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Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Musk Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Musk: Reviews O-Z

26th November 2021

 

Oriental Musk (Kuumba Made)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Oriental Musk is a light, clean musk built around the idea of Egyptian skin musk but spruced up with some spice in the topnotes.  The laundry drier-sheet aspect to this bothers me a little, but in general, this is a safe and pleasing musk scent for those who just want to smell freshly scrubbed.

 

It is worth mentioning that Oriental Musk would work well in scent-free work environments because it smells exactly like freshly laundered clothes, neutral deodorants, and other personal care products that come with descriptors like ‘cotton’ or ‘clean air’.

 

 

 

Patchouli Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Patchouli Musk’s opening salvo is an odd mishmash of melting plastic, fruit, greasy almond, and nail polish remover, all of which hit the nose in a high-pitched, vaporous whoosh that will probably get you stoned if you huff it too quickly.  It is an interesting, if not altogether pleasant, beginning.  Soon, though, it eases up into a pleasant coconut accord – green leaves pulsed with coconut water in a blender, with underlying hints of sourish, piney sandalwood.  It dawdles in this bright, aromatic groove for a while before softening into a slightly creamier mixture of coconut flesh, woods, and musk, with a chaser of golden salt and marine animal from the ambergris.  In fact, towards the end, it reminds me of an even skankier Sex and The Sea by Francesca Bianchi.

 

It is difficult to detect any patchouli. This is odd because this mukhallat uses a 1997 vintage patchouli oil sourced by Mellifluence in India, an evilly-strong thing that gives me a banging headache if I so much as glance in its general direction.  On its own, the essential oil smells very little like one might expect, opening with a stinging slap of camphor, pine, and mint that never really slumps into the sweet, reddish-brown warmth normally associated with patchouli.  Indian patchouli, in its purest form, emphasizes the leafy, terpenic side of patchouli at the expense of chocolatey earthiness.  As essential oils go, it is strikingly pungent.

 

Making up for the non-appearance of the special Indian patchouli is a subtle deer musk accord.  I didn’t think I was able to smell this until my nose picked up on a musty, earthy nuance like old newspapers and cocoa husks mixed together with a bit of something plasticky.  I have come to understand that this combination of aromas signifies the presence of real deer musk.  

 

The musk gets earthier and more cocoa-like as time wears on.  It is very subtle, and those used only to the honking foulness of fake musks in mukhallat perfumery will write in to complain.  But, to paraphrase Teri Hatcher’s character in Seinfeld – it is real and it is fabulous.  Overall, Patchouli Musk is a gentle way with which to ease oneself into real deer musk.  It is well done and nowhere near as linear or as straightforward as its simple name suggests. 

 

 

 

Pheromone 4 (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Pheromone 4 is based on a brew of four animalic substances – ambergris, deer musk, civet, and castoreum.  Despite the presence of some ferocious animalics, the blend does not come off as dirty or indeed as musky.  Pheromone 4 is about as animalic as rice pudding, which it also happens to resemble.  That said, this is a pleasure to wear and to smell, sliding effortlessly as it does from floral porridge to a powdery white chocolate note that lingers for hours on the skin.

 

The rice pudding-like milkiness may owe something to an unlisted addition of other lactonic notes, such as, say, gardenia or sandalwood.  I would put good money on it being a combination of sandalwood, vanilla, and jasmine, though, because Pheromone runs quite closely at times to floral sandalwood perfumes like Dries Van Noten by Frederic Malle.

 

Pheromone 4 is also astonishingly like Feromone Donna by Abdes Salaam Attar (Dominique Dubrana) of La Via del Profumo.  Feromone Donna features a similar, although not identical, notes list to Pheromone 4 – jasmine, civet, ambergris, tuberose, and vanilla.  Like Pheromone 4, these materials come together to form a wheaten smoothness that is part instant porridge, part white chocolate.

 

If you like creamy, milky floral woody compositions, then Pheromone 4 has your name written all over it.  Those who dislike the sharp foulness of animalic substances in isolation need to sample this to understand that, sometimes, if you put a whole bunch of scary animalics together, what happens is that they cancel each other out.  The result here is about as threatening as a bowl of custard.

 

 

 

Phoebus (Arcana)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Smoked vanilla, sweet resins, red musk, marshmallow, and fiery woodsmoke.

 

 

Phoebus is a good example of the ‘red musk’ so often cited in the descriptions of perfume oils composed by American indie oil companies such as Arcana, Solstice Scents, BPAL, and Alkemia.  Red musk does not exist in nature, you understand, being simply an imaginative way of dressing up synthetic white musk as witchy or mysterious-sounding.  But indie perfume oils are not strictly bound by their raw materials.  What is important here is that the result smells good and matches a specific fantasy the consumer is looking for.

 

Phoebus is built around the same resin-beeswax-woody-vanilla axis found in many of Arcana’s perfumes.  But it deviates from the template by dressing up its big bubblegummy musk with a shot of barbeque-strength smoke and an interesting (and probably unintentional) whiff of sulfur as richly gassy as a kitchen where broccoli is being cooked.

 

Somehow, it works.  At first, the nose is hit with the weird but wonderful smell of strawberry Hubba Bubba gum catching fire and smoking on a BBG grill, then a rich, salty vanilla and tonka heart overlaid with sulfur, and finally a resiny woodsmoke and vanilla blend.  It does not feel grown-up in the slightest, but that is probably half the fun here.   

 

 

 

Prince Kasthuri (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Prince Kasthuri is pungent to the point of being fecal, but this soon simmers down into a warm, dusky aroma that, while never less than animalic, is not rough, sharp, or piercing.  Indeed, what marks Prince Kasthuri out as a quality mukhallat is its velvety feel.  Compared to Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate, it is far darker and woodier, with a sootier backbone.

