from the comb - also contain aroma chemicals reminiscent of our own natural secretions. Jasmine, for example, contains chemicals known as 'indoles' which in isolation smell somewhat camphorous, like mothballs, or even bad breathe, indoles are also present in faeces. Add these to the complex aroma that makes up the scent of jasmine and this facet enhances the flower's heady aroma - an excellent fly and bee attractor too, which is of course why flowers smell. This indolic quality is a feature of many white floral perfumes, which can be categorised as 'clean' white florals, 'animalic' and everything in between

It must be said that these smells are dividers - some people loathe the smell of jasmine and tuberose, others find woodsmoke in perfume too acrid. I myself struggle with tuberose but love both jasmine and woodsmoke. But, perfumers can really 'ramp up', or decrease certain musk smells such as 'urinous' castoreum, or 'fecal' indoles and civet, and when they ramp them up, I often find the results pretty repellent, while others don't even begin to detect these notes. This is because most of us are anosmic to certain musks, they're a bit similar to ultra violet rays, with some being on the edge of our perception.

Its probably a part-inherited trait since my mum and sister are also hyper sensitive to these factors. Appreciation of perfumery means I've developed a tolerance for some of the extremes though (much in the same way as people develop an acquired taste for blue cheese, for example).

Perfumers can isolate, dilute or enhance these effects. In contemporary, mainstream perfumes these 'skanky' factors (as they're known by perfume appreciators and collectors) are often downplayed. These days most people simply want to smell clean and fresh, especially while at work, which makes sense, but only up to a point.

The problem with these 'clean' perfumes is that they often lack complexity and depth - in short, they're boring. The human nose revels in complex aromas (as mentioned, woodsmoke and so on). And this is where musk can play a role in lending complex factors to perfume, reminiscent of, for example fresh sweat

I'll list a small and by no means comprehensive list of musky perfume examples below. But it's worth knowing that synthetic musks play the role of fixative in a variety of ways - some can simply smell clean, yet long lasting. Most washing powders contain synthetic musk because it retains scent despite soap suds normally breaking smells down. So musk can be dirty or clean depending on the effect desired. (it's ecologically fairly unsound for washing powders to contain so much synthetic musk, much more than perfume incidentally)

Lastly, an expensive yet natural and ethical source of musk that's still used in high-end perfumes, is ambergris. This is a by-product of the Sperm Wale's digestive system (I can't remember from which end to be honest!) and when it's first produced it's a foul smelling, tarry looking substance, but miraculously after a year or more floating in the sea it begins to smell lovely - a warm salty/sweet scent that's very distinctive with powerful fixative and 'projecting'  or pervasive qualities which make it ideal for perfume.

Sounds grim yes? But catty and fecal elements of musk are integral to the iconic perfume Joy, by Patou. This is to enhance the fact that's it's an abundantly rich floral bouquet. I personally can immediately smell a urinous note in this thanks most likely to castoreum (a note which I perceive as either 'fur-pants' or 'men's urinal' - depending on how its handled) and civet (some people think this smells fecal, but to me it's sharply urinous, others detect the fecal note more clearly, and still others smell none of that - just a lovely floral smell! Experience tells me that this 'pissy' or 'urinous' note will fade to produce a warmth that enhances the glowing and radiant floral qualities of Joy. Though it's still a perfume I associate with a woman who wears a long fur coat and files her red nails into talons -very much in a 'grande dame' style. I've read though, that it's current formulation has nothing on the vintage (a most enjoyable review at the Perfumed Dandy's blog can be read here )

Another note which produces a urinous or 'cat-pee' effect is blackcurrant bud - evident in Frederic Malle's Portrait of a Lady where it lends a ruby-red acidic lushness to the powerful rose/patchouli blend, and Annick Goutal's Ninfeo Mio where it combines with green/woody/citrus notes for an underneath-the-bushes effect wonderfully reminiscent of a wild garden in the height of summer.

Chanel's elegant classic Cuir de Russie also has notes of castoreum which, alongside smoky birch tar and a floral bouquet, enhance the idea of animalic yet elegant leather.

Penhaligon's Amaranthine is a milky, green-toned beach floral to some noses, but to some people (including me) it's strongly reminiscent of the scent of stale sweat that you can't shift from a nylon top, and groin sweat, more specifically groin sweat from a man with worrying alcohol issues on a salad-free diet. This is followed up in dry-down with a surprise ammonia note, suggestive of advanced kidney failure. Needless to say, I struggle to think up an occasion at which I might wear this! It smells like the tragic and regrettable morning aftermath of a seriously dissipated night out. Others have described it as 'the scent of a woman's inner thigh'. and 'a corrupt floral'. I can appreciate that the musky qualities have been very deliberately ramped up by 'nose' Bertrand Duchaufour (something of a 'rock star' in the perfume world, many of whose other perfumes I find truly gorgeous - Seville a L'aube, Havana Vanille). Amaranthine has very classic female summer perfume qualities (milky white tropical florals, green notes, banana leaf) but Duchaufour deliberately made it very naughty because he wanted to challenge Penhaligon's prissy Victorian image, and as far as I'm concerned he's out-done himself here with this complex cocktail of musks! As mentioned, due to the fact many people are anosmic to the effects of certain musks, a lot of people don't 'get' any of this, just the florals...

