Musk in perfumery
Musk is one of the four great animalic bases of perfumery, the other three being ambergris, civet, and castoreum. When smelled in isolation in their pure state, all four of these animalic materials can be foul to the human nose. However, in dilution, they each produce deep, drawn-out basso fundos of aromatic sound waves ranging from soft leather (castoreum), earth, tobacco, and hay (ambergris), and velvety, warm floral tones (civet) to deep, complex skin-tones (musk).
Animalics are all excellent fixatives, each serving to stabilize the other more volatile notes in a scent and enrich the blend as effectively as a pound of butter added to a dry cake. Their value in perfumery, therefore, is inestimable. But musk is perhaps the most valuable of all the animalics, because not only does it have the deepest fixative powers, but it also adds its own super-complex, warmly-furred, animalic aroma to the totality of the scent. It possesses a consistent ‘roundness’ or ‘fullness’ that distinguishes it from the other animalics.
We are conditioned to love musk in perfume precisely because, more than anything else, it reminds us so strongly of the pheromone-rich smell of the skin of the people we love. Think of the intimate scent of your spouse’s nape after a long day’s work, or the smell of the back of your children’s knees, and that is a smell best encapsulated by musk.
While natural musk may have been used in commercial perfumery at some point – although this is difficult to ascertain – it is certainly not used anymore. Modern commercial perfumery relies on synthetics, botanicals, or humanely-obtained animalic substances such as hyraceum to recreate the scent of a material, i.e., deer musk, no longer in use.
Many might be surprised to learn that there is not much, if any, use of natural deer musk in larger-scale mukhallat perfumery either. By large-scale mukhallat perfumery, I mean the Chanels and Diors of the Middle-Eastern market – massive companies such as Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Ajmal, and Arabian Oud that have branches all over the world and do a brisk trade in attars and oils each year. Although mukhallat perfumery in general uses far greater quantities of rare and costly animalics and botanicals such as oud oil, sandalwood oil, ambergris, and musk than commercial perfumery, a company that sells thousands of tolas of a single formula per year is not small-batch, artisanal production. It is big business.
For these large mukhallat companies, the importance of ensuring a consistent quality of raw material from tola to tola, batch to batch, and so on, is an absolute business necessity and, as a production issue, on a par with the quality control concerns of commercial perfume companies and fragrance labs. Customers will complain vociferously if their tola of Ajmal Deer Musk is not the same as their tola from the year before. Therefore, while these companies might use some raw deer musk in their musky attars, batch consistency and supply issues make it necessary for them to stretch out the natural musk through use of other musky-smelling materials such as ambrette seed, ethical animal musks like hyraceum, and a wide variety of musk synthetics such as Tonquitone.
This will not come as a shock to anyone with a bit of common sense. Most people know that many, if not most, of the oud oils being sold as pure on the Arabian market in the UAE and elsewhere have been adulterated and stretched out with fillers, vetiver oil, saffron, ambrette, other expensive botanicals, and complex synthetics. Musk is, in many ways, equivalent to oud.
The only sector of perfumery that still uses natural deer musk is the small-batch, artisanal one. Even within that sector, opinions on its use differ. For example, Areej Le Doré and Bortnikoff both use natural musk in their mukhallats. But Sultan Pasha does not (he uses an ethical, botanical-based formula as an alternative).
The point is, if any artisan attar maker or small match perfumer wanted to work with deer musk, then they are really the only ones in the broader perfumery landscape that can. The smaller an artisan perfume operation, the more feasible it is for them to work with natural musk, mostly because of the tiny volumes involved. Working with the crumbs from the rich man’s table of TCM and Ayurvedic medicine works for small artisanal perfumers, because they only make perfume in small quantities anyway.
However, cultural factors also play a role. There is a larger and more culturally-acceptable appetite for deer musk and other natural animal products in the Middle East. Accordingly, Middle- and Far East-based mukhallat artisans have a far easier job selling deer musk-based mukhallats to their audience than their Western-based counterparts.
Is there such thing as terroir in natural musk?
Samples of deer musk tinctures, macerations, and mukhallats. Photo my own.
