The Vexed Question of Musk

If you’re up on your history, you may have read the story of the Empress Josephine splashing her musk based fragrance around the marital apartments so that Napoleon would never forget her perfume after he remarried (for the sake of producing an heir) in 1810.  The story was that the scent was so intense you could catch it drifting in the draperies years later. Who knows how it affected Napoleon, but Marie Louise, his second wife, and no doubt the recipient of this pungent challenge, wore violet scents ever afterwards.

True or not, it does raise the core question of musks, whether they are sexy perfume ingredients or simply awful? Supremely come hither scents, or as likely to make the men folk take to their heels as Sadie Hawkins Day?

In the awful opinion camp are a lot of perfumers. Edmond Roudnitska objected to Jean Claude Ellena’s presence when the latter, as a young perfumer, came to visit because Roudnitska could smell macrocylic musk on him.  Christopher Brosius of CB I HATE PERFUME writes, “I don’t want to get all temperamental here, but if you want an ‘Eqyptian Musk’ based scent you are barking up the wrong tree.”  Josephine would have been out of luck there.

What about the rest of us?  To begin with, there is some confusion in my mind about what is meant by musks in the first place?  We tend not to torture animals now in order to obtain it and therefore I have no idea what actual musk smells like.  I know that I like its synthetic first cousin civet, because that features in a number of old French compositions: Joy, for example, and Mouchoir de Monsieur.

There are clean musks and there are fecal ones.  The first group exemplified by Jovan’s White Musk or The Body Shop’s White Musk, and then there are dirty ones, the best examples to my mind being Muscs Khublai Khan and Kate Walsh’s Boyfriend. The problem in either case is that many people can’t smell musks.  The molecules are very large and apparently a lot of people simply can’t detect them at all. They are anosmic to them.

Currently musks come at both ends of the smell spectrum: very light and very dark.  Which is accurate? Or are both accurate?

There are washing detergent musks: Galaxolide, Globanone and Tonalide.  My guess is as good as yours, but probably these are responsible for the “clean” musk, contra-diction in terms that it is.  Powdery Musks include: Musk Ketone, Muscenone and Muscone, and then the “syrupy” musks: macrolide and Ambrettolide. (All these categories come from M. Ellena’s little book Le Parfum, by the way.)

So much for the list of likely synthetics, what about the fragrances themselves?  They seem to be very popular.  Many companies appear to be moving their heretofore chypre categories into the floral woody musk one.  Take Chanel – no more talk of chypres, chez Chanel, but their last two releases in the Les Exclusifs line are both FWM’s: Jersey and 1932.

Diane, the Diane von Furstenberg perfume from 2012, is listed as FWM, so is Annick Goutal’s Mon Parfum Cheri, and as for Guerlain, Florale Romantique, L’Heure de Nuit, Eau de Lingerie, and even the Grand Mon Precieux Nectar are FWM’s not to mention Paris-Moscow and Bolshoi Saison 2012: La Traviata. It’s safe to say that Guerlain is big on the musk bandwagon.

But are we? The public still loves Narciso Rodriguez (one of the most popular) it would seem, and when I saw a thread on the subject of favorite FWMs on Fragrantica, frequent mention was made of Kenzo Amour.  However, I’m not convinced. For one thing, all these perfumes leave out the salt.  That is one of the almost unspoken parts of wood notes (when real) or oakmoss, and these soft concoctions lack seasoning.

I’ll stake an opinion here, and say that I think the clean musk works well enough as a dry down, but that musk is best used in the beastie perfume.  If you like your animalic smells, then the stronger, earthier musks are going to fit in fairly naturally.  The material in its cleaner aspects may smell too much like fabric softener.  Given a choice between Downy and Dirty, I’m down with the dirty every time.

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11 thoughts on “The Vexed Question of Musk

  1. Ah, musk. Comes in so many forms that it’s hard to say whether you like it or hate it or find it boring or too beastly…

    Elena at Perfume Shrine has done a 3-part series on it, and it’s a fascinating read. (link to part 3 here, and from there of course you can find the links to parts 1 and 2:

    In MY mind, there are just three types of musk, leaving aside the Real Deal coming from musk deer: laundry musk, skin musk, and beastly musk. I’m not fond of the laundry type, which can seem a little abrasive, or of the beastly, which can seem… louche, at best. I do like the skin type very much, but I suspect that my early exposure to this kind of musk, via my mom’s love of the old Chanel No. 5 and her continued use of Jovan Musk for Women, influenced me a great deal.

    I don’t like Jovan’s White Musk at all, but the Musk for Women smells both clean and warm to me, wholesome and pretty and very floral. At the same time, I want that warm-clean musk in the background, as it is in, say, JHaG Citizen Queen, or Marc Jacobs Daisy, or Parfum Sacre. Or even Iris Poudre and Mariella Burani, where the base includes a whopping amount of musk as well as benzoin and some woody notes and the whole thing comes across soft as a powder puff, or a cashmere sweater.

