Musk: what is it?
Musk is a grainy, aromatic reddish paste formed within the glandular musk sac of the male musk deer. It contains a rundown of his most important attributes from age, health, strength, to overall virility – basically, the Tinder profile of the animal world, complete with photo.
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 also 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. 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's brutal out there.
Because musk has so much to do with sex and reproduction, there's a common misconception that musk is stored inside the testes, like sperm. In fact, the musk sac is attached to the abdomen behind the penis, separate to the testes.
But while the musk sac is not actually a testicle, there's 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 would appear that our ancestors were as confused on this issue as we are.
Musk comes from a deer (mostly)
Musk comes mainly from the musk deer family of deer (Moschidae), of which there are several sub-species, 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. Some of the musk deer species are more endangered than others.
There are 7 main geographical regions where deer musk live, and are therefore hunted, namely, Nepal (the Himalayas), Siberia, China, India, Pakistan, Korea, and Mongolia.
But other animal sources of musk exist as well, such as the muskrat, the musk duck, the musk shrew, the musk lynx, and even crocodiles. In perfumery and medicine, however, only musk from the musk deer is commercially significant because it produces the largest volume of aromatic substance and also possesses the strongest odor.
Finding the right words
There are few other materials in the world that possess an aroma as complex as musk. But if it's 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…the list goes 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.
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.
So, what does deer musk smells like?
- Soft and lingering odor
- Subtle, skin-like aroma
- Mimics the smells of bodily intimacy, ranging from dried saliva and perineal odors to morning breath
- Some petting zoo aspects
- Not fecal per se, but rather a composite picture of soft droppings, urine, hair, fur, etc.
- Not generally a loud, booming aroma (unless you're 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/bitter 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
Ageing 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 unpleasant, 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 Meringa oil, and even fractionated coconut oil, but the very best of all is, of course, pure sandalwood oil.
How is the musk processed?
If the musk deer themselves are small, then you might imagine how tiny the musk pod is – about 30 grams and that's for a big specimen. Each sac contains about half as much again in musk paste, so around 15 grams per kill. Scraping the secretions out with a spoon to spare the animal's life nets a much smaller amount of musk paste, but at least the deer lives to make another batch of it.
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. Attar makers can either buy the musk pods whole and age them themselves at home, or buy the moist musk grains from a seller.
If being used in perfumery, the perfumer will tincture the musk grains in alcohol or macerate them in sandalwood oil. Both tincturing and maceration are lengthy processes, with periodic heating of the mixture to release the aromatic properties of the musk grains and careful ageing of the liquid for up to one year or more, after which it can be used to make perfume. Here is a video of one attar maker, Abdullah of The Most Beautiful Scents attars, scraping musk grains into sandalwood oil:
The condition of the grains is one half of the equation: the process of drawing out its fragrance another. According to one attar maker to whom I spoke, if the tincturing process is exposed to too much heat, then the volatile topnotes of the musk may disappear. The process must be carefully controlled for temperature and ambient conditions.
Tincturing is quicker than maceration, in general. Ethanol and other perfumer's alcohols will tincture the musk grains very quickly, but since alcohol is more perishable than sandalwood oil, its quality will not improve with aging. Furthermore, the odor of musk tinctured in ethanol will only be apparent to the human nose once the harsh topnotes of alcohol burn off. Although maceration in sandalwood oil is a painfully slow process (taking at least one year), it yields the least perishable result – a rich-smelling blend that will only deepen and improve with age.
How important is “terroir” to musk?
Deer musk can vary in aroma depending on geographical provenance, age, and the liquid in which it has been tinctured. However, musk is not like oud or sandalwood in that it does not vary as widely according to terroir as those other precious materials. Oud and sandalwood display huge variances in aroma depending on the soil, climate, and sub-species of the trees involved. With musk, species and micro-climate (terroir) have a far more limited effect on final aroma, with ageing and tincturing liquid being more significant factors.
In other words, if you've got the genuine article, then there will always be a familiar odor profile and texture that links one musk to another: musk is musk is musk. Small differences do appear, of course, based on age or nature of the specimen.
A random sampling of deer musk tinctures & macerations
Although personal experience based on a few random samples can never be extrapolated to represent the entirety of a complex material, here are my impressions of the different deer musk samples I have collected:
Source: JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery (Tibetan musk grains)
Appearance: miniscule, reddish-brown dust particles, like the detritus from rolling cigarettes
The smell is rich but light; not overpowering. It smells dirty in an almost uncomfortably intimate way, like the smell of tooth floss after a long overdue flossing session – a bit stale, saliva-ish, and carrying with it the lingering aroma of tooth decay, halitosis, and degraded molecules of food.
However, the smell is not exactly unpleasant. It is simply intimate. If you can tolerate and even appreciate the scent of a loved one's dried up sleep drool on the pillow beside you, then this will seem familiar and maybe even comforting to you.
Source 1: JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery (Siberian musk grains)
Appearance: reddish-brown small particles – larger and more prone to clumping together than the Tibetan musk grains
The smell is sweet and high-toned, pitched at a much higher decibel than the Tibetan musk, with leathery and herbal facets. It is immediately pleasant to the nose, unlike the Tibetan musk grains described above. It smells animalic only in a clean and non-jarring manner, like the flank of a slightly sweaty horse in a stable with fresh straw on the ground. It is warm, intimate, and clinging. When the nose draws away from the bottle of grains, the trail in the air reads as slightly powdery.