The short answer is no, not really.
Deer musk can vary in aroma depending on age, and the liquid in which it has been tinctured. However, musk does not vary as widely according to terroir as oud or sandalwood, both of which display significant variances in aroma depending on the soil, climate, and sub-species of the trees involved. With musk, species and micro-climate (terroir) have a far more limited effect on final aroma, with aging and tincturing liquid being more significant factors.
In other words, if you have the genuine article, then there will always be a familiar odor profile and texture that links one musk to another. Musk is musk is musk. Small differences do appear, of course, based on age or nature of the specimen. But it is more accurate to talk about profiles in musk, rather than terroir.
Profiles in Musk
Although personal experience based on a few random samples can never be extrapolated to represent the entirety of such a complex-smelling material, below are my impressions of different deer musk samples I have collected.
Tibetan musk grains. Photo my own.
Material: musk grains
Source: JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery
Appearance: miniscule, reddish-brown dust particles, like the detritus from rolling cigarettes
The smell is rich but light; not overpowering. It smells dirty in an almost uncomfortably intimate way, like the smell of tooth floss after a long overdue flossing session, in other words, a bit stale, saliva-ish, and carrying with it the lingering aroma of tooth decay, halitosis, and degraded molecules of food. However, the smell is not exactly unpleasant. It is simply intimate. If you can tolerate and even appreciate the scent of a loved one’s dried up sleep drool on the pillow beside you, then this will seem familiar and maybe even comforting to you.
Material: musk grains
Source: JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery
Appearance: reddish-brown small particles, larger and more prone to clumping together than the Tibetan musk grains
The smell is sweet and high-toned, pitched at a much higher decibel than the Tibetan musk, with leathery and herbal facets. It is immediately pleasant to the nose, unlike the Tibetan musk grains described above. It smells animalic only in a clean and non-jarring manner, like the flank of a slightly sweaty horse in a stable with fresh straw on the ground. It is warm, intimate, and clinging. When the nose draws away from the bottle of grains, the trail in the air reads as slightly powdery.
Siberian musk grains. Photo my own.
Material: Siberian musk macerated in sandalwood oil
Appearance: deep reddish-brown liquid, viscous, oily
The scent is immediately super sweet, like powdered sugar mixed with hot chocolate drinking powder and pancake syrup. It is also a little herbal, as if there is patchouli or lavender in the mix somewhere. At this stage, this sample reminds me of the powdery Darbar attars you can get from Nemat and numerous other sources on the Internet. Darbar attars are thick, dark, sweet musky attars made from mostly patchouli oils mixed with musk synthetics, henna, and carrier oils. However, once these topnotes die down, the scent is authentically musky, with a pungent, thick aroma that smells quite dirty, although not quite fecal – more like freshly-turned soil and the heavy morning breath of a loved one.
Material: Siberian musk tincture at ten percent dilution
Appearance: light straw color, completely liquid
The topnotes are pure tincturing alcohol, but then a subtle, soft odor of musk appears. This manifests as a translucent wash of aroma that smells like a clean, warm animal after a day out in the sun. The odor is sweet, soft, powdery, and lingering. In terms of weight, it is very light and sheer.
Material: Siberian musk tincture
Source: Russian Adam of FeelOud and Areej le Doré
Appearance: urine yellow, with small musk grain particles still visible on the glass of the vial when tipped over
Immediately, the scent here is much less sweet than the other samples, and has a deep, musky leather facet that is very appealing. It is more animalic than the other samples, in the sense that it actually smells like it is been scraped off the behind of an animal. But the scent is in no way dirty, unpleasant, or fecal: it simply smells authentically of animal origin. It is an extremely warm, deep aroma, with a strong note of leather, specifically leather saddles or reins that have been resting on a horse.
There is a certain dustiness lurking underneath the leather, but it is not excessively powdery, and although there is some natural sweetness, it leans more towards neutral-salty on the flavor wheel. It is just soft, musky leather. A pleasure to smell. It lingers in the nostrils for quite a while, eventually displaying some papery ‘stale cocoa’ tones. In overall aroma, this particular musk is closest in profile to the smell of the Siberian musk grains from The Rising Phoenix Perfumery.