    Musks are weird – not only do you have that “type of musk” issue, you’ve also got the large-molecule, edge of perception issue. After reading Tom’s review of Smell Bent Commando at PST, I ordered a sample of that as well as some other fragrances from that house, and was expecting his description of “the impeccably clean skin of a child.” In a word, NO. Ohhhhh no it wasn’t, either. Gah. That one was more an ancient locker room packed to the gills with hairy sweaty lacrosse players who haven’t bathed in three days. I sent half the sample to a friend with only the tagline “impeccably clean skin of a child,” no sarcasm, nothing else, and she emailed me right back screaming HOLY MOSES WHY DID YOU SEND ME THE CHICAGO BEARS’ SWEATY JOCKSTRAPS? Sent the other half to a different friend with the same tagline, and she told me that she’d been wearing and enjoying it for some time when it began to occur to her that she smelled as if she’d gone to the gym and not showered after.

    Perception. It’s a poser, isn’t it? What was it about Commando that escaped Tom’s notice but not mine? Or was it that it smelled right on him and not on me? No idea.

    FWIW, I do really like that Floral Romantique, and if it didn’t cost a ridiculous amount I’d have bought a bottle. I like my musks starring florals (this should not surprise you), not stale nekkid sweat and not grim industrial laundries.

  2. You sampled something called Commando and you didn’t expect Parfum de Derriere? (Throws up hands!)
    I would be happier with the musks so present in current perfumery, if they weren’t so close to industrial perfumery. I do not want to spend seventy dollars on something and then smell it coming out of my neighbor’s drier vent, which very sad event has in fact occurred.
    This makes musk difficult. I almost think I do better with botanicals that smell musky, like angelica (the clean musk) or birch bark (the leather handbag) than those big old molecular backhoes they use in formulas these days.
    And of course Florale Romantique, have to smell that, they have it at our Saks and a very charming, very Russian, SA is in charge, “Did Zu smyll dis one? Eet is so romyantique!” She’s generally right.

    • I really really liked Floral Romantique. The CEO snurfled me repeatedly. But not enough to shell out $255 for 75 ml. (I mean, seriously? SERIOUSLY? The Malles are approximately $305 for 100ml. And I got my Amouage Memoir W tester bottle for $200/100ml. FR wasn’t *different* enough to warrant that price point.) Actually, CEO might have been picking up on the musk in it – right away he made some comment like, “That doesn’t smell like perfume, it just smells like you.”

      Come to think of it, maybe… nah.

      The Commando was ALL TOM’S FAULT.

      • Wonder if it smells at all like my old Narcisse Blanc? That one smelled like clean naked baby after a bath, that is, before Caron refo’d it! Another one of those it smells like you things. But how nice that the CEO evidently thinks you smell like flowers.
        My husband likes me to smell like anything so long as some leather is in there somewhere, though preferably not so overt as your description of Commando. Which makes me think, there are perfumes we wear because we like them, but what about our spouses and significant others? What do they associate with us?

    • And I didn’t even smell Commando. As a matter of fact I might just draw the line at Commando, fond of a dirty musk though I am.

  3. Are those only two choices? Is it possible not to have either one? 😉

    In reality, I do not mind either – in the right composition. And in a wrong one I think I mind the “Downy” one less.

    • That certainly accommodates flowers better than the dirty musk.
      I know it’s a low taste, but I do enjoy a bit of skank, probably not so much as Josephine Bonaparte!

  4. Musks…well either I don’t smell them much or they come at me with an icepick. Maybe they are what I’m picking up at the tail end of perfumes as powder. Weird ‘powder’ though. I don’t understand the laundry musks. I’ve never wanted to smell like I had poured a bottle of Downy on myself. The only one that I really like is Sienna Musk by Sonoma Scents. My DH smells it and says ‘you’re wearing that musk again’. To me it smells equally as spicy.

    The icepick-Musc Tonkin. Now I’m a fangirl of Parfum d’Empire. I like just about everything he has done. Hate none, LOVE some. But Musc Tonkin. Only ingredient listed is Musk. It was a head snapper and an added WTF for good measure. I smelled something floral. Maybe they wrapped a floral wreath around the deer’s tail. This was something from the 50’s. ‘Perfumey’, musty, mature, not fecal or indolic but in need of a bath. . Did I say perfumey? DH had no musk reaction but wasn’t thrilled either. I’ve been afraid to try the sample again.

    • Curiouser and curiouser. Parfums d’Empire have a pretty good track record, and there isn’t much they do that isn’t worth doing. Perhaps the Musc Tonkin was an experiment along the lines of that Eccentric Molecules 01, which was, what now? Iso e Super, exclusively, oh well okay, with a lemon wedge?
      Musk and nothing but some kind of musk all the time in Musc Tonkin? It doesn’t sound appealing. Something for the late Empress perhaps!

  5. So, apparently I can’t detect musk. Or something. I’m really confused. There is this oil by Nemat International called Amber (aka Amber white). It’s not your typical scent and has more of a clean musk profile. I found it intoxicating after sampling some from a friend. Then recently I bought a bottle and the scent completely went away / became totally undetectable to my nose after only a couple hours. I couldn’t smell it out of the inside of the bottle or on my skin. So I returned that bottle and called up Nemat to let them know something was wrong with their product. They sent me a free new bottle which I just got in the mail and the same thing happened only quicker. Within ten minutes I couldn’t smell it anymore. So it’s like what people have with musk (anomsia) but with Amber. (I’m guessing their Amber is musk based). But it’s weird how I’m able to smell it for a brief amount of time. It’s almost like very very fast olfactory fatigue. Has anyone else experienced this or have any insights?

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