 

While Prince Kasthuri is considerably less sweet and powdery than other deer musks I have tried, the lingering sweetness intrinsic to deer musk does peek through every now and then.  Those unused to deer musk will certainly perceive it as animalic, but it is more the natural fug of closely-pressed sheep in a stall than of excrement or urine.  In terms of authenticity, I would hazard a guess that this blend contains a small quantity of real deer musk that has been fleshed out a bit at the corners with cedar, cypriol, and musk synthetics.  In general, the scent stays true to the character of an older Himalayan musk sample I have, which is dark, animalic, but not particularly loud.  It does not, however, smell like true Kasturi musk, which tends to be brighter, more uplifting, and less pungent in aroma than other types of deer musk.

 

 

 

Rawa’a Murakkaz (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Rawa’a Murakkaz is a cloying floral musk with a thick, pressed-powder texture and oily almond undertones.  Firmly in the thematic ballpark of heliotropic children’s bath and body oils (Johnson’s and Johnson’s™), many will find this very glamorous in a retro-feminine manner, but to my personal taste, it is a grim and airless affair.

 

A sharp floral tonality emerges as time goes on but fails to coalesce into anything clearly recognizable as any one flower.  Rose and jasmine would be my guess, although the edges are blurred to the degree that everything merges into one freshly-laundered plush toy accord.  It is not fresh, per se, but exhaustively clean in the fashion of Teint de Neige (Villoresi).

 

 

 

Royal Dark Musk (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Royal Dark Musk achieves two things simultaneously – darkness and comfort.  While it is not a clean laundry musk, its funk translates to delicious things such as stewed fruit, bitter chocolate, velvet, damp earth, smoke, and flowers rather than matted fur and fecal matter.  Tested side by side with a nose-searingly animalic musk such as Ajmal’s Musk Gazelle AA, it becomes clear that this is a more complex, layered effort.

 

Texturally, Royal Dark Musk’s chocolate-dense darkness contains a great deal of internal movement and detail.  As the musk settles and the wetter topnotes dry out, facets of jasmine, patchouli, woods, honey, and incense begin to emerge.  The smoky trail of bone-dry incense and musks towards the ten-hour mark is divine, and draped over a lush undergrowth of vetiver, it even takes on a Conradesque glower.

 

Not nearly as animalic as the Ajmal Musk Gazelle or the superior ASAQ Musk Ghazal, Royal Dark Musk is a perfect fit for those who feel Serge Lutens’ Musc Khoublai Khan is just a cuddly little kitten (rather than the monster it is sometimes made out to be) and wants to step it up.

 

 

 

Saffron Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Saffron Musk pairs a pure, leathery saffron oil with a vintage, twenty-year-old deer musk for a result that threatens to mow you down in its path.  The first blast is unmistakably saffron, one of the most potent raw materials known to man.  The topnotes explode with a fiery intensity – dusty, almost meaty, and for a spice, animalic in its pungency.

 

I have smelled the pure Indian saffron used in this mukhallat, and in general, it is true to the essential oil, especially in its piercing rawness.  In the context of this mukhallat, however, the dustiness of the saffron is increased due to the presence of the deer musk, which acts as a magnifying glass.  The musk also adds a sweetness that lingers in the powdery drydown.

 

Interestingly, the deer musk does not smell as pungent as the raw material itself, a tincture that I have also smelled in isolation.  What it adds to this mukhallat is a warm lingering furriness, like the underside of a beloved family dog who has just taken a long hard run in the mountains.  Highly recommended for both saffron and deer musk freaks.  Keep in mind, however, that the Indian saffron oil used here is so strong that it has the potential to cause headaches in people who are sensitive to strong aromas. 

 

 

 

Sed Non Satiata (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: A pounding heartbeat coalesced into scent: demonic passion and brutal sexuality manifested through myrrh, red patchouli, cognac, honey, and tuberose and geranium in a breathy, panting veil over the darkest body musk.

 

 

Sed Non Satiata is quite the morpher, cycling quickly through several stages on the skin.  The opening is quite characteristically BPAL in that it features a big dose of that slightly witchy house brew of sharp honey, bubblegummy red musk, and headshop patchouli.  (It is basically the same opening as in other BPALs such as Bloodlust and Malice).  This eau de BPAL comes on strong at first, blasting the sinuses with a slightly headachy mixture of sharp and sweet resin that catches at the throat.

 

Many people have described this scent as possessing a strong peanut butter facet.  But honestly, I think either someone just said this once and now everyone feels they have to repeat it or there is an especially esoteric brand of peanut butter out there that I have not yet inhaled in the name of science.

 

The searing floral honey and resin blast softens about an hour in, turning into a bewilderingly pretty base of creamy vanilla, fluffy musk, fruit, and flowers.  The patchouli self-soothes into an earthy, fertile smell that smells more like chocolate than herb, melting down seamlessly into a cushiony musk.  Oh dear, time for that cashmere shawl cliché once again, I’m afraid – Sed Non Satiata was born to live in the fibers of your favorite winter woolies.  

 

In the far drydown of the scent, one last surprise – the aroma of salty, warm skin.  Although far from dirty, there is something very sensual and earthy about the musk used here.  It makes me think of the silty funk of ambergris or hina musk, the Indian attar that mixes ambery resins with ambrette seed, sharp herbs, and aromatics for an effect that comes close to a properly furry animal musk.  Sed Non Satiata gains my admiration for performing a balletic turn from headshop to frothy cream to sensual skin musk.  In surprising the wearer with its minute twists and turns, Sed Non Satiata is anything but your average indie headshop oil.

