From here on out, we are going to go material by material, grouped according to the most important scent families for attars, mukhallats, and concentrated perfume oils. Each section will start with a primer on the material or scent family, and end with reviews of oil-based perfumes in that category. That’s right – reviews are upcoming! I bet you thought we would all need a walking cane by the time I got there.
Musk is, I suppose, as good a place to start as any, because its use varies so dramatically with the type of oil perfume and the market in which it is positioned. For example, mukhallats that contain real deer musk are enormously popular in the Middle East and among die-hard fans of artisanal perfume oils, but verboten in the American indie oil community. Both the niche perfume oil and mukhallat perfume segments adore fluffy white or Egyptian-style musks that are 100% synthetic. The American indie sector makes full use of a veritable United Colors of Musks, i.e., black, red, green, and pink musks (all synthetic, all with a different aesthetic effect). And Indians love ‘black musk’ attars, which tend to derive their musky effect from a complex range of plant-based materials, such as ambrette seed, herbs, and synthetics, rather than deer musk (although this is possibly more of a scarcity issue than an ethical or legal one).
In this chapter, I am going to talk exclusively about natural (deer) musk. The other types of musks (musk synthetics, musky plant materials, ethical animal musks) can wait until Part 2.
What is musk?
If we speak exclusively about natural musk, then musk is a grainy, aromatic reddish paste formed within the glandular musk sac of the male musk deer. It contains a genetic rundown of his most important attributes from age, health, strength, to overall virility. Basically, natural musk is the Tinder profile of the animal world.
During mating season, the deer urinates onto the musk pod, releasing small amounts of his musk, which then falls or is sprayed onto rocks, trees, and bushes. While in rut, the deer’s urine is dense with male deer hormones, so this mixture of urine and musk is incredibly potent. Fresh musk pods have an ammoniac smell, because of the urine sprayed onto them.
What happens then? The female takes a sniff, examines the profile, and decides whether the description appeals. If all goes to plan, she swipes right and follows the scent to the source. If not, well. It is brutal out there.
Because musk has so much to do with sex and reproduction, there is a common misconception that musk is stored inside the testes, like sperm. Not true! In fact, the musk sac is attached to the abdomen behind the penis, and is separate to the testes. But while the musk sac is not actually a testicle, there is no getting around the fact that it does look awfully like one. Since the word ‘musk’ itself comes from the Persian word moschos and the Sanskrit word muska, both of which mean testicle, it seems that our ancestors were just as confused on this issue.
Musk comes mainly from the musk deer family of deer (Moschidae), of which there are several sub-species, including, for example, Moschus moschiferus, the Siberian musk deer native to China, Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, and Moschus leucogaster, the Himalayan musk deer native to Bhutan, India, and Nepal[i]. Some of the musk deer species are more endangered than others. There are seven main geographical regions where musk deer live, and are therefore hunted, namely: Nepal (the Himalayas), Siberia, China, India, Pakistan, Korea, and Mongolia.
Animal sources of musk other than deer do exist, although technically speaking, the word ‘musk’ exclusively refers to musk from a deer. However, given that most of the world’s population uses the word ‘musk’ to describe anything even vaguely musky in nature, we will not be too pedantic about it here either. Alternative animal musks include that of the muskrat, the musk duck, the musk shrew, the musk lynx, and even some species of crocodiles. In perfumery and medicine, however, only musk from the musk deer is commercially significant because the deer produces the largest volume of aromatic substance and possesses the strongest odor. (Also, have you ever tried holding a crocodile down to get to his musk sac?)
There are few other materials in the world that possess an aroma as complex as musk. But if it is complex from a biological perspective, then you can only begin to imagine how difficult it is to get people to agree on what exactly it smells like. Depending on who you talk to, it can be described as earthy, warm, sweet, powdery, chocolate-like, fecal, urinous, stale, woody, fatty, and so on. This is further complicated by the fact that few people will have smelled the genuine article itself, but rather some aspect of it as recreated through synthetic molecules or botanical musks.
To further complicate things, many people simply use the word ‘musky’ to describe a textural facet of a scent, even if the scent itself does not contain any musk. For example, perfumes that are clean or powdery are often described as musky, even though their laundry-clean scent is a million miles away from the animalic odor of deer musk. Conversely, anything that strikes the nose as dirty or fecal is described as musky almost by default, even if other materials have been used to create that effect, such as indolic jasmine, civet, or castoreum.
In my experience, real deer musk features the following characteristics:
Soft and lingering odor
Subtle, skin-like aroma
Mimics the smells of bodily intimacy, ranging from dried saliva and perineal odors to morning breath
Possesses some petting zoo aspects
Not fecal per se, but a composite picture of soft droppings, urine, hair, fur, etc.