Material: Siberian musk tincture at five percent dilution, one year old
Source: Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse
Appearance: pale straw, liquid
Josh Lobb obtains legal Siberian musk grains from a gentleman in Siberia who sets aside a small amount of grains from his hunting quota each year for him: he then chops the already tiny grains up into smaller pieces and tinctures them in perfumer’s alcohol and rests it for a year. This method seems to intensify the aroma of the finished tincture, because this sample was the most densely fragrant out of all the samples.
The aroma is pungent, warm, and once the brief hit of alcohol dissipates, possessed of a strong ammoniac or petting zoo aroma with undertones of hay and animal urine. However, the scent is in no way unpleasant or sharp. The aromas smell natural and rustic, wrapped in a thick, wool-like texture that is very comforting, like getting a bear hug from a llama. Compared to the other samples, this tincture smells more nuanced and perfumey, and I found myself thinking of Muscs Khoublai Khan, or at least one specific part of it, namely its grimy, sensual, male ‘wool’ facet. Other notes I pick up on include chocolate, damp paper, and dust. The density of scent slackens off quite quickly after ten minutes, or else my nose simply stops smelling it as acutely past that point. What remains on the skin is the dusty, sweet smell of newspapers doused in a layer of powdered sugar. Strangely enough, I also pick up hints of something herbal and fresh.
Kashmiri (Kasturi) Musk
Kashmiri musk is the rarest and most highly prized of the musk, because of its bright, uplifting, and intoxicating properties. But genuine Kashmiri musk, also known as Kasturi, is illegal. Not only does it come from a species of deer listed as being in danger of extinction by CITES (category I), but it also comes from a region (the mountainous parts of Northern India and Pakistan), countries that have made deer musk hunting illegal. The penalty for being caught with Kashmiri musk in Pakistan, for example, is five years in prison. However, I have been able to collect two samples for the purposes of research.
Material: Kashmiri musk from private collection, ten percent
Source: Duftkumpels, Germany
Appearance: yellow, oily, with visible musk grain particles clinging to the inside of the vial
Although Shafqat himself calls this a tincture, it is in fact a maceration of musk grains in a very fine Indian santalum album oil (possibly Mysore). The maceration has a concentration of 10%, which is very concentrated. First and foremost, the quality of the sandalwood oil used here is stunning and almost overshadows the delicacy of the musk. But the musk is there, bright and airy, even a little pungent, revealed when you perform a sort of hide-and-seek with your own arm (take your nose away, smell something else, return nose to arm, etc.). Despite the fame of Kashmiri musk, I cannot say that it is superior or inferior to any other type of musk. However, when the sandalwood is so sublime and dominating proceedings anyway, it seems a pity to use an illegal musk from an endangered species when you could just as well use Siberian musk.
Material: Kashmiri deer musk, two-point-five percent, in Australian sandalwood oil
Appearance: viscous orange-yellow oil
At first, the overriding smell is of the Australian sandalwood oil (s. spicatum), characterized by a raw, harsh wood solvent smell with facets of pine, eucalyptus, and menthol or camphor, and a texture like sour milk. The pungency of the wood oil makes it difficult to discern anything of the more delicate musk, and this problem persists for a good twenty minutes. Aging is probably a factor here: the aroma molecules feel young and raw, as if brushed with a steel wire brush. Eventually, an aroma of bright, plasticky musk hits the nose, although it is not strong enough to burn right through the pungent layer of sandalwood. This one probably needs time to reveal the delicate nuances of the musk more clearly. It might be interesting for readers to note that the very same Kashmiri musk grains were used in both these samples, but the medium of the solvent (sandalwood oil versus ethanol) and treatment by two different attar makers rendered two very different results.