 

 

 

Silk Musk (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A thin, citrusy white musk with a massively chemical muguet note.  There are much better white musks out there for the price.  Some of them even by Ajmal.

 

 

 

Tsuga Musk (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Tsuga Musk is a good example of how an attar maker can emphasize the quieter, more delicate facets of real musk by pairing it with similar materials. As musk mukhallats go, this is powdery and irisy, with soft cocoa-like touches.  Tsuga Musk is built around a special vintage material that once depleted can never be replaced, namely a fifty-year-old musk paste found in the possessions of a Yemeni perfumer when he died.  Framing the powdery, intimate scent of the old musk is an array of coniferous woods, resins, and ambergris, all set in place to accentuate a certain briny freshness at the heart of the musk’s aroma.

 

There is a huge amount of good quality orris butter up front, presenting as a pure grey suede purse.  When the orris mingles with the vintage musk unguent, it fuses into a powdered dark chocolate or cocoa note, laced with spearmint.  Under the haze of minty, starchy orris and cocoa, the fine grey leather strengthens as the true heart of the scent.  The musk is beautifully placed in this attar – it is neither pungent nor strong, but soft, dusty, earthy, and slightly ‘stale’, like old chocolate bars developing a white bloom.  This nuance of the musk melds perfectly with the flinty orris butter, and it is a match made in heaven.

 

It is only at the edges of the scent, and then in the far drydown, that I catch the salty, briny notes that capture the marine air the mukhallat maker was aiming for.  These notes are finally brought forth by the silty, marine breeze of ambergris, which is simultaneously sweet and salty, but not really substantial, coming across more like molecules of sparkling sea air than something you can touch.  In its last gasp, vetiver, civet, patchouli, and hemlock contribute a chypre-like woody bitterness that adds backbone to the scent.    

 

 

 

Whidia (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Whither, Whidia?  This is a clean floral musk of the laundry softener genre, enriched by a dollop of ylang crème anglaise.  Like me in middle school – competent but hardly exceptional.

 

 

 

White Musk (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

 

With a texture that recalls the stickiness of a half-sucked lollipop, this is less musk than Maltol.  Candied orange blossom adds rather than detracts from the problem.  If you want a good white musk from the Arabian Oud stable, pony up for the lovely White Musk Maliki Superior (below) instead.

 

 

 

White Musk Maliki Superior (Arabian Oud)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

White Musk Maliki Superior is a cuddy, thick-as-a-cashmere-blanket white musk that flashes fruits and flowers at you before settling into softness for the rest of the ride.  It is one of those rare perfumes where ‘clean’ is not necessarily a dirty word.  It is slightly sharper than the famous Abdul Samad Al Qurashi Jism (Body) Musk, but with broadly comparable quality.   Highly recommended to people searching for a clean white musk attar that gives off that vaunted ‘my skin but better’ vibe.

 

 

 

Zuibeda (Gulab Singh Johrimal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Yet another chemical floral monstrosity out of a house that supposedly only does natural Indian attars.  Zuibeda opens on a screechy white musk with the kind of green apple and cucumber accents that are only ever acceptable in laundry softener.  It dries down to a generic green aroma about which the nicest thing that can be said is that it is not offensive. 

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples: I purchased samples (or in some cases quarter tola bottles) from Arabian Oud, Mellifluence, Arcana, BPAL, Agarscents Bazaar, Rasasi, and Ajmal.  The samples from Henry Jacques and Gulab Singh Johrimal are from Basenotes sample passes.

 

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! 

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Musk Review Single note exploration The Attar Guide

Musk: Reviews K-M

24th November 2021

 

Kama (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

 

Kama is a musk fragrance with a briefly fecal topnote that sees it frequently compared to the famous Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens.  Beyond the fecal note, however, the two fragrances are quite different.  Whereas Muscs Khoublai Khan draws on a complex mixture of musk, castoreum, civet, and ambrette to achieve a warmly-furred texture, Kama employs a much simpler structure, leaning instead on the poopy facets of cedarwood and a synthetic musk molecule for its animalic effect.

 

Cedarwood can smell of feces and coffee breath in dilution, an odd effect that is cleverly accentuated in fragrances such as Santal Noble by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier and Woody Sandalwood Oil by The Body Shop.  This facet of cedarwood is brought out in Kama by way of a particularly ‘unclean’ musk molecule – possibly Tonquitone.  The overall feel of the fragrance is musky in a plain, sharply woody manner, with a hint of medicinal herbs lurking at the corners.

 

Is Kama properly dirty?  Oh yes.  Does it stand up against a more complex creation such as Muscs Khoublai Khan?  Nope. 

 

 

 

Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate opens with the same dark fecal note as in the brand’s own Prince Kasthuri, reviewed later.  Thankfully, the pooey pong of the opening quickly dissolves into a medley of far friendlier aromas, namely bright honey, white flowers, meadow grass, and a nutty, roasted accent that eventually reveals itself to be vetiver.  These notes dance in and around the heavy musky accord at the center of the scent, and for a while, there is parity between the musk and the vetiver, flowers, and honey.

 

All too rapidly, however, the scent dries down to the same smoky, dry cedar note that is present in most other Agarscents Bazaar perfumes.  Whether this is cedar, cypriol, or frankincense it is difficult to say, only that it has the same charcoal dust quality as the material used in Comme des Garcons Black.  This gives the mukhallat a curiously transparent smokiness more reminiscent of birch tar or smoked-out church resin than of musk.