Source 2: Abdullah, The Most Beautiful Scents (Siberian musk tinctured in sandalwood oil)
Appearance: deep reddish-brown liquid, viscous, oily
The scent is immediately super sweet, like powdered sugar mixed with hot chocolate drinking powder and pancake syrup. It is also a little herbal, as if there is patchouli or lavender in the mix somewhere. At this stage, this sample reminds me of the powdery Darbar attars you can get from Nemat and numerous other sources on the Internet - thick, dark, sweet musky attars made from mostly patchouli oils mixed with musk synthetics, henna and other herbs, and carrier oils.
However, once these topnotes die down, the scent is authentically musky, with a pungent, thick aroma that smells quite dirty, although not quite fecal - more like freshly-turned soil and the heavy morning breath of a loved one.
Source 3: Abdullah, The Most Beautiful Scents (Siberian musk tincture at 10% dilution)
Appearance: light straw color, completely liquid
The topnotes are pure tincturing alcohol, but then a subtle, soft odor of musk appears – a translucent wash of aroma that smells like a clean, warm animal after a day out in the sun. The odor is sweet, soft, powdery, and lingering. In terms of weight, it is very light and sheer.
Source 4: Russian Adam of FeelOud / Areej le Doré (Siberian musk tincture)
Appearance: urine yellow, with small musk grain particles still visible on the glass of the vial when tipped over
Immediately, the scent here is much less sweet than the other samples, and has a deep musky leather facet that is very appealing. It is more animalic than the other samples, in the sense that it actually smells like it's been scraped off the behind of an animal. But the scent is in no way dirty, unpleasant, or fecal: it simply smells authentically of animal origin.
It is an extremely warm, deep aroma, with a strong note of leather, specifically leather saddles or reins that have been resting on a horse. There is a certain dustiness lurking underneath the leather, but it is not excessively powdery, and although there is some natural sweetness, I would say it leans more towards neutral-salty on the flavor wheel. It is just soft, musky leather – a pleasure to smell.
It lingers in the nostrils for quite a while, eventually displaying some papery “stale cocoa” tones. In overall aroma, I would classify this particular musk as being the closest in profile to the smell of the Siberian musk grains from The Rising Phoenix Perfumery.
Source 5: Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse (Siberian musk tincture at 5% dilution, 1 year old)
Appearance: pale straw, liquid
Josh Lobb obtains legal Siberian musk grains from a gentleman in Siberia who sets aside a small amount of grains from his hunting quota each year for him: he then chops the already tiny grains up into smaller pieces and tinctures them in perfumer's alcohol, and rests it for a year. This method seems to intensify the aroma of the finished tincture, because this sample was the most densely fragrant out of all the samples.
The aroma is pungent, warm, and once the brief hit of alcohol dissipates, possessed of a strong ammoniac/petting zoo aroma with undertones of hay and animal urine. However, the scent is in no way unpleasant or sharp: these aromas smell natural and rustic, and are enveloped in a thick, wool-like texture that is very comforting, like getting a bear hug from a llama.
Compared to the other samples, this tincture smells more nuanced and perfumey, and I found myself thinking of Muscs Khoublai Khan, or at least one specific part of it, namely its grimy, sensual, male “wool” facet. Other notes I pick up on include chocolate, damp paper, and dust.
The density of scent slackens off quite quickly after 10 minutes, or else my nose simply stops smelling it as acutely past that point. What remains on the skin is the dusty, sweet smell of newspapers doused in a layer of powdered sugar. Strangely enough, I also pick up hints of something herbal and fresh.
Kashmiri (Kasturi) Musk
Kashmiri musk is the rarest and most highly prized of the musk, because of its bright, uplifting, and intoxicating properties. But genuine Kashmiri musk, also known as kasturi, is illegal. Not only does it come from a species of deer listed as being in danger of extinction by CITES (category I), but it also comes from a region (the mountainous parts of Northern India and Pakistan), countries that have made deer musk hunting illegal. The penalty for being caught with Kashmiri musk in Pakistan, for example, is 5 years in prison.
However, I've been able to collect two samples for the purposes of research.
Source 1: Shafqat of Duftkumpels, Germany (Kashmiri musk from private collection, 10%)
Although Shafqat himself calls this a tincture, it is in fact a maceration of musk grains in a very fine Indian santalum album oil (possibly Mysore). The maceration has a concentration of 10%, which is very concentrated.
First and foremost, the quality of the sandalwood oil used here is stunning and almost overshadows the delicacy of the musk. But the musk is there, bright and airy, even a little pungent, revealed when you perform a sort of hide-and-seek with your own arm (take your nose away, smell something else, return nose to arm, etc.).
Despite the fame of Kashmiri musk, I can't say that it's superior or inferior to any other type of musk, but then, I'm not an expert. However, when the sandalwood is so sublime and basically taking over the whole show anyway, it seems a pity to use an illegal musk from an endangered species when you could just as well use Siberian musk.
Source 2: Abdullah, The Most Beautiful Scents (Kashmiri deer musk 2.5% in Australian sandalwood oil, February 2017)
Appearance: viscous orange-yellow oil
At first, the overriding smell is of the Australian sandalwood oil (s. spicatum), characterized by a raw, harsh wood solvent smell with facets of pine, eucalyptus, and menthol or camphor, and a texture like sour milk. The pungency of this wood oil makes it difficult to discern anything of the more delicate musk, and this problem persists for a good 20 minutes (ageing is probably a factor here – the aroma molecules feel young and raw, as if brushed with a steel wire brush).
