Sensuality at the Base of every Perfume

Musk has been one of the most important aromatic components of perfumes for over 100 years. In fact, it would be hard to find a perfume that does not contain this element in it. Not only does Musk act as a fantastic perfume fixative, but it also contributes to the base of a perfume, that warm note that lasts long after all the others are gone. It also adds an amazing, sensual dimension to a perfume. From exotic to fresh, musk envelops a fragrance from start to finish.

The history of Musk is long and sometimes controversial, but it is indeed its history that has shaped its path and continues to be written as the perfume industry keeps changing, quite often due to strangling regulations — which Musk is certainly not a stranger to.

Thibetian Musk Deer

When discussing perfume creation with people and I mention Musk, this is followed by a blank expression on their faces followed by the question, “What is Musk?” It is an interesting question if one thinks that all of us have smelled Musk and been exposed to it all our lives, yet like an invisible presence most do not know it is actually there. Musks not only make their way into your life in the form of just about every perfume and cosmetics you own, but also in household products such as laundry detergent. There is virtually no escaping the scent of Musk, and its appeal may be a call to our innermost primal nature.

Deer Musk Pod

The answer to what Musk actually is is in itself a complex one, because there are many kinds of musks, and not all from animal origin. This can take us back hundreds of years, if not at least 1,300. In such a short writing space, however, I will concentrate mostly on the use of Musk in modern perfumery, which starts in the late 1800’s. The original musk used, before synthetics were discovered, was the Musk from the Moschus moschiferus deer (and others), producing Tonkin Musk. It is a strong smelling, brownish secretion taken from the deer’s glandular sac. As with most animalic aromatic elements, the animals use these as pheromones. Civet is another example of an animal secretion used in perfumery, which comes from the Civet Cat. While the deer gland secretion itself is foul smelling (I guess you have to be a deer to like it), when properly prepared, it becomes sweet and, well, ‘musky.’ And when used in a perfume, it becomes a completely different scent.

Musk Ketone

A major controversy regarding Tonkin Musk is that the deer is killed for it. By the 1930’s, it was reported that 40,000 deer were being killed to meet world’s demand for its musk. [1] The skyrocketing demand and price for actual deer musk led to the development of synthetic (and more humane) musk substitutes — though some actual deer musk is still in use to this day, sometimes even obtained by poaching. The ‘new’ musks to be developed were the Nitromusks. The first, supposedly discovered by Albert Baur in 1988 (there are discrepancies), was Musk Xylol followed by Musk Ketone and Musk Ambrette. Other Musk types would follow, and these days, the original Nitromusks are all but banned or prohibited, as it was found some remain in our bodies, some are suspected carcinogens, while some are not biodegradable and harm the environment. The scent of these particular musks has also fallen out of fashion, being perceived as ‘vintage.’ Their scent, however, is unique and quite lovely.

By the 1920’s, Mycrocylic Musks followed Nitromusks. These were isolated from the Musk deer and synthesized, but became prominent in the 1990’s due to ease of production. Some of the most common musks in this category are Muscone, Civettone, Exaltone and Muscenone. Other types of musks soon flooded the indusrty, such as Polycyclic Musks (Galaxolide and Tonalide), Marcocyclic (Exaltolide, Habanolide, Globalide, Ethylene Brassylate) and others. The list of current musks is long, and the safety of some remains controversial, with various sides disputing the other’s findings. Some musks remain ‘safe,’ while others have been banned. Still, regardless of regulations, whether from IFRA or independent countries, the list of available, usable musks is still rather large. There are also musks that are not from animal origin, such as Ambrette Seed Oil and Angelica Root Oil.

L’Heure Bleue
by Guerlain

Aside from safety and regulation, one of the reasons for the large amount of musks available is that they do not all smell the same. Musk Ketone, a staple in vintage perfumes such as Guerlain’s Mitsouko and L’heure Bleue and instantly recognizable as such, is sweet and powdery. Once added to a formula, it immediately lends its powdery influence to the blend. But musks come in all scents, from powdery Musk Ketone and Galaxolide to more sweet and floral Ethylene Brassylate. The musk odor types are divided into Woody, Animalic, Sweet, Balsamic and Floral, with many musks exhibiting a blend of more than one of these qualities. Some, like Applelide, are even fruity. What combination of musks a perfumer uses depends on the nature of the formula, and price. Rarely will a perfumer use only one Musk. The reason is that not everyone can actually smell all musks. Anosmia to certain musks is quite common. In order to avoid loss of scent perception, a perfumer will combine musks, sometimes in large numbers, since musks also complement each other adding to the base note of a perfume. Some perfumers will create their own Musk blends combining specific Musks and then use that base in various perfumes. Musks also come in all price ranges, from the cheapest and most predominant Galaxolide and Ethylene Brassylate, to some more expensive like Musk R1 and Muscenone. Any perfumer’s modest palette usually contains a dozen musks or more.

While Musk use in a perfume’s base is usually done in combination with other musks, as I stated above, it is also done also alongside other base aromatic elements such as Vetiver, Vanillin, Ethyl Vanillin, Ethyl Maltol, Patchouli, Sandalwood (or Sandalwood elements, due to the high cost of the actual Indian Sandalwood), Benzoin, Ambergris (or generally synthetic substitutions), Castoreum, Cardamom, Cedar, Civet, Labdanum and others. The sensuality and depth musks add to a perfume are hard to replace, and it would be difficult to imagine some of our most treasured perfumes without this aromatic element.


[1] O GerhardtDas Komponieren in der Parfuemede, Leipzig Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft MBH (1931 ) p 43

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