 

I am confident that this blend does not feature much, if any, genuine deer musk.  Furthermore, I give serious side eye to the suggestion that this is all-natural.  It does not smell like any natural musk I have ever smelled.  However, if you are not overly concerned with the naturalness of the deer musk, there is no reason not to enjoy Kashmiri Kasthuri Ultimate for what it is.  If you are into pungent, spicy musks and protracted smoky-woody drydowns, then both this and Prince Kasthuri would make for excellent, albeit pricey, choices.  Both blends lean masculine.

 

 

 

Kiswat Al Kaaba (Abdul Samad al Qurashi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Roughly translating to the scent emanating from the cloth covering the Ka’aba in Mecca, this is an example of a nice, middle-of-the-road musk mukhallat.  It mixes a greenish, antiseptic musk note with rose, amber, patchouli, and perhaps a touch of fruity Cambodi oud.  Its pleasantly woody, resinous backdrop supports the musk without becoming intrusive.  The overall feel is rich, dusty and serene.

 

On the skin it feels dense, fragrant, and almost sweet, with sillage that is quite impressive, though never loud or overbearing.  The musk becomes steadily more animalic in character as the day wears on, but the effect is subtle and woven seamlessly into the other notes.  A very good option for someone searching for a musk that hits the happy median between clean and dirty.

 

 

 

Love’s True Bluish Light (Ava Luxe)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

This is one of Ava Luxe’s most revered scents, and for good reason.  A cold vanilla musk with hints of sweet milk, it is immediately likeable.  The basic thrust of the scent is a skin-like Egyptian musk accord, its translucence clouded by drops of vanilla milkshake.  And like milkshake, there is something a little too sweet or sticky about it as it melts.  But boy, that initial blast of icy sweetness is just wonderful.

 

Love’s True Bluish Light runs very close to Au Lait by DSH Perfumes, as well as to examples of cool vanilla musks found throughout the indie perfume oil sector, most notably Crystalline by NAVA and Snowshoe Pass by Solstice Scents.  Highly recommended for people who want an emotionally remote rendition of musk and vanilla.

 

 

 

Lust (BPAL)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Company description: Uncontrollable passion and insatiable sexual desire: red musk, patchouli, ylang ylang and myrrh.

 

 

Along with Snake Oil, Lust is probably one of the BPAL scents that even outsiders know by name.  Lust starts out sharp and feral, with an almighty roar of potent red musk, red berries, and rubbery, petrol-like ylang ylang.  Grit your teeth, for this all eventually settles into an incredibly warm, earthy musk scent that manages to extract and showcase the best facets of each note, namely, the damp cocoa softness of patchouli, the banana custard elements of ylang, the fungal earthiness of myrrh, and the cinnamon furriness of ‘red’ musk.

 

Lust is one of the BPAL blends always being touted as being sexy or sensual, and for once, I have to say it lives up to its billing.

 

 

 

Maisam (Rasasi)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Maisam is a sharp floral musk with hints of rose and cleaning detergent.  Like all the mukhallats from Rasasi, the trajectory from top to bottom is remarkably short, with the initial accords collapsing far too quickly into a soapy musk pinned to the base.

 

The musk here is dry to the point of being scratchy and as mineral as water running off a rock.  It leans slightly masculine in the drydown, with vetiver or moss lingering in the trail of parched musk.  Like Oudh al Mithali by the same house, Maisam is a face made up of blurred, indistinguishable features.  Undeniably attractive from a distance, up close it proves difficult to zone in on any one note or accord that might define it.  Maisam smells vaguely exotic but has little to offer by way of richness or interest.

 

 

 

Moschus Supreme (Mellifluence)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Moschus Supreme is made with twenty-year-old Himalayan deer musk, and therefore only available in small quantities.  It is also eye-wateringly expensive.  The opening is a wave of the warm, toffee-like tones of the vintage Cretan labdanum absolute that Mellifluence uses in its mukhallats. Rich and caramelized, the labdanum dominates the opening for a while, before revealing the medicinal properties of the deer musk.  There is an ammoniac smell to some deer musk tinctures, and this aspect is emphasized here.  Note that this accord is not unpleasant.  It simply alerts your nose to the presence of a genuinely animalic material.

 

I have smelled the twenty-year-old Himalayan deer musk used in Moschus Supreme.  So, allow me to reassure you that while the original tincture is phenomenally dirty, with nuances ranging from sweaty pack animals to urine, Moschus Supreme itself is about as objectionable as kitten fur.  The musk element smells clean, furry, and a little ammoniac, but that is the extent of it.  Nothing to scare the horses.  In the far drydown, the musk does grow a little deeper and dirtier, but again, you would have to have a fairly low tolerance of animalic smells to find it truly ‘dirty’.

 

Despite the listed presence of oud, benzoin, pepper, and mitti attar, Moschus Supreme is a one-two punch of labdanum and musk.  The labdanum lends a rounded, warm caramel sweetness to the musk, and the musk a gently furred animalic tone that lingers in the nostrils almost indefinitely.  Belying its grandiose name, Moschus Supreme is a fairly basic take on the genre.  However, given that it avoids the foulness of most other dark musk mukhallats, and manages to smell rather pleasant, I give it a faint thumbs up.

 

 

 

Musc (Bruno Acampora)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Musc is a great example of how musk can be both vaguely repellent and mysteriously attractive at the same time.  I love Musc, but it is a total mind trip.  It is not in the slightest bit sweet, powdery, or milky, but neither is it dirty, hairy, or scary.  It is just….odd.  And it is precisely this oddness that makes it so memorable.