Eventually, an aroma of bright, plasticky musk hits the nose, although it is not strong enough to burn right through the pungent layer of sandalwood. This one probably needs time to reveal the delicate nuances of the musk more clearly. It might be interesting for readers to note that the very same Kashmiri musk grains were used in both these samples, but the maceration medium and treatment by two different attar makers rendered two very different results.
Source: Abdullah, The Most Beautiful Scents (20-year-old Himalayan musk maceration)
Appearance: oxblood, almost black in color, viscous texture
The aroma is dark, pungent, but smooth. It is undeniably dirty, presenting like a locker room full of sweaty rugby players, with a side of billy goat. There is a distinct ammoniac edge to the aroma, like dried animal urine and sweat mixed together, or a stable floor packed a foot high with compacted fecal waste and straw. If you've ever mucked out a stable that hadn't been cleaned in quite a while, then this smell will be familiar to you. The smell is not unpleasant (to my nose at least), but as always, tolerance of “dirty” smells depend on individual exposure to animalic smells during childhood.
On the skin, it remains dark and pungent, but reveals a surprisingly complex range of notes such as rubber tubing, smoke, fuel, stables, and animal hair. And, oh alright, it does smell rather like a petting zoo. But I like that. It is the only sample I tried that smelled like animal fur.
The grim reality of obtaining deer musk
Deer musk – it's a wondrous material. But let's 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's been described as “killing the hen to get the egg” and with good reason: one pod per deer and that's 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. Chinese records suggest that a male deer can be “milked” for his musk in this manner up to 14 times over the course of its natural life.
It's not death, but on the flipside, it doesn't sound too comfortable either. 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. But given China's track record on animal welfare, if I were a deer, I think I'd 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”. This gives rise to the hope that one day, a true source of ethically obtained musk could be established for the perfume industry at large.
However, let's not get too excited just yet: attempts to repeat the efficacy of the Chinese farms in India have failed, demonstrating perhaps that musk farming is not a straightforward business. Plus, it is unlikely that much if any of the musk produced on these farms will find its way to the commercial perfume sector, as both India and China need musk grains for their respective traditional healing sectors (ayurveda and TCM) and their absorption capacity, based on population alone, is immense.
Who here is the hungriest for some musk?
We've been leading up to it, so you probably won't be too surprised to learn that by far the biggest consumer of deer musk in the world is TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, 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 15% of the world's musk supply, but by 2012, due to CITES and the drying up of legal sources, this had shrunk to 10%. Although there are no exact figures for current (2017) usage, one must assume that it is smaller still, perhaps closer to 5%.
Quantifying the exact size of the Chinese market is tricky, but if you consider that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) accounts for about 40% of all prescriptions in China as well as 22% of its clinics, then we are talking about a sizeable chunk of the population of China, which is in itself famously sizeable. China and India together take at least 90% of the world's available musk, but today, it's probably closer to 95%.
That is not to say that the perfume sector doesn't value or desire musk, and wouldn't absorb more if it could.
But, darling, our numbers are smaller.
Think about it for a second. If even 5% of China's 1.371 billion-strong population has an ailment that needs to be treated with musk grains, that's 68.5 million people right there. Compare that to the potential pool of people who want to wear perfume with real deer musk in it, and the perfume sector is always going to be small potatoes in comparison.
China's demand for musk is estimated at up to 1,000 kilograms per annum, which translates to the musk sacs of at least 100,000 musk deer – but globally there are only about 700,000 musk deer left in the wild. Clearly, domestic musk farming doesn't fill that gap. The only logical conclusion is that 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 4 times its weight in gold. Raw musk grains can fetch up to US$50,000 per kg 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.
Of course, that doesn't mean that there is zero demand for real deer musk to be used again in perfumery, because there is, at least in small-batch, artisanal perfumery and attar making. However, it is probable that the commercial perfume sector will never use real deer musk again, given 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.
Is musk illegal?
Some deer musk is legal; some deer musk is not.
Two things determine the legal status of a specific deer musk, namely, (i) the level to which its source animal, i.e., sub-species of musk deer, is endangered, and (ii) the legislation put in place by individual countries regarding the hunting and trade of musk on their territory.
First of all, let's look at the endangerment angle. There are 8 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.
In other words, Kashmiri musk is illegal partly because its source animal is a species approaching extinction and listed under Appendix I. Siberian musk is legal partly because its source animal is not nearing extinction.
I say partly, because as always, out in the real world, individual national laws, country needs, markets, and policies also have their effect. So let's take a look at the CITES convention and how it impacts on the legality of musk.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) named musk deer an endangered species in the 1980's, restricting the trade of deer musk by its signatory countries, which number approximately 170.
In Resolution Conf. 11.5, CITES lists all the relevant musk-producing animals, including the musk deer, and urged 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) put legislation in place banning musk deer hunting outright. India, Mongolia, Korea, Nepal – all of these countries responded to the CITES convention by banning musk deer hunting.
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 set up 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 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 tightly controlled, with hunters applying for licenses in a seasonal lottery that determines what number of deer they can kill. Sometimes they can kill only 5 deer a season; sometimes 20. This helps the government keep an eye on overall numbers of the deer population and ensure that they are kept steady.
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. So, if your musk comes from a species of deer that's 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.
