Lampoon continues the investigation of the base notes, those rich and persistent ingredients which linger on the skin for hours after the top notes have dissipated, precising all other elements and defining the fragrance’s personality. We started by introducing perfumery’s most famous and celebrated paradox, Amber, one of the most frequently used base notes which however doesn’t really exist in the world of fragrances and is in fact recreated by a combination of labdanum, vanilla and benzoin. We now turn our attention to another much used and at the same time very controversial note: musk.

Animal origins and synthetic substitutes

Musk is an ingredient is of animal origin: it is an extraction of glandular secretions from certain animals, primarily the musk deer. Male musk deers mark their territory and mate by spraying from their musk gland, which is about the size of a golf ball and situated right in front of their penis. Musk glands can also be found in the Muskrat (a rodent native to North America), in the  musk duck of southern Australia, in the American alligator of North America, in the lynx musk and in certain snakes. Musk has been used as a popular perfume fixative since ancient times and still today it is one of the most expensive animal products in the world: a gram of natural musk collected from musk deer is worth more than its weight in gold. The journey from gland to couture is a long one. The gland is first harvested from trapped deer, its secretion is dense, brown and unpleasantly strong-smelling (like urine, some say); once collected it is dried into a powder and then soaked in ethanol for months or even years until it looses its animalistic smell for a delicate organic scent – something akin to the odor of a baby’s skin. The trade quantity of the natural musk is now controlled by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention), but illegal poaching and trading continues.

Throughout the ages the beauty industry has always involved an unsettling mix of appalling ingredients and horrific recipes, involving pretty much everything from animal interiors to wasp stings. Snail slime is so common today that we tend to forget what it really looks and feels like.

The musk name originates from the Late Greek moskhos but also from the Sanskrit muska, testicle, as the deer gland is said to resemble a scrotum. White Musk, The Body Shop’s all-time favorite fragrance, which defined the scent of teenage years for so many young girls, has actually much to do with animal glandular secretions and the word testicle and yes this is slightly awkward. However, like most musk based fragrances today, White Musk  is made with a synthetic substitute and not with the actual animal secretion. Natural musk was used extensively in perfumery until the late 19th century, when economic and ethical motives led to the adoption of synthetic musk which is now used almost exclusively. The organic compound primarily responsible for the characteristic odor of musk is called muscone. Some plants – such as Angelica, musk wood and musk flower – also produce musky-smelling compounds which are used in perfumery as substitutes for animal musk. Some perfumeries still use natural musk for their more expensive perfume and cologne lines. Musk deer farming has slowly gained traction in China, where farmers extract the musk from mature male deer without harming them in an effort to halt their extinction due to poaching.

Historical references

Many words have been used to describe the scent of musk. For some it is a very ‘animalistic’ or ‘feral’ aroma. Others consider it woody or earthy. For hundreds of years fragrance makers used this expensive substance to perfume the halls of palaces, castles, mosques, and churches. It’s original purpose however, before breaking into the world of perfumery, was spiritual and medicinal. Mentioned in ancient Chinese texts herbal medicine, musk is also a recurring theme in Persian poetry, where it is always used to evoke an otherworldly and irresistible beauty “Your hair has filled the whole lane with musk, and your face the whole country with light” says Tirmizi in the 10th century. Masud Sa’d, a century later, will say “No musk of Khotan is like your sweet-smelling hair” and Saadi (13th century) will go on to say, in his Gulistan  “Art thou musk or ambergris for I am charmed by thy delicious smell”. The smell of musk was – and still is – also very highly considered in the Islamic world, where it is associated to paradise, more specifically to the ‘lost perfume of Eden’.  Al-Ghazali, one of the most prominent and influential Muslim philosophers (1058 – 1111), described the Garden of Eden as a place where the ground is saffron and the clay is musk. The Koran mentions musk in the sura al Mutafifeen: “They will be given to drink a pure wine, sealed; the last thereof will be the smell of musk”. This association of musk and wine would later give birth to some of the most beautiful pieces of Sufi poetry about the inherent antagonism between heaven and earth, humanity and eternity.

Wearing musk used to be a symbol of status, as only the truly wealthy could afford fragrances containing the rare tincture. Until late antiquity, the scent was unknown to western civilization, but its association with wealth dates back to the sixth century, when merchants from China and India began trading musk pods with the Byzantines. At the end of the 11th century, Byzantine princess Teodora Dukas married the Venetian Doge Domenico Selvo; among the many innovations in terms of elegance and style which she brought into the dark and foul-smelling Italian courts of the Middle Ages, the use of body fragrance soon became a trend. Venetian merchants started to import perfumes from the most refined courts of Arabia, from Constantinople, from Greece, from Persia and from Egypt. At the end of the 13th century Marco Polo came back to Venice after his world wide travels carrying the glands of musk deer and the instructions on how to extract and process the glandular secretions: this marked the beginning of one Venice’s oldest and most successful businesses. Perfume laboratories appeared in every corner of the city, Venetian perfume makers are still today called muschieri. Musk went from being the smell of heaven and unearthly beauty to embodying the carnal smell of masculinity, sensuality and visceral passion.

The sixteenth century was by all means ‘the century of cosmetics’ in Europe. Florentine Caterina de’ Medici married the future king of France and introduced the use of fragrance to the French Court. Italy and France competed in terms of creativity, each court with its own style and fashion and its own perfume-maker. The noble women of the Renaissance invented new beauty remedies which were then passed on to their daughters and their ladies in waiting. By this point perfumes were more abused than used and musk was sold at ridiculous prices.  Men are just as obsessed with fragrances as women – while visiting Venice, Henry III, King of France and son of Caterina De’ Medici, purchased musk for 1125 Italian scudi, a quantity of money which, in those days, was almost absurd.

Musk in modern perfumery

After the craze of the Renaissance, perfumes worn by women fell into two basic categories: sexually provocative perfumes, heavy with jasmine, spice and animal musk were associated with courtesans and prostitutes, while the beau-monde favored the essence of a single garden flower. Coco Chanel, wanting to bottle the essence of the roaring twenties in order to create the perfume of the flapper girl, was the first one to use a musky scent for a luxury, couture fragrance: Chanel N.5.  Today musk is present in almost everything that we spray on our bodies, from niche fragrances to Axe deodorants. The characteristic peculiarity of smelling like a better version of the human body, together with its outstanding fixating properties (it literally sticks fragrance on the skin) makes it a favorite ingredient for both men and women fragrances. Almost every fashion and perfume brand has experimented with musk. Dolce & Gabbana have embraced its mystical value in order to create an opulent fragrance which matches the brand’s couture, Velvet Oriental Musk. In 1999 Tom Ford, known for celebrating all things sexual, launched the White Musk collection containing four fragrances: Urban Musk, White Suede, Musk Pure and Jasmine Musk. Versace’s Eros pour homme‘s musky notes invaded the stores in 2012, shortly followed by it’s female counterpart (Versace Eros pour femme) in 2014. This year Giorgio Armani launched Musc Shamal,  paying tribute to both the ingredient’s oriental origins and its association with luxury. In 2008 Le Labo launched Musc 25, where musk is accompanied by a surprising mix of vetiver, lily of the valley, patchouli, rose and ambergris. Kiehl’s Original Musk is very old-school but still a best seller, just like Penhaligon’s Castile (said to smell like washing powder but in a good way). What is possibly the most original take on the notorious ingredient is Diptyque’s Do Son, just as elusive as its name.