Material: 20-year-old Himalayan musk maceration
Appearance: oxblood, almost black in color, viscous texture
The aroma is dark and pungent but also smooth. It initially presents like a locker room full of sweaty rugby players, with a side of billy goat. There is a distinct ammoniac edge to the aroma, like dried animal urine and sweat mixed together, or a stable floor packed a foot high with compacted fecal waste and straw. If you have ever mucked out a stable that hadn’t been cleaned in quite a while, then this smell will be familiar to you. The smell is not unpleasant – not to my nose at least. But as always, tolerance of ‘dirty’ smells depend on individual exposure to animals or farming in childhood. On the skin, it remains dark and pungent, but reveals a surprisingly complex range of notes such as rubber tubing, smoke, fuel, stables, and animal hair. And it does smell rather like a petting zoo. But I like that. It is the only sample I tried that smelled like animal fur.
Other types of musks
Deer musk is not the only substance that gives a perfume a musky smell, of course. The main alternatives are: (i) cruelty-free, ethical animal musks, (ii) botanical or plant-derived musks, and (iii) synthetic musks. All three are used extensively in attar and mukhallat perfumery.
Ethical animal musks
Many attar makers make use of hyraceum, which is the petrified urine and fecal matter of the Cape hyrax found on rocks. Because hyraceum is harvested without any cruelty to the animal itself and possesses a rich, animalic odor that shares some similarity with castoreum and civet, perfume makers are increasingly using it to stand in for animalics, including deer musk. To my nose, hyraceum is more leathery and high-pitched in aroma than deer musk.
Mink musk, rat musk, and skunk musk are also being examined for experimental use in attar perfumery as stand-ins for deer musk. One of the Sultan Pasha attars, for example, experiments with skunk musk. These types of animal musks are also harvested in a cruelty-free, sustainable manner.
Musk of botanical origin
Certain botanical materials give off a musky scent or texture and can therefore be used as a substitute for deer musk in mukhallats and attars. These include ambrette seed, muskwood (olearia argophylla), angelica, and muskflower (mimulus moschatus). Out of these, ambrette seed oil, extracted from the musk mallow plant native to India, is perhaps the best known and most highly regarded. Ambrette lends a scent a fresh, woody muskiness that can smell alternatively like green apple peel, pear schnapps, cumin, and freshly-baked bread.
Wonderfully complex and full-smelling, ambrette seed is unfortunately quite expensive and is therefore now only used in attars where cost is no issue. Thankfully, there exists a synthetic replacement for ambrette seed, called ambrettolide, which is inexpensive and smells very good. In the realm of traditional Indian attars, however, natural ambrette oil (mainly the absolute) is the prime musk component used in the more complex attars such as black musk attars, shamama, and amberi (ambery) attars. Not only is the ambrette seed native to India, but it was also always less expensive and difficult to obtain than genuine deer musk, hence its popularity for use in attars that have a musky component.
Musk of synthetic origin
Photo by Karen Maes on Unsplash
Deer musk has always been hugely expensive to obtain. Therefore, as explained by Mandy Aftel in her wonderful book, Fragrant, from the moment people first smelled deer musk, they have been creating synthetics that can replace it. The scent of deer musk is naturally complex, consisting of a wide range of compounds such as acids, phenols, fatty waxes, and alcohols, but by far its most important component is muscone. Muscone makes up two percent of the molecular composition and is the prime source of that inimitably ‘musky’ aroma.
Scientists have successfully isolated individual scent-giving molecules from deer musk and synthesized them in labs. Synthetic musks are subdivided into three categories, as follows: nitro musks, polycyclic musk compounds, and macrocyclic musk compounds. Without going into too much technical detail, it is important to note that nitro musks, which once gave scents such as Chanel No. 5 their slightly sweaty, intimate, and powdery feel, have long been banned due to public health concerns over potential carcinogenic effects. Many people mourn their absence, treasuring vintage versions of their favorite scents for their use of those same nitro musks.
Polycyclic musks are the original ‘white musk’ synthetics that were developed primarily for the laundry detergent segment of the market, because their molecules were large and insoluble enough to have their scent cling to the fibers of clothes even after washing. People loved the smell of their laundry after using these detergents, and soon there was a demand for that type of squeaky clean musk scent in perfume too. Macrocyclic musks are the new generation of white musk molecules that will replace most if not all the polycyclic musks. Most attars and mukhallats on the cheaper, non-artisan side of the scale use synthetic musks in their formulas, unless they are using an expensive botanical musk such as ambrette.