From a practical standpoint, if you, as a perfumer, doctor or consumer, have the right permits and licenses to import deer musk from a legal source of a deer species not listed on Appendix I of the convention, i.e., a deer species not threatened with extinction, then it is a legal product and you are importing it legally. Your customers can also buy it from you legally, either in perfume or medicinal form.
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.
If legal musk exists, then why all the cloak and dagger stuff?
Few people in the perfume sector want to talk about musk. The list of people who didn't want to be quoted in this article is longer than the list of people who agreed to it.
It begs the question: if there is legal musk to be obtained, then why all the secrecy and reluctance to talk about it?
Two reasons, namely:
[*]Most musk on the market is still illegal: The amount of illegal musk on the market is still far greater than the amount of legal musk, and therefore, the risk of a perfumer or attar maker getting their hands on illegal musk is very high, and;
[*]Ethics: Perfumers worry that they will be accused by customers of supporting animal cruelty.
Let's address the illegality issue first.
Despite the existence of legal deer musk, the majority of the deer musk available on the market is still illegal. Siberian musk is available only to perfumers and attar-makers with the right contacts, paperwork, permits, etc., and therefore the quantities available to the market are very small.
Both wild and farmed musk grains are legally available through Asian pharmaceutical companies, but again, you'd have to be either Chinese or a practitioner of TCM or ayurvedic medicine to gain access to them, and even then, most grades are not suitable for use in perfumery.
In other words, it's difficult to secure a steady access to the legal stuff.
On the other hand, there is plenty of illegal musk on the market. Illegal musk means, specifically, musk from a deer that is highly endangered, and/or from a country or region where musk deer hunting has been banned.
The fact that there is so much illegal musk in circulation suggests that neither the CITES convention nor national laws banning musk deer hunting have had much of an effect, both in terms of stopping poaching or stemming the flow of illegal musk to the market.
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. In fact, 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 with me, JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery, noted this about 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 is borne out 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 20% of their 1970 levels.
In some regions of India, when deer hunters are caught by local government officials or rangers, the musk pods are confiscated and then later on 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 washed clean again and sent right back out to market!
China has a legal source of musk, namely 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 ends up in China.
Due to the fact that the market is flooded with more illegal than legal musk, it is understandable that perfumers are reluctant to either get involved with musk or even talk about musk in public. Any connection to criminality is fatal to a brand, especially the small, indie artisans for whom a large part of their success depends on a reputation for ethics and social responsibility.
The ethics of musk
And now, for the really big issue: ethics. The second reason why many small-batch, artisanal perfumers will not create perfumes with real musk in them is the fear that their brand will be associated with animal cruelty.
It is fair to say that some perfumers themselves believe the use of deer musk to be cruel and unethical. But for most perfumers or attar makers interested in working with deer musk, the real ethical dilemma is tied up in the fear that their customers will accuse them of supporting animal cruelty or the decimation of an endangered species.
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, and therefore possessed of the same criminal status as ivory. And, to a certain extent, ethics are a deeply personal and emotional issue, so the perception of ethical wrongdoing is probably always going to trump the facts of the case.
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 exactly the same stigma of illegality, waste, and animal cruelty that is attached to elephant ivory.
By corollary, musk farming and legal hunting through license programs yield musk that is more sustainable from an ethical standpoint.
In the case of 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. The most valuable by-product of the Siberian musk deer is indeed its musk sac, but not a single part of the deer is wasted: the meat is eaten, the hide is made into clothing and leather, and the hooves used to make glue.
During a legal, licensed hunt, the kill is as humane as possible (shooting instead of trapping) and the proceeds help support local families who live off the seasonal hunt. Hunting has always played an important role in the local economies of wherever a valuable resource lies, be it salmon, deer, oud, or sandalwood.
Many people just don't like the idea of hunting animals in the wild. Fair enough. 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? Musk deer hunting is not like fox hunting, where the animal is killed for sport. The hunting has a purpose, and the animal being hunted (the deer) is useful to humans, giving up its meat, hooves, skin, and musk pod.
Maybe it's just that when we talk about deer musk, the kill is instantly more visual to us in our head, more vivid, than the slaughter of, say, chickens and cows. Statistically speaking, a far greater number of domestic animals such as cows, chickens, and pigs are slaughtered to give us meat and leather. It's just that 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.
Perhaps the only real way forward through the murky matter of musk as consumers is to be better informed about where it comes from and to buy judiciously. If you are in the position to buy an attar or tincture or perfume with deer musk in it, ask the right questions of the vendor: from what species of musk deer does this come from? Was it legally hunted or farmed? A tall order for a consumer? Yes, sure. But the market only ever changes if enough consumers start asking informed questions and voting with their feet.
On a larger scale, the way forward is to throw more support behind legal hunting programs and musk deer farming. In China, although it is unknown whether or not the animals suffer during the bi-annual harvesting of their musk paste, it is positive news that the deer does not lose his life and that an effort is being made to produce deer musk in a legal, ethical manner. Output may still be a drop in the ocean of China's immense demand for musk, but still, at the very least, China is following one of the key recommendations in the CITES convention, which is to encourage the development “of safe and effective techniques for collecting musk from live musk deer.”
Ethics are also closely tied to species endangerment. It is illegal hunting and poaching that drives the numbers of endangered deer species down to extinction levels, not controlled hunting, and not the Chinese musk farms. Illegally obtained musk grains cause suffering and cruelty to the animal, do not benefit local economies, waste the by-products of deer meat, skin, and hooves, and taint the final output – the musk – with the stench of criminality.