 

Musc is a musk scent that smells of places and things rather than animals or humans.  Opening with a hugely musty patchouli and what smells to me like the clay-like pungency of pure lavender, I am not surprised that most people interpret it as mushroomy.  It occurs to me that the famously fungal opening to Acampora’s Iranzol is also due to a very Italian, very pungent (almost saline) medley of wet kitchen herbs and patchouli.  The clove note is dusty and stale-smelling, like radiator dust mixed with sweat.  I am also betting on some myrrh, its anisic-mushroomy facets muscling their way to the front. 

 

The salty-aqueous nature of Musc makes me think of the peat bogs of Western Ireland, where clods of wet soil mixes with the salt air from off the Atlantic.  It smells a little like cold cellars full of hearty parsnips and roots.

 

But its mustiness also reminds me of woolen sweaters taken out of storage, and the ramshackle home of an old friend of mine, where everything they had was handmade by their ex-hippy mother, even their shoes.  I loved their home and its musty smell.  I will always remember the ‘summer of love’ that I spent there, getting paid peanuts by her dad to paint flowers and peace signs on huge recycling bins, and listening to the Beatles on repeat.

 

Musc is a fragrance that will be entirely personal to its wearer because of its refusal to conform to conventional ideas about how musk should smell.  It is cold rather than warm, salty rather than sweet, and so on.  It smells both of the outside (peat bogs) and the inside (closed up rooms and hand-me-down clothes), but also intimately yeasty, like the moist neck fold of a fat baby.  Genre-shaking stuff, and seventies enough to make you feel like a shag pile carpet and a full bush are required to wear it. 

 

 

 

Musc au Chocolat (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musc au Chocolate is a good example of how deer musk can be made to smell almost entirely gourmand.  Musk au Chocolat goes on dusty and flat, but immediately fluffs out into a warm, furry musk tucked inside swaddling blankets of thick, dry vanilla and tangy cocoa powder.  The Mysore sandalwood used here adds its own quasi-gourmand touch, because, as everyone who loves Mysore sandalwood knows, it is as foody as it is woody – thick, buttery, salty and sweet, with a balsamic tang that recalls both buttermilk and caramel.  The Kashmiri musk in the blend is soft and bright, its pungency only noticeable when you take your nose away from the skin for a while and then return it.

Musc au Chocolat smells rather like a musk-impregnated Ore (Slumberhouse), minus the smoky guaiac and Carmex lip balm notes.  I make this observation not to imply that one might substitute for the other, but to suggest that Musk au Chocolat performs the same trick of smelling delicious but not candy-like.  This mukhallat is a great showcase for how an artisan can accentuate and extend the sweet, powdery, and cocoa-like facets of real deer musk, nudging it in a gourmand direction, while maintaining the characteristic animalistic furriness of musk and thus making sure you would not want to eat it.

 

 

 

Musc d’Orange (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musc d’Orange is a spicy, masculine-leaning Moorish leather scent.  Built according to the Spanish tradition of curing leather with flowers and spices, Musc d’Orange features a fuel-soaked, orangey leather over a base of animalic castoreum, civet, and real Kashmiri musk.

 

With its spicy, rubbery diesel undertones, this will appeal to fans of the rougher Spanish leather-style fragrances out there, such as the classic Knize Ten, Peau d’Espagne (Santa Maria Novella), and Cuir Mauresque (Serge Lutens).  It features the same dichotomy featured in most leathers of this style, namely the wayward tug between the aridity of the spices and the syrupy feel of the florals, all of which adds up to that dry-but-creamy mouthfeel that makes these leathers so satisfying (and, to some, nauseating).

 

Musc d’Orange is a much tougher, less floral fragrance than the same house’s Musc et Fleurs, but there is a common note that places them roughly in the same family – possibly the rubbery, potent Indian tuberose and the orange-tinted leather accord that either accompanies the tuberose or is a nuance of it.

 

The natural musk in this attar is not overpowering or dirty, displaying only the softly powdered furriness of real musk.  This is a mukhallat maker that has real talent in using deer musk in a subtle, considered manner.  He uses it to enhance the experience of the other raw materials rather than to clobber you over the head with a feral dirtiness.  Solidly classical, I recommend Musc d’Orange highly to fans of the masculine Spanish leather genre. 

 

 

 

Musc et Fleurs (Duftkumpels)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musc et Fleurs opens with a stinging medicinal accord – probably the Hindi oud – which softens into a soft, rich floral heart draped over an Indian sandalwood base.  The buttery, gasoline-tinged tuberose is the standout of the flowers here, but jasmine and rose also play a significant role in the overall richness.  This arrangement of flowers feels almost classical, in the mold of Joy or Ubar, although much sweeter and tamer.  It lacks the sour civet note that defines those scents.  Still, there is a leathery aspect to the tuberose that adds verve to the mass of softer floral notes, keeping them upright and moving forward.

 

The salty radiance of natural ambergris and the sweet furriness of real deer musk serve as a bed of hot coals that blows hot air under the flowers and woods, causing them to expand sweetly into the air in a billowing cloud.  Creamy and almost cocoa-ish thanks to the addition of patchouli, the final impression of the scent is of a thickly furred musk with a trail of powdered sugar sweetness.  The orange peel-flecked tuberose rears its heads now and then, but the overall effect is soft and subtle rather than overbearing.

 

A note on the musk used here.  The musk is natural Kashmiri deer musk and is bright and uplifting rather than heavy or animalic.  It is not dirty or foul in any way, simply adding to the furred warmth of this wonderful ambery-resinous floral   Intoxicating and complex, I could exclusively wear this and Musc au Chocolat for the rest of my life and not feel like I’m missing out on anything. 