Not generally a loud, booming aroma, unless you are smelling synthetics
Powdery or dusty in texture
Can be sweet to the point of being saccharine
Can be also be ammoniac (think animal urine on hay) with sharp undertones
Incredibly tenacious odor – clings to the hairs inside the nostrils
Individual nuances include cocoa, leather, chocolate, newspaper, paper, dust, plasticky aroma (like old lunch boxes), mold, rising damp, sugar, human skin, intimate smells
Aging plays an important part in how a musk tincture will smell. If old, dry musk pods from vintage stock are being used to make a tincture, the resulting tincture may give off an unpleasantly stale scent. A tincture from young-ish, still moist grains will smell more varied and complex than one made from old grains. However, fresh musk pods take longer to tincture because the grains are still moist and do not give themselves up to extraction as easily as dry grains. Aging the musk pods for about three months before using them is ideal for perfumery purposes.
The liquid in which the grains are tinctured is the second vital component of its final aroma. If the carrier liquid is even slightly perishable, then it is a waste of musk grains, as the mixture will not age well. Tincturing liquids that are fine to use include ethanol and other types of perfumer’s alcohol. The grains can also be macerated, meaning steeped in oil such as moringa oil, and even fractionated coconut oil, but the very best of all is, of course, pure sandalwood oil.
If the musk deer themselves are small, then you might imagine how tiny the musk pod is – about thirty grams. Each sac contains about half as much again in musk paste, so around fifteen grams per animal. Scraping the secretions out with a spoon to spare the animal’s life nets a much smaller amount of musk paste, but the deer at least lives to make another batch.
Deer musk grains. Photo my own.
The musk pods can be dried and used whole (in Chinese medicine) or opened to remove and age or dry the musk paste into musk grains for perfumery and also again for Chinese medicine. On the market, it is possible to buy both the whole pods and the dried grains. When fresh, the musk paste is moist and red-brown in color; when dried, the paste separates into tiny grains the size of nigella seeds, most often dark brown, oxblood, or black in color. If being used in traditional Chinese medicine, a doctor may use the grains whole on patients, or powder them down for use in complex liquid formulae to treat specific ailments.
Most sellers of musk scoop out the moist paste while the pods are fresh and pack all the aromatic material into large jars, measuring out quantities for buyers one at a time. This way of storing the musk grains ensures that they don’t dry out as quickly, which is important because the sellers get a certain price per gram, and the drier the musk grains are, the lighter they also are. Mukhallat makers can either buy the musk pods whole and age them themselves at home or buy the moist musk grains from a seller.
The grim reality of obtaining deer musk
Deer musk is a wondrous material. But let us not beat around the bush here – in most cases, the deer musk is hunted and killed to obtain its musk sac. Poachers first trap the deer in steel deer traps, and then either leave them to die or shoot them. Licensed hunters shoot to kill. It has been described as ‘killing the hen to get the egg’[ii] and with good reason: one pod per deer and that is it. Nothing renewable about this particular resource.
Alternatives have sprung up to this in the form of deer musk farms in China, the first one being established in 1958. On these farms, the deer do not die but are immobilized (held down or sedated) once or twice a year and have their musk glands scraped out with a special spoon[iii]. Chinese records suggest that a male deer can be ‘milked for his musk in this manner up to fourteen times[iv] over the course of its natural life.
It is not death, but on the flip side, it sounds excruciatingly painful and cruel. How strictly is the welfare of the animals monitored? It is a difficult matter to investigate with any degree of thoroughness because outside access to the farms is restricted, and most of the musk grains produced on these farms are consumed within China itself and not made available outside her borders. Given China’s track record on animal welfare, if I were a deer, I think I would prefer to take my chances out in the wild.
JK DeLapp, perfumer of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, is also a licensed and practicing doctor of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in the United States. Because of his contacts in China and in the field (he has worked in many hospitals in China itself), he is able to import deer musk grains directly from these farms, but he is in a tiny minority. When I asked if he could detect any difference in aroma or quality between farmed and wild musk grains, JK replied that ‘there is a difference, but only those with experience would be able to detect it’.
The model for this sort of ‘sustainable deer musk farming’ has not proved reliable, however. Every single one of the Chinese-financed farms in India have failed, for example, demonstrating that musk farming is not a straightforward business. But even if deer musk farms were successful, supply to the perfume industry would likely be a tiny, almost negligible part of the business model. This is because the perfume industry is not the main market for deer musk.
The market for musk
If not the perfume industry, then what is the main market for deer musk?
Strangely enough, it’s medicine.