The huge amount of illegal deer musk that ends up on the market is in itself is evidence that laws banning musk deer hunting don't work, and in fact, suggests that increased investment in musk farming and controlled hunting licenses might be a more appropriate way forward in terms of conservation and getting deer numbers back up.
The value of deer musk in perfumery
Musk is one of the four great animalic bases of perfumery, the other three being ambergris, civet, and castoreum. When smelled in isolation in their pure state, all four of these animalic materials can be foul to the human nose; however, in dilution, they each produce deep, drawn-out basso fundos of aromatic sound waves ranging from soft leather (castoreum), earth, tobacco, and hay (ambergris), velvety, warm floral tones (civet) to deep, complex skin-tones (musk).
Animalics are all excellent fixatives, each serving to stabilize the other more volatile notes in a scent and enrich the blend as effectively as a pound of butter added to a dry cake. Their value in perfumery, therefore, is inestimable.
But musk is perhaps the most valuable of all the animalics, because not only does it have the deepest fixative powers but it also adds its own super-complex, warmly-furred, animalic aroma to the totality of the scent. It possesses a consistent “roundness” or “fullness” that distinguishes it from the other animalics.
We are conditioned to love musk in perfume precisely because, more than anything else, it reminds us so strongly of the pheromone-rich smell of the skin of the people we love. Think of the intimate scent of your spouse's nape after a long day's work, or the smell of the back of your children's knees, and that is a smell best encapsulated by musk.
But it's also difficult to talk about musk in perfumery without mentioning the elephant in the room, which is that most musks used in perfumery today – and that largely includes larger-scale attar perfumery, by the way – rely on synthetics, botanicals, or humanely-obtained animalic substances such as hyraceum to recreate the scent of a material, i.e., deer musk, that is no longer in wide circulation.
Commercial versus Attar Perfumery
As mentioned above, the commercial perfume sector does not use real deer musk anymore, in any way, shape, or form. Apart from the legal and ethical concerns behind the use of deer musk, the big concern for commercial perfume companies is always going to be the issues of
[*]Access to large enough amounts of musk grains to fill the perfume formulas for hundreds of thousands of bottles of perfume worldwide, and;
[*]Consistency or replicability, the process of ensuring the same aroma of the material across all batches
Some exclusive perfumes may use natural botanical musks such as ambrette seed and hyraceum to create a musky effect, but most rely on synthetic musks. And although modern musk synthetics are incredibly complex, any attempt to capture the full range of complex components and flavonoids of genuine deer musk with synthetics is rather like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa with a stick of charcoal.
These two issues – access to adequate supply of the material and consistency of product – are exactly the same reasons why commercial perfumery does not use significant quantities of natural ambergris, pure oud oil, pure jasmine oil, and other equally costly botanicals and animalics. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between.
The same problem applies to large-scale attar perfumery. By large-scale attar perfumery, I mean the Chanels and Diors of the Middle-Eastern market – massive companies like Abdul Samad al Qurashi, Ajmal, and Arabian Oud that have branches all over the world and do a brisk trade in attars and oils each year. In general, attar perfumery uses far greater quantities of rare and costly animalics and botanicals such as oud oil, sandalwood oil, ambergris, and musk than commercial perfumery. But consider the fact that thousands of tolas of a single attar formula sold per year is not small-batch, artisanal production.
For these larger attar companies, the importance of ensuring a consistent quality of raw material from tola to tola, batch to batch, and so on, is an absolute business necessity and, as a production issue, on a par with the quality control concerns of commercial perfume companies and fragrance labs. Customers will complain vociferously if their tola of Ajmal Deer Musk is not the same as their tola from the year before.
So while these companies might use some raw deer musk in their musky attars, batch consistency and supply issues make it necessary for them to stretch out the natural musk through use of other musky-smelling materials such as ambrette seed, ethical animal musks like hyraceum, and a wide variety of musk synthetics such as Tonquitone.
This will surely not come as a shock to anyone with a bit of common sense. Most people know that many, if not most of the oud oils being sold as pure on the Arabian market in the UAE and elsewhere have been adulterated and “stretched out” with fillers, vetiver oil, saffron, ambrette, other expensive botanicals, and complex synthetics. Musk is, in many ways, equivalent to oud.
The use of musk in artisanal attar and small-batch perfumery
The issue of the use of real deer musk in artisanal, small batch attar and indie perfumery is a little more complex than in commercial perfumery. It is also different from that of the large-scale attar companies.
To be clear, when I say “artisanal and small-batch perfumers”, I mean the one-man shows operating out of a rickshaw – basically, one person working away at distilling, tincturing, or macerating raw materials and composing perfumes either in their own studio or in situ, in the jungles of the Far East.
These are not the big boys like Ajmal or Guerlain. They are the DIY-ers of the perfume world. This definition covers artisans all the way from Mandy Aftel of Parfums Aftelier and Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse to Sultan Pasha of Sultan Pasha Attars, Russian Adam of FeelOud, and JK DeLapp of The Rising Phoenix Perfumery.
Not all of these artisans work with real musk, of course – some do, and some do not. Sultan Pasha, for example, studies real deer musk only in an attempt to recreate its aroma in his attars using other means, a proprietary mix of expensive synthetic musks and naturals. But he does not use real musk in his attars.