 

 

 

Musc Pur (Agarscents Bazaar)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is a good rendition of the basic white musk attar released by every single attar company in the world.  White musk oils, sometimes called jism or body musks, cost pennies to make because the extent of the perfumer’s art here is simply diluting the white musk synthetic with a carrier oil.  (All white musks are synthetic).  Little to add here except to say that this is a decent version – slightly sweet, clean, and dressed up with a hint of rose.  One can find much more reasonably-priced specimens elsewhere on the Internet, but for the money, this is one of the smoothest.

 

 

 

Musk (Nemat)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Although the label specifies nothing other than musk, I suspect that this is an Egyptian-style musk rather than a deer musk or a generic white musk, because it is yellow in color and features a clear-as-a-bell floral character.  The floral bouquet is sweet and clean, a blurry mélange of rose, muguet, or jasmine (although it is truly difficult to tell).  Unfortunately, the overly abstract nature of the flowers means that it also runs perilously close to the scent of laundry detergent.  Backing the florals is a vein of medicinal saffron and woods. It is fine for an Egyptian musk, but I think there is better out there.  Not bad in a pinch, though, if all you want to smell like is freshly-scrubbed.

 

 

 

Musk al Oud (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

A puzzling experience, and one that makes me wonder if my sample has soured.  First, there is a blast of something greasy and stale, like the air escaping from a long-unopened lunchbox.  It eventually dries down to a pale ghost of Montale’s Cuir d’Arabie without the charm of that scent’s half-feral, half-gentlemanly split personality. 

 

 

 

Musk al Ghazal (Al Haramain)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Al Haramain’s Musk al Ghazal is obviously not real deer musk, but still, it is quite a decent option for when you want a hit of ‘black’ musk without the heavy, fecal facets of some dark musks on the market.  It opens cool and herbal, with a Coca-Cola undertone.  Some people may even be tempted to call this chocolatey, but in truth, it is too sharp and herbal to qualify for that descriptor.  It is musky but in a clean, uber-fresh way, a smidgen of hospital soap lurking at its corners.

 

Once the anise and caraway notes bank down, the musk becomes deeper and woodier.  It would make for a good layering agent under sweet ambers and gourmands to give them depth, or as a standalone musk attar for men who like their musks dark, woody, and herbal instead of sweet or powdery.  Perfectly serviceable, really, under the circumstances. 

 

 

 

Musk Aswad (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musk Aswad, which means ‘black musk’ in Arabic, is Al Faransi’s take on the famous black musk attars of the Middle East.  Given that this take runs more towards earthy than dirty, it is a more versatile option than the standard black musk prototype, each variant of which seems to try to out-poo the other.  

 

Musk Aswad opens with a powerfully antiseptic musk with greenish spice and a peppery vetiver lurking in the background.  The vetiver swells in presence beyond the opening, lending the composition a damp, earthy rootiness that feels like cool water running over moss and stones.  It is not at all sweet, but later in the blend’s development, there appear traces of deeply spiced fruit (plum) and a dark honey or mead note.  These elements add body and richness to the musk, but no sweetness.

 

In short, Musk Aswad is a clean and masculine-smelling musk, with a pleasantly winey richness creeping up on the backbone of mossy vetiver.  The texture changes impressively throughout its development, from a hard blast of antiseptic fluid to jungly vetiver and finally to a velvety, plummy richness as thick as coddled wine.  It is an original take on the black musk theme and recommended to musk fans looking for an interesting detour on the usual musk axis running between squeaky clean and fecal dirtiness. 

 

 

 

Musk Attar 2011 (Rising Phoenix Perfumery)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musk Attar contains real deer musk.  It opens with a strangely familiar odor, which defies explanation except to say that it lies somewhere between glue, plastic, varnish, and something industrial but warm and putty-like.  Repeated wears make me suspect that some of these odd (but not unpleasant) nuances might be given off by the type of sandalwood oil used in the attar.

 

Sandalwood can often smell gluey, terpenic, or peanut shell-ish in aroma profile, depending on the distillation or provenance.  The sandalwood used in Musk Attar 2011 is high-toned and raw, more reminiscent of a freshly-split log of wood than the buttery, resinous sandalwood oil used in other Rising Phoenix Perfumery attars.  But it is more likely the strange, gluey overtones have something to do with the interaction between the deer musk and the sandalwood.  Some deer musks have a sweet, plasticky or rubbery smell, akin to the waft of air that greets the nose when you open your children’s’ lunchboxes after a summer of disuse. 

 

Beyond the first wave of sandalwood high notes, there rises a familiar skin-like aroma that combines facets of stale cocoa powder, cocoa husks, woods and newspaper, and something a little boozy and fruity, like apple schnapps.  This is the musk coming forward a bit more.  The overall aroma is as intimate as your lover’s pillow in the morning, fragrantly damp with saliva and skin cells.

 

At this stage, the scent is neutral in aroma profile, as well as abstract.  It does not remind me of anything concrete like flowers or leather.  It is just a pale, cloudy mixture of neutral musk and wood, whipped into a meringue-like texture.  The musk note is quite delicate, and towards the drydown, the sandalwood swells up once again, obscuring the aroma of the musk almost entirely.  The sandalwood in the base smells very different to the varnish-like wood in the topnotes; there is no strangeness here, just a deeply aromatic, buttery sandalwood in the Rising Phoenix Perfumery fashion.  It seems to grow in strength and volume in the far reaches of the drydown, which is probably the musk and the sandalwood amplifying each other in turn until their voices soar a little higher.