Diorella by Dior, now this is my kind of indolic jasmine! To me this is more reminiscent of fresh sweat, and the fact that its lovely jasmine is harmonised with juicy (not sharp) lemon, ripe melon, and green, smoky vetiver makes it a dream-like summer picnic of a perfume. To spray this on is to be transported to the height of summer. It was love at first sniff for me - on the healthy side of sweaty, with a slightly unisex and very relaxed feel. A more lady-like and refined idea of this summer's day paradise can be experienced in  Le Parfum de Therese (my earlier review here).

A more subtle take on indolic white florals is Songes by Annick Goutal. Featuring jasmine, ylang and a small amount of tuberose, Songes suggests a humid, tropical holiday, the indolic quality is subtle, adding a soft, moist feel, it's also given a little depth with the addition of resins which suggest beeswax, and enhance the lovely summery quality

The previously mentioned ambergris, sourced from the Sperm Whale, is very evident in Andy Tauer's Une Rose de Kandahar. While this perfume features a very high quality Afghanistan rose, to me its most striking feature is the note of ambergris which lends this a tingling marine salty haze - very powerful and long-lasting. A more dilute version can be found in the beautiful Iris de Nuit by James Heeley - (a review can be read here towards the end of the post) paired with green notes and a delicate, cool violet, ambergris lends a subtly warm tone to this ethereal perfume.

Clean haze
The clean-haze effect is most often thanks to 'White Musk' - a sweet synthetic musk, best evidenced of course in the Body Shop's White Musk, also in J-Lo's Glow a pleasantly soapy clean floral scent. 'Cashmeran' another clean-scented musk is used to strong effect in Frederic Malle's  Dans tes Bras. Also, slightly lighter, in Donna Karan's Cashmere Mist where it lends a slightly acidic haze to the perfume. Some people are completely anosmic to this effect, while others find it strangely irritating. I can handle it in Cashmere Mist, but in Dans tes Bras it's like nails on a chalkboard for me -reminds me of the smell of old, oxidised metal coins.

Barnyard pertains to horsey, hay-like verging on manure notes, sometimes with a hint of castoreum. One of the best examples of this can be found in Miller Harris's L'Air de Rien. My earlier review here ). The synthetic musk used in this perfume is known as 'black musk' - darker and heavier in tone. (Though hay-like notes often refer to a perfume ingredient called 'coumarin' - best evidenced in Serge Luten's cosy, comforting Chergui). L'Air de Rien's horsiness is also due to labdanum, a type of resin which can smell hair-like

L'Air de Rien, by Miller Harris is a bit 'hippy' or 'horse stable' for some people, but as with all perfumes, and especially musks, it depends how it reacts with your skin. The horsey notes and lightly mildewed book smell of L'Air de Rien is oddly, but somehow perfectly, paired with sweet incense, vanilla and neroli. Some people say there's no hard evidence to prove that perfumes smell different on different people, but my answer to this is; Do people smell different from one another? I rest my case.

Bal a Versailles, by Jean Desprez
This has orange blossom and labdanum, in common with L'Air de Rien, but the feel is far more classic and formal. Despite its reputation as a musk bomb, Bal a Versailles has a classic suede-glove texture and lovely soft warmth with a salty powdered quality. The musky barnyard quality is slightly leathery, with castoreum adding a cat fur note alongside indolic notes, which will appeal to some but definitely not those who seek soapy freshness in a perfume!  In reformulation it's perhaps less floral and I can imagine it worn by men, in fact it reminds me a little of Penhaligon's Hamam Bouquet - a retro dandified perfume that suggests a well-dressed gentleman of yesteryear

I've covered a few examples here, but two more perfumes famous for containing a veritable cocktail of musks are Serge Luten's Muscs Koublai Khan - an animalic sweat-fest with a masculine feel, which for some smells warm and cosy, yet for others is repugnant. Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d'Orange, is the ultimate skank-bomb, with notes of sweat, urine, blood and semen. I'm not aware of anyone who actually wears this, but perfume's not always about prettiness and adornment, maybe it's simply that experimental perfumers sometimes want to show off what they know about chemistry...

Happy sniffing!

All images © Rose Strang

(Information about musk in this article discovered at , Also in 'The Secret of Scent', by Luca Turin 2006. and 'Perfume, The Guide', by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, 2008)

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