But if any artisan attar maker or small match perfumer wanted to work with deer musk, then they are really the only ones in the wider perfumery landscape that can. The smaller an artisan perfume operation, the more feasible it becomes to work with real deer musk.
Why? Well, first of all, the amounts of deer musk changing hands for perfume purposes are tiny, because most musk goes into Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Working with the crumbs from the rich man's table works perfectly for small artisanal perfumers, because they only make perfume in small quantities anyway.
Small-batch artisans also don't have to worry about ensuring consistency from batch to batch, because their customers expect and even value variances based on the behavior of different batches of raw materials. And given that artisans sell small numbers of bottles, they don't have to worry about securing large enough quantities to fill formulas for thousands of bottles. No issues relating to scaling up, in other words.
But it's hard to discount that certain cultural factors play into this as well. For example, there is a larger and more culturally-acceptable appetite for deer musk and other natural animal products in the Middle East. Middle and Far Eastern-based attar makers have a much easier job selling deer musk attars and mukhallats to their audience than their Western-based attar making counterparts.
The upshot of this is that a small number of artisanal attars and small-batch perfumes do contain genuine deer musk. I have listed some of them in the list of 20 musk perfumes to try, appended to this article.
However – and this is a big caveat – it is incredibly difficult, even for attar makers and artisanal perfumers, to identify genuine sources for deer musk. Because of legal restrictions on its trade and use in many countries, there is a sizeable black market for musk, and many sources turn out to be fake or adulterated. Worse yet, it could be real musk and be the result of a criminal activity, in other words, musk from an illegally poached deer whose species is close to extinction.
Therefore, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to find a reputable source of legal deer musk grains or tinctures. Then you are faced with the problem of how to “sell” the idea of natural musk to customers.
Some attar makers and perfumers succeed in this venture, and use deer musk tinctures or macerations in their perfumes. Some are open about their musk usage, and even use it as a selling point. Yet others use deer musk in perfumes and are discreet about the fact. Not to forget, there are also many custom-made attars being made for clients in the artisanal attar world, so if a client requests deer musk to be used and the perfumer has it, he or she will use it.
Other types of musks
Deer musk is not the only substance that gives a perfume a musky smell, of course. The main alternatives are: (i) cruelty-free animalic substances, (ii) botanical or plant-derived musks, and (iii) synthetic musks.
Ethical animal musks
There are other more sustainable and ethical sources of animal musk than deer musk. For example, many attar makers make use of hyraceum, which is the petrified urine and fecal matter of the Cape hyrax found on rocks. Because hyraceum is harvested without any cruelty to the animal itself and possesses a rich, animalic odor that shares some similarity with castoreum and civet, perfume makers are increasingly using it to stand in for these animalics, including musk.
Mink musk, rat musk, and skunk musk are also being examined for experimental use in attar perfumery, as stand-ins for deer musk. These types of animal musks are also harvested in a cruelty-free, sustainable manner.
Musk of botanical origin
Certain botanical materials give off a musky scent or texture, and can therefore be used as a substitute for deer musk in fragrances, and indeed in attars. These include ambrette seed, muskwood (olearia argophylla), angelica, and muskflower (mimulus moschatus).
Out of these, ambrette seed oil, extracted from the musk mallow plant native to India, is perhaps the best known and most highly regarded. Ambrette lends a scent a fresh, woody muskiness that can smell alternatively like green apple peel, pear schnapps, cumin, and freshly-baked bread.
Wonderfully complex and full-smelling, ambrette seed is unfortunately quite expensive and is therefore now only used in attars where cost is no issue. Thankfully, there exists a synthetic replacement for ambrette seed, called ambrettolide, which is inexpensive and smells very good.
In the realm of traditional Indian attars, however, natural ambrette oil (mainly the absolute) was the prime “musk” component used in the more complex attars such as black musk attars, shamama, and amberi (ambery) attars. Not only is the ambrette seed native to India, but it was also always less expensive and difficult to obtain than genuine deer musk, hence its popularity for use in attars that were to have a musky component.
Musk of synthetic origin
Even without the question of ethics, deer musk has always been hugely expensive to obtain. Therefore, as explained by Mandy Aftel in her wonderful book, Fragrant, from the moment people first smelled deer musk, they have been trying to create synthetics to replace it.
The scent of deer musk is naturally complex, consisting of a wide range of compounds such as acids, phenols, fatty waxes, and alcohols, but by far its most important component is muscone. Muscone makes up 2% of the molecular composition and is the prime source of that inimitably “musky” aroma.
Scientists have successfully isolated individual scent-giving molecules from deer musk and synthesized them in labs. Synthetic musks are subdivided into 3 categories, as follows: nitro musks, polycyclic musk compounds, and macrocyclic musk compounds.
Without going into too much technical detail, it's just important to note that nitro musks, which once gave scents such as Chanel No. 5 their slightly sweaty, intimate, and powdery feel, have long been banned due to public health concerns over potential carcinogenic effects. Many people mourn their absence, treasuring vintage versions of their favorite scents for their use of those same nitro musks.
Polycyclic musks are the original “white musk” synthetics that were developed primarily for the laundry detergent segment of the market, because their molecules were large and insoluble enough to have their scent “cling” to the fibers of clothes even after washing. People loved the smell of their laundry after using these laundry detergents, and soon there was a demand for that type of squeaky clean musk scent in perfume too. Macrocyclic musks are the new generation of white musk molecules, and will eventually replace most if not all of the polycyclic musks.