Because deer musk is not used in commercial perfumery anymore and because natural, botanical musks are expensive, the real issue in most of perfumery these days is not really real versus synthetic, but clean versus dirty. The range of synthetic musk molecules is so incredibly diverse that there is a musk to suit practically every preference.
Some people crave laundry-clean musks. This is easy to explain – there are firm cultural and historical associations with smelling clean. For many Americans of the fifties, for example, when these super musk-charged laundry detergents were first introduced, they signaled (literally) a breath of fresh air after the deprivations of the second world war. Puritanism also left a deep mark on a certain (mostly Caucasian, Christian) segments of American society, with many believing that cleanliness is close to Godliness. Cultural conditioning is a tricky area to get into, but it is something that cannot be entirely discounted.
Most flavor and aroma molecule development by the big flavor and fragrance labs in Switzerland and France is destined for the functional sector, i.e., soaps, shampoos, candles, laundry detergents, and household cleaning agents. Naturally, the bulk of research and development budgets are spent on developing aromas that would be considered desirable by most of the population. And what most people want to smell like is clean. So, when our functional products smell more like a spanking fresh pile of laundered cotton and less like the business end of a yak, it makes sense that these ideas (and aroma molecules) have trickled down into personal perfumery too.
White musks in both Western and attar perfumery smell soapy, slightly sharp, powdery, and almost aggressively clean. In other words, not a million miles away from what they smell like in laundry detergent. But variety is the spice of life. The aromachemical and flavor factories of France and Switzerland have produced broad ranges of different polycyclic and macrocyclic musks to suit every level of tolerance, from the ultra-clean Galaxolide (IFF) to the fruity Helvetolide (a Firmenich molecule that smells a little like ambrettolide with a side of green apple) to Muscenone (a Firmenich molecule that is deeply musky and based on natural Muscone present in deer musk) and, finally, the filthy, animal-like Tonquitone (IFF)[i].
In other words, in modern perfumery, every kink is catered to, ranging from the slightly-grubby-but-still-passing-as-innocent musk and the I-just-showered-using-Irish-Spring musk to the bedded-down-with-goats musk. The same applies, of course, to mukhallat perfumery.
The united colors of musk: red, white, and black
Musks are often marketed as red, white, black, or even green. It would be futile to argue that the colors have no real meaning in the context of perfumery, because, perception-wise, they do. Colors are powerful in terms of the message they convey. But since all these musks are synthetic musks, the only real difference between them is the choice of colorants a perfumer will add to the batch and the variety of spices and other aromatics to vary the scent profile. The colors are mostly there to convey an impression of its essential ‘character’ to its wearer – white for purity, red for lusty, black for danger, and so on.
White musk, as discussed above, is a category of synthetic musk that grew out of the household laundry detergent segment of the market. Because this class of musks was first used in laundry detergent, their sharp, cottony smell has become forever linked to the scent of clean clothes. In mukhallat perfumery, white musks are extremely popular and each seller has their own variation on the theme. White musk mukhallats are often colored with a thick white colorant, giving them a cloudy, opaque appearance – a clever visual trick that helps the brain to subconsciously classify it as clean. White musk attars are often called tahara musks, body musks, or jism musks (jism meaning ‘of the body’). These attars are extremely popular during Eid, when white musk cubes and attars are distributed to visitors to the home. Here, white stands for purity, cleanliness, and the washing away of bodily sins.
Red musks are usually a deep rusty-red color and often contain saffron, cinnamon, or clove to match the spicy red image of the oil. Red musks are not a special variant of natural musk but simply a marketing-driven variation of synthetic musk. What it means to you will be whatever the color red means to you. And as in lipstick and cars, red tends to mean spicy, exotic, or lusty. Red musk is most frequently used in indie oil perfumery, by companies such as BPAL, Alkemia, NAVA, and the like.