By far the biggest consumer of deer musk in the world is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), followed by Ayurvedic medicine (Indian traditional medicine), and then Unani medicine (Greco-Arab medicine practiced in India). The perfume sector lags well behind in terms of both demand and usage. Until 1996, the perfume sector absorbed about fifteen percent of the world’s musk supply, but by 2012, due to CITES and the drying up of legal sources, this had shrunk to ten percent[v]. Although there are no exact figures for current usage, one must assume that it is smaller still, perhaps closer to five percent.
Quantifying the exact size of the Chinese market is tricky, but if you consider that Traditional Chinese Medicine accounts for about forty percent of all prescriptions in China as well as twenty-two percent of its clinics[vi], then we are talking about a sizeable chunk of the population of China, which is itself famously, well, sizeable. China and India together absorb at least ninety percent of the world’s available musk.
In the perfume sector, both the demand for, and potential usage of deer musk is extremely limited compared to TCM. If even five percent of China’s 1.371 billion-strong population has an ailment that needs to be treated with musk grains, that is a known market of 68.5 million people. Compare that to the potential pool of people who might want to wear perfume with real deer musk in it, and it is always going to be small potatoes in comparison.
China’s demand for musk is estimated at up to a thousand kilograms per annum[vii], which translates to the musk sacs of at least a hundred thousand musk deer. But globally there are only about seven hundred thousand musk deer left in the wild. Clearly, domestic musk farming does not and cannot fill that gap. Indeed, the bulk of the world’s deer musk – both legal and illegal – ends up in Hong Kong. Given the supply and demand problem, the sums of money changing hands are huge. In India, musk is valued at four times its weight in gold[viii]. Raw musk grains can fetch up to US$50,000 per kilogram in Hong Kong, the hub of the international musk market. All musk in these Far Eastern markets is destined for the TCM and Ayurvedic sectors to make remedies and cures for hospitals and clinics.
In the past five years or so, there has been a small but significance resurgence in the demand for real deer musk in artisanal, small-batch perfumery, mostly thanks to the growing fan base around naturals, distillation, and attar making. Bortnikoff, Areej Le Doré and Ensar Oud are artisanal small-batchers who have all released both mukhallats and spray perfumes featuring genuine deer musk since 2016.
However, the commercial perfume sector will never use real deer musk, given both the difficulty of obtaining a cost-effective and legal source for the large quantities of the material necessary to fill perfume formulas on a mass production scale, and the general revulsion among consumers for products that involve animal cruelty.
Is deer musk illegal?
Some is legal; some is not.
Two things determine the legal status of a specific deer musk. First, the level to which its source animal, i.e., sub-species of musk deer, is endangered, and second, the legislation put in place by individual countries regarding the hunting and trade of musk on their territory.
First, let us look at the endangerment angle. There are eight species of musk deer in the Moschidae family, and they are not all equally endangered. CITES has three classes of endangerment, Appendix I, II, and III, and the different sub-species of musk deer are classified into one of those appendices based on the health of their numbers in the wild.
Moschus leucogaster (the Himalayan musk deer) and Moschus cupreus (the Kashmir musk deer), for example, are Appendix I, which means their numbers are nearing extinction levels, and should not under any circumstance be hunted and killed. But Moschus berezovskii (Chinese forest musk deer) and Moschus moschiferus (Siberian musk deer) are Appendix II, which means their numbers are healthier, and, under certain conditions such as the proper licensing programs and permits, can be hunted and their musk traded.
Thus, something like Kashmiri musk is illegal primarily because its source animal is an Appendix I species approaching extinction. Siberian musk is legal partly because its source animal is not nearing extinction.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) named musk deer an endangered species in the 1980s[ix], restricting the trade of deer musk by its 170 signatory countries. In Resolution Conf. 11.5[x], CITES lists all the relevant musk-producing animals, including the musk deer, and urges all parties ‘to develop alternatives for raw musk in order to reduce demand for natural musk, while encouraging the development of safe and effective techniques for collecting musk from live musk deer.’
In response to the convention, most countries with populations of Appendix I musk deer (species nearing extinction) introduced legislation to ban musk deer hunting outright. India, Mongolia, Korea, and Nepal all responded to the CITES convention with musk deer hunting bans. Signatory countries with populations of less endangered species chose different routes based on individual levels of need and state policy. For example, China, which has an enormous market demand for musk in its traditional medicine sector, banned musk deer hunting in the wild but established government-sponsored musk farms to produce musk legally and without killing the animal.