Most attars and mukhallats on the cheaper, non-artisan side of the scale use synthetic musks in their formulas, unless they are using an expensive botanical musk such as ambrette.
Clean versus dirty
Because deer musk is never used in commercial perfumery anymore and because natural, botanical musks are pretty expensive, the real issue in most of perfumery these days isn't even real versus synthetic, but clean versus dirty. The range of synthetic musk molecules is so incredibly diverse that there is a musk to suit practically every preference, no matter how specific.
Some love laundry-clean musks. That is easy to explain - there are firm cultural and historical associations with smelling clean. For many Americans of the 1950's, for example, when these super musk-charged laundry detergents were first introduced, clean was simply the opposite of dirty, literally a breath of fresh air after the deprivations of the second world war. Puritanism also left a deep mark on a certain (mostly Caucasian, Christian) segments of American society, and many still believe that cleanliness is close to Godliness. Cultural conditioning is a tricky area to get into, but it is something that clearly cannot be discounted.
The bulk of flavor and aroma molecule development by the big flavor and fragrance labs in Switzerland and France is destined for the functional sector, i.e., soaps, shampoos, candles, laundry detergents, and household cleaning agents. R&D naturally focuses on aromas that would be considered desirable by the majority of the population. And most people want to smell clean. So when our functional products smell more like a spanking fresh pile of laundered cotton and less like the back end of a yak, it makes sense that these ideas (and aroma molecules) trickle down into personal perfumery too.
White musks in both Western and attar perfumery therefore smell soapy, slightly sharp, powdery, and almost aggressively clean – in other words, not a million miles away from what they smell like in laundry detergent.
But variety is the spice of life. The aromachemical and flavor factories of France and Switzerland have produced broad ranges of different polycyclic and macrocyclic musks to suit every level of tolerance, from the ultra clean Galaxolide (IFF) to the fruity Helvetolide (a Firmenich molecule that smells a little like ambrettolide with a side of green apple) to Muscenone (a Firmenich molecule that is deeply musky and based on natural Muscone present in deer musk) to, finally, the filthy, animal-like Tonquitone (IFF).
In other words, in modern perfumery, every kink is catered to, ranging from the slightly-grubby-but-still-passing-as-innocent musk to the I-just-showered-using-Irish-Spring musk to the bedded-down-with-goats musk. This applies to attar perfumery too, by the way.
Can synthetic musk ever smell like genuine deer musk?
It's fair to say that no one synthetic musk molecule can ever capture the complexity of genuine deer musk, which is made up of a far broader range of aroma compounds than is present in any synthetic musk molecule.
However, a skilled perfumer can combine several different types of synthetic animalic substances with naturals – for example, a cocktail of dirtier synthetic musks combined with Ambroxan or natural ambergris tincture, synthetic castoreum, natural hyraceum (Africa Stone), and ambrettolide – and arrive at a result that smells convincingly of deer musk in all its complexity and richness.
Many Western perfumes and Middle-Eastern attars have been very successful at capturing the dynamics of the genuine deer musk smell through use of a combination of synthetic and botanical musks. For example, Muscs Khoublai Kahn by Serge Lutens, Salomé by Papillon, and Musc Tonkin by Parfum d'Empire all smell as convincingly animal-like as genuine deer musk, and yet neither contain not a single drop of the real thing.
Likewise, some of the deer musk attars by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi and Ajmal are deeply convincing, with a couple being possessed of an even dirtier, darker, and more fecal-smelling character than even real deer musk itself. However, often the clue to the presence of synthetic musk in a blend lies in both its extreme foulness and loudness – real musk, while undeniably animalic, is softer and quieter.
As with the use of oud and ambergris, the skill of a perfumer and the composition of a perfume almost always transcend the question of its raw materials. In other words, when a perfume is beautiful, it is enough to sit back and enjoy it, without worrying too much about what is natural and what is synthetic.
The united colors of musk: red, white, and black
Musks are often marketed as red, white, black, or even green. It would be futile to argue that the colors don't mean anything, because perception-wise, they do. Colors are powerful in terms of the message they send to us. But in reality, since all these musks are synthetic musks, the only real difference between them is the choice of colorants a perfumer will add to the batch and the variety of spices and other aromatics to vary the smell. The colors are mostly there to convey an impression of its essential “character” to its wearer – white for purity, red for lusty, black for danger, and so on.
White musk, as discussed above is a category of synthetic musk that grew out of the household laundry detergent segment of the market. Because this class of musks were first used in laundry detergent, their fresh, sharp, cottony smell has become forever intertwined with the scent of clean clothes.
In the context of attar perfumery, white musks are extremely popular and each seller has their own variation on the theme. White musk attars are often colored with a thick white colorant, giving them a cloudy, opaque appearance, a clever visual trick that also helps the brain to identify it as “clean”. White musk attars are often called tahara musks, body musks, or jism musks (jism meaning “of the body”). These attars are extremely popular during Eid where white musk cubes and attars are given out to visitors to the home. Here, white stands for purity, cleanliness, and the washing away of bodily sins.
Red musks are colored a clear, deep rusty-red color and often contain saffron, cinnamon, or clove to “match” the spicy red image of the oil. Needless to say, red musks are not a special variant of natural musk but simply a marketing-driven variation of synthetic musk. It will largely mean to you whatever the color red means to you. For many, red means spicy, exotic, or lusty.