In the American indie oil sector, the red musk accord is usually a blend of musk and a dragon’s blood resin note. Rather disappointingly, Dragon’s Blood resin does not come from a dragon but from a variety of plants. It is not very fragrant on its own, so indie oil perfumers make up a mixture of oils to approximate what they think it should smell like – usually a mixture of patchouli, amber, nag champa accords, etc. To my nose, the red musk used in indie oils smells like that too-sweet miasma of greasy Indian cone incense, ‘Christmas apple’ candle oils, and burlap at the arse end of a head shop.
Black musks are often called Kasturi-type musks in order to drive home the point that they are aping the scent of natural musk that comes from the Kasturi or Tonkin deer. Black musks, if made well and in the traditional Indian manner, are highly complex attars in and of themselves, and can contain anything from patchouli and costus root to ambrette seed oil, as well as a potent cocktail of synthetic musks on the dirtier side of the scale, such as Tonquitone or Musk Ketone. An expensive black musk attar made in the traditional manner can be a pleasure to wear. Unfortunately, most of the black musk attars on the market tend to be made almost entirely with synthetics dissolved in cheap dilutants. Prepare to spend more to find a black musk worth wearing. The black color denotes darkness and masculinity, although I find this is contradicted by the fact that many of them also smell like Cherry Coke.
Green musks and pink musks are monikers only rarely used in attar or mukhallat perfumery. They are more commonly seen in scent descriptions for commercial perfumery and some indie oil companies. Green musks will usually feature vetiver or patchouli oils and are perceived as earthy and forest-like (even a little bit ‘witchy’). Pink musks are floral and feminine, with pretty Asian flowers such as cherry blossom and pink lotus. Sometimes, in modern commercial perfumery, soft Egyptian musks such as the Narciso Rodriguez perfumes or the texture of Coco Mademoiselle are described as being ‘pink’.
Egyptian musks differ from the red, white, and black variants by dint of there being a historical, botanical basis for their existence. While nowadays practically all Egyptian musks are made from synthetic white musk, in the times of Ancient Egypt, the recipe was made exclusively from natural materials of botanical origin. Recipes for the original Egyptian musks[ii] vary but almost always mention ambrette seed oil, kyphi (Egyptian pressed incense, a sort of barkhour made from myrrh, mastic, pine resin, red wine, halmaddi, and honey), frankincense, patchouli, and rose oil. It was the ambrette seed oil that gave the blend its muskiness.
Egyptian-type musks have proved enduringly popular in perfumery and are still much loved today. Although the recipe is now based entirely on a synthetic musk base, they differ from white musks by being generally creamier, sweeter, and more sensually skin-like, thanks to the inclusion of a more complex range of materials mixed into the white musk.
Modern variants of Egyptian musk scents will almost always include a touch of patchouli and rose, although one of my personal favorites features a fruity jasmine note. The musky rose and patchouli pairing has become a popular trope in Western perfumery too and can be seen in everything from Narciso Rodriguez’ Musc for Her and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely to Lady Vengeance by Juliette Has a Gun. The advantage of Egyptian musk over a pure white musk is that it is mimics the smell of skin more than laundry detergent.
Note: This article is a reprint of The Murky Matter of Musk, which was originally published by Basenotes in 2017. I am reproducing it here, with kind permission by Grant Osborne of Basenotes.
About Me: A two-time Jasmine Award winner for excellence in perfume journalism, I write a blog (this one!) and have authored many guides, articles, and interviews for Basenotes. (My day-to-day work is in the scientific research for development world). Thanks to the generosity of friends and acquaintances in the perfume business, I have been privileged enough to smell the raw materials that go into perfumes and learn about the role they play in both Western and Eastern perfumery. Artisans have sent vials of the most precious materials on earth such as ambergris, deer musk, and oud. But I have also spent thousands of my own money, buying oud oils directly from artisans and tons of dodgy (and possibly illegal) stuff on eBay. In the reviews sections, I will always tell you where my sample came from and whether I paid for it or not.
Note on monetization: My blog is not monetized. But if you’d like to support my work or show appreciation for any of the content I put out, you can always buy me a coffee using the little buymeacoffee button. Thank you!
Cover Image: Custom-designed by Jim Morgan.