Russia freely allows the hunting of musk deer within the boundaries of their territory, specifically in Siberia where the Siberian musk deer lives. The Siberian musk deer is not in danger of extinction. Musk grains from Siberia are therefore technically a legal product because they come from legal hunting and from a species listed on Appendix II of the convention, i.e., not threatened with extinction, trade and hunting allowed under the correct licensing systems, etc. Deer hunting in Siberia is reported to be controlled, with hunters applying for licenses in a seasonal lottery that determines what number of deer they can kill. Sometimes they can kill only five deer a season, sometimes twenty. This helps the government keep an eye on overall numbers of the deer population.
In other words, in the murky matter of musk legality, the ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ argument applies. The legal status of the musk depends on the legal status of the source. If your musk comes from a species of deer that is not in danger of extinction and a country that has legalized the hunting and killing of the musk deer, or that has musk farms, then the musk is perfectly legal.
The converse is also true, of course. If the musk comes from illegal hunting in a country that has banned musk deer hunting, then the musk is a product of a criminal activity and is the proverbial fruit of the poisoned tree.
However, as always when it comes to any lucrative resource, illegality abounds. One of the most common Western misconceptions about deer musk is that the CITES designation of the musk deer as an endangered species put an end to deer hunting, and that the shy little deer are bouncing around happily and uninterrupted in the foothills of the Himalayas. This is simply not true. Musk deer hunting continues apace in most of the regions to which it is native, whether the act is legal or not according to the country’s own laws.
In fact, the musk trade is a good example of what happens when overwhelming demand for a product meets the legal banning of said product – i.e., business as normal, albeit conducted under the dark cover of illegality, smuggling, and general tomfoolery. In most cases, the amount of the banned material for sale on the market even increases. The correlation between banning and black marketeering applies to other materials too. In an interview[xi] with me for Basenotes, JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, noted the same phenomenon in the case of the African civet cat:
‘20 years ago, the public pushed cosmetic companies to stop using civet due to the cruelty involved for the civet cat in the extraction process. Did this improve the conditions of civet harvesting? Quite the opposite. Instead, the ban pushed civet paste prices into freefall and brought the civet farmers to the brink of starvation. Because the prices fell so drastically, the farmers tried to make up for lost income by simply producing more and more civet paste, which in turn meant that the civet cats were put under increased pressure and stress to give up their paste. A lose-lose situation for everyone, and by everyone, I also mean the animal.’
This pattern is largely borne out by the evidence of what happens in countries that have banned musk deer hunting outright. For example, India and Pakistan both have laws banning the killing of the musk deer on their territories, but don’t have the resources to control or stop the hunting of the deer. Likewise, the Mongolian government banned musk deer hunting in 1953, two decades even before the CITES ruling, but illegal hunting has whittled the deer population down to a shocking twenty percent of their 1970 levels[xii].
In some regions of India, when deer hunters are caught by local government officials or rangers, the musk pods are confiscated and then later sold by the local government. Confiscated musk therefore becomes legal musk that can be bought and sold for profit on the open market – fruit from the poisoned tree washed clean and sent right back out to market! China has a legal source of musk, through their musk farms. And yet the output is nowhere near the level demanded by the market, and so most of the world’s illegal musk still washes up in China.
The ethics of musk
Most people in the West consider deer musk to be ethically problematic, if not downright wrong. Part of this is due to the issues over legality, with most people assuming that all deer musk is illegal and harvested from an animal close to extinction. But the larger issue is that most Western consumers do not tolerate animal cruelty, to the extent of actively avoiding companies that, for example, sell in China where animal testing for cosmetics and perfumes is still mandatory.
To be clear, deer hunting is cruel and unethical when the animals are killed illegally. Poachers are unconcerned about animal suffering and will often leave the deer to die a horrible death in their crude steel traps. They care only about the musk sac and will discard the rest of the body. A musk sac obtained in this manner carries the same stigma of illegality, waste, and animal cruelty associated with ivory.
By corollary, musk farming and legal hunting through license programs yield musk that is more sustainable from an ethical standpoint. In Siberia, the species of deer being hunted is not a species threatened with extinction, and the hunting lottery system means that only a finite number of musk deer are killed in the region each year. During a licensed hunt, the kill is as humane as possible (shooting instead of trapping).
However, for most people, this is beside the point. Whether the musk is legal or not doesn’t really address the issue of the deer being killed or maimed for the sake of his musk pod. A big concern over hunting animals in the wild boils down to the issue of motive – are we hunting for sport or because the animal is useful to us? Statistically speaking, a far greater number of domestic animals such as cows, chickens, and pigs are slaughtered to give us meat and leather. However, this mass killing of animals has been organized so that it takes place far away from the public eye, behind the walls of abattoirs and factories far away from residential areas. It is a different thing altogether when it comes to the thought of Bambi. Most of us just do not have the stomach for it.
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.