 

 

 

Musk Dulcedinis (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Dulcedinis means ‘sweet’ in Latin, and boy, they weren’t kidding.  This is a caramelized, thick-with-iris-starch musk freshened up with a slug of aloe vera.  At first, the thick laundry musk is all you can smell, but before you get too down about it, the texture begins to be stippled here and there with small droplets of aloe-scented shampoo and Dove body lotion, which seem to ‘pop’ in contact with the skin.  It is slightly sharper and sweeter than other white body musks, but its cosseting thickness will likely appeal to lovers of bath powders and milky lotions. 

 

 

 

Musk Gazelle AA (Ajmal)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Ajmal’s Musk Gazelle – issued under two different names or versions, varying only in concentration – is a great example of what most people believe real deer musk smells like or indeed what it should smell like, therefore making it something of a benchmark in the genre.  Unfortunately, since Musk Gazelle is unlikely to contain much if any real deer musk, it is also responsible for perpetuating misconceptions about what musk smells like.

 

And that is unfortunate, because Musk Gazelle is loud, filthy to the point of being fecal, and harsh to boot.  Wearing it feels like being on the losing end of a bet.  In case anyone is in any doubt, it is like being forced into a barn with a thousand defecating animals, all air vents closed off and the heating turned up to a hundred degrees.  I am aware that this description is disgusting – but to be fair, so is Musk Gazelle AA.

 

 

 

Musk Gazelle Grade 2 (Majid Muzaffar Iterji)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

This is a dark, quasi-fecal musk, the likes of which is standard fodder for any Middle Eastern mukhallat house.  Musk Gazelle Grade 2 is somewhat distinguished from its peers by way of a subtle dusting of dark cocoa, which progresses from bitter to velvety over the course of the wear.  Even if you don’t normally like cocoa notes, you will welcome them here for the softening effect they have on the fetid musk.

 

Just how dirty is this?  Well, as in the case of all black musks, it is all a matter of degrees.  Musk Gazelle Grade 2 is properly dirty, but it is also soft, which is its saving grace.  A fecal fist inside a velvet glove.

 

 

 

Musk Oil Black (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Despite the name – which makes it sound like just another one of those dark, foul-smelling musks so enduringly popular in the genre – Musk Oil Black is a brisk spice-laden affair that has more in common with old-fashioned barbershop colognes than with the souk.  It smells like benzoin and cinnamon soap, and the salty musk on Daddy’s neck after a long commute home.  A less floral Kiehl’s Original Musk, or, as a friend on Basenotes mentioned, Old Spice.  Forget the notes list for this one.  Musk Oil Black is a soapy carnation musk that walks the thin line between clean and dirty with aplomb.

 

 

 

Musk Oil White (Henry Jacques)

Type: concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Musk Oil White is a white musk with all the freshly-laundered softness we have come to expect from its ilk.  To its credit, it is not entirely phoned in.  The ‘white noise’ sound of the musk has been upholstered with a chorus of powdery florals – mimosa, iris, and freesia – for a lustrous depth that goes beyond the initial impression of belly fluff.  Therefore, Musk Oil White has more in common with ‘complete’ perfumes such Lorenzo Villoresi’s Teint de Neige than with the bog standard white musks released by all the big mukhallat companies.  Still, there is no good reason to spend $500 on a white musk. 

 

 

 

Musk Ravz For Men (Perfume Parlour)

Type: dupe, concentrated perfume oil

 

 

Dupe for: Parfums Editions de Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur

 

The topnotes of the dupe are clearly aiming for the bright lavender and spice opening of Musc Ravageur, but they land instead on an accord that is half Indian spice rack and half sherbet, like a fistful of lemon-scented Love Hearts blitzed down into a fine dust.  It is an unfortunate, even off-putting opening.  (Of course, there are people who claim that of the original, too.)

 

Once the unsettling opening settles, a creamy mixture of musk, woods, and vanilla comes to the fore, with the same funky doughnut-like undertone as the original.  The cinnamon inches its way forwards quite aggressively until it dominates the sweet, bready musk.  But the cinnamon note is at least sparkling and Coca Cola-ish rather than heavy.

 

Overall, the dupe catches at one or two of the main ‘movements’ in Musc Ravageur, and thus pulls off quite a convincing impression.  Where the dupe loses points is in the drydown, which lacks the essential texture of the original, arrived at by a combination of velvety woods, civety raunchiness, and creamy tonka.  However, the dupe could be good for layering under the original, as well as under the stalwart oriental that inspired Musc Ravageur, i.e., Shalimar.

 

 

 

Musk Tahara Al Faransi (Abdul Karim Al Faransi/Maison Anthony Marmin)

Type: mukhallat

 

 

Musk Tahara is the title used for the standard, white body musks (‘missk’) put out by all the Middle Eastern and Indian attar houses, and as the name suggests, this is the Al Faransi take.  The obligatory white musk is usually a bit of a snooze in comparison to the other perfumes, but surprisingly, this brand chose not to phone it in.

 

Opening with a mouthwatering, but sharp and almost boozy nut aroma that makes me think of noisette liquors flavored with bitter herbs and hazelnuts, Musk Tahara Al Faransi is immediately and gratifyingly novel.   There is a floury, gluey texture to this smell, reminiscent of the chestnut accord in Cloon Keen Atelier’s Castaña and the peanut shell and heliotrope of Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur. There’s also an undertone of something milkily poisonous that I find rather alluring. 

 

This accord of milky, gluey nut-dust is soon joined by a Taifi rose that adds a piercingly green, leafy note.  The sharp nuttiness continues throughout, but the rosiness eventually fades away, leaving the white musk to swell up and take over for the rest of its very long life.  Although the ending is less interesting than the beginning, this will please someone who loves plush, clean musks but has grown tired of the cottony blandness inherent to the genre.  Boring is one thing this musk ain’t.

 

 

 

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.

 

Source of samples:  I purchased samples from Mellifluence, Maison Anthony Marmin, Ava Luxe, BPAL, Majid Muzaffar Iterji, Agarscents Bazaar, Rasasi, Bruno Acampora, Duftkempels, Nemat, Ajmal, Al Haramain, and Perfume Parlour.  The samples from Rising Phoenix Perfumery were sent to me free of charge by the brand.  The samples from Henry Jacques are from a Basenotes sample pass.

 

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.

Attars & CPOs Mukhallats Musk Single note exploration The Attar Guide The Business of Perfume

Musk: Technicalities, Legalities, and Ethicalities

24th November 2021

 

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.

 

 

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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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bundo-kim-ur2zmbseUIA-unsplash-683x1024.jpg

 

Photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash

 

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.

 

 

[i] http://checklist.cites.org/#/en

[ii] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e02.htm

[iii] https://www.drugs.com/npp/musk.html

[iv] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e03.htm

[v] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/03/the-musk-deer-of-india/

[vi] http://universitasforum.org/index.php/ojs/article/view/63/242

[vii] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2007/10/traditional-chinese-medicine-and-endangered-animals/

[viii] http://www.fao.org/docrep/q1093e/q1093e03.htm

[ix] http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/muscone/musconeh.htm

[x] https://cites.org/eng/res/11/11-07.php

[xi] http://www.basenotes.net/features/3505-conversations-with-the-artisan-amp-colon-jk-delapp-of-the-rising-phoenix-perfumery

[xii] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/03/the-musk-deer-of-india/

Ambrette Animalic Independent Perfumery Iris Leather Musk Review Suede

Flesh by Pekji

29th July 2021

I blame my workload for a lot of life stuff that just doesn’t get done, including, inter alia, regular exercise, parenting that extends to more than rubbing their little heads fondly as I pass them in the corridor, emailing people back, and, at the bottom of the list, reviewing perfume. But in the case of the new Pekji samples, which – full disclaimer – were sent to me by Omer Pekji, who also happens to be a personal friend, I have to admit it was less my workload and more my fear of trying anything that’s even a little out there, artistically-speaking, that kept these samples boxed up and unsniffed in my drawer for the past three months.

I mean, come on. It’s Omer Pekji. The chances of there being samples in there that smell like petrol mixed with jasmine (Eau Mer), incense smeared in sheep dung (Holy Shit), or horse blankets soaked in urine (Zeybek) rubbing shoulders with more safe-for-life options like exotic roses (Ruh) or cozy ambers (Battaniye) are going to be high. And since I now spend the first eight hours of the day unscented, the choice of what to wear in the evening becomes a little more high stakes. It’s what I’m stuck with all night.

A quick glance at the notes for Flesh – ambrette, iris, musks – makes me feel that this would be a safe first choice. A powdery skin scent akin to Blanc Poudre (Heeley), perhaps, or one of those metallic, crisp musks that flit between clean and not-so-clean without raising eyebrows. Holy cow was I wrong.

The first sniff is misleadingly angelic. A nuclear mushroom cloud of iris and ambrette seed – conveying messages of ice-cold vodka, steel, potatoes, toner fluid, and grey suede – blooms immediately to the nose. It smells almost unbearably pure and high-pitched, walking the line between ‘expensive naturals’ and ‘factory-strength chemicals’ so expertly that I’m not sure which one I’m smelling. It’s big and rough but pure and beautiful. It is at this point that I decide that Flesh is the bathroom gin version of Iris Silver Mist (Serge Lutens).

But hold up. Because like a bad trip, Flesh goes to weird places very quickly. In the space of five minutes, it loses the high-bred pearlescent glow of the iris, and starts to smell more like a soft furnishings factory when they’re soldering the non-slip plastic backing onto the carpets. The reek of hot glue guns, latex, paint thinner, leather chaps, rubber, and roiling pans of solvents fills the air insistently. Weirdly, it does still smell like suede. But it is so powerful now that the mere act of breathing makes my head spin. It’s as close to sniffing glue as you’ll get as an adult. Wear this to a kink shop in Berlin and you’ll be very popular.

As the civet starts to layer in, the industrial suede carpet gets progressively grimier. Not quite to the point that it feels like it’s been smeared in scat – though normally quite sharp and acidic, the civet here is soft and earthy – but the suede is definitely moving from a clean, modern factory setting to an abandoned warehouse where piles of raw hide are stacked to the ceiling. Here’s where I start to see past the skin (suede) through to the flesh of Flesh, a whiff of meat clinging to the underbelly of just-cured leather skins. Like the closest relatives I could think of, Cuir d’Iris by Parfumerie Generale and New Sibet by Slumberhouse, it’s hyper-clean while also being redolent of the curdled-milk-fat funk of a milking shed. And yet, at its core, Flesh still smells like an expensive, vegetally-musky iris suede.

Flesh is a disjointing experience that exemplifies the outer edges of what most people would think of niche, where mad hatters like Omer Pekji are still thinking, imagining, and experimenting. It’s worth seeking stuff like this out, not necessarily to smell good but to take a reading of what’s fermenting out there and then head back on into your comfort zone with some new perspective. I don’t think I’ve smelled an iris suede that shifts so convincingly between industrial and expensive, pure and sullied, and robotic and fleshy as Flesh. And I’m not sure I want to ever again, either.

Cover Image: Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Source of Sample: Press sample from the Pekji brand.

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