Red musk is frequently used in indie oil perfumery, by companies such as BPAL, Alkemia, NAVA, and the like. In the American indie oil sector, the red musk accord is usually blended with a dragon's blood resin note. Disappointingly, Dragon's Blood resin does not come from a dragon but from a variety of plants. It is not very fragrant on its own, so indie oil perfumers make up a mixture of oils to approximate what they think it should smell like – usually a mixture of headshoppy patchouli, amber, nag champa accords, etc. To my nose, the red musk used in indie oils smells very sweet, bubblegum-like, and headshoppy.
Black musks are often called Kasturi-type musks in order to drive home the point that they are aping the scent of natural musk that comes from the Kasturi or Tonkin deer. Black musks, if made well and in the traditional Indian manner, are highly complex attars in and of themselves, and can contain anything from patchouli to costus root to ambrette seed oil, as well as a potent cocktail of synthetic musks that lie on the dirtier side of the scale, such as Tonquitone or Musk Ketone.
An expensive black musk attar made in the traditional manner can be a pleasure to wear; unfortunately most of the black musk attars on the market tend to be made almost entirely with synthetics dissolved in cheap dilutants. In the matter of black musk, aim for the big bucks blends if you want something truly good. In terms of color, here black means deep, dirty, and masculine.
Green musks and pink musks are monikers only rarely used in attar perfumery, and are more commonly seen in scent descriptions for commercial perfumery and some indie oil companies. Green musks will usually have vetiver or patchouli oils in them, and are perceived as earthy and forest-like (even a little bit “witchy”). Pink musks are seen as floral and feminine, with pretty Asian flowers such as cherry blossom and pink lotus. Sometimes, in modern commercial perfumery, soft Egyptian musks such as the Narciso Rodriguez perfumes or the texture of Coco Mademoiselle are described as being “pink”.
Egyptian musks are unlike the usual red, white, and black variants in that there is a historical and botanical basis for their existence. While nowadays practically all Egyptian musks are made from synthetic white musk plus something else, in the times of Ancient Egypt, the recipe only included natural materials of botanical origin.
Recipes for the original Egyptian musks vary but almost always mention ambrette seed oil, kyphi (Egyptian pressed incense, a sort of barkhour made from myrrh, mastic, pine resin, red wine, halmaddi, and honey), frankincense, patchouli, and rose oil. It was the ambrette seed oil that gave the blend its muskiness.
Egyptian-type musks have proved enduringly popular in perfumery, and are still much loved today. Although the recipe is now based entirely on a synthetic musk base, they differ from white musks in being generally creamier, sweeter, and more sensually skin-like, thanks to the inclusion of a more complex line-up of other notes mixed into the white musk.
Modern variants of Egyptian musk scents will almost always include a touch of patchouli and rose, although one of my personal favorites features a fruity jasmine note too. The musky rose and patchouli pairing is a popular motif in Western perfumery, and can be seen in everything from Narciso Rodriguez' Musc for Her and Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely to Lady Vengeance by Juliette Has a Gun. The advantage of Egyptian musk over a pure white musk is that it is mimics the smell of soft, clean skin more than it does soap or laundry detergent.
And now... 20 Musk Fragrances to Smell before You Die
[chapter]20 Musk Fragrances to Smell before You Die[chapter]
I've thought long and hard about how to organize this section of the article. A list of every single musk fragrance or attar that's ever crossed my path would be unnecessarily long and not particularly useful to the reader, then there's the question of whether to separate the attars from the alcohol-based sprays, or the perfumes containing real deer musk from those that do not.
With that in mind, I've decided to simply set out a list of fragrances or attars that I think exemplify a certain theme or category very well. Readers are more than welcome to use these as yardsticks or as jumping-off points for their own exploration.
If you are curious about what genuine deer musk smells like, then contact an artisanal attar maker (any of them) and ask whether they have a tincture or maceration they'd be able to share with you. Try not to quibble on the cost, which is likely to be astronomical even for a small sample. If you're curious about musk, it's good to have a baseline, but be aware that the difficulty (to the vendor) of obtaining the real deal is reflected in its price.
Few attar makers openly advertize the fact that they work with natural deer musk. However, whatever you are able to arrange in a one-on-one conversation is different.
Siberian Musk by Areej Le Doré
Contains real deer musk: ✓
Format: Extrait de parfum; spray
After a bright citrus and pine start, the scent settles quickly into a full-fat, clotted-cream musk redolent of rosy beeswax, apricots, orange blossom, and the salty intimacy of a post-coital embrace. The musk component manages to be seriously filthy but in a refined way, with a buttery floral purr that typifies a French sort of polish.
The musk here is authentically sensual and animal-like, but it comes across as a creamy, rounded smell, not sharply urinous or sweaty. Texture-wise, it has the silky density of yellow fat skimmed off the top of raw milk. Think Muscs Khoublai Khan crossed with the decaying roses and adiposal wax of Rose de Nuit, backlit by the subtle glow of resin, orange blossom, and citrus peel. The contrast between the fresh notes and the fatty, un-fresh musk is perfectly pitched.
TL; DR: Real deer musk in a classic perfumery setting. (Won't scare the horses.)
Available from : Areej le Doré
Muscs Khoublai Khan by Serge Lutens
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Eau de parfum; spray
More than any other niche fragrance, it manages to recreate the textural component of real musk, which smells like the static electricity and ions in the air when damp fur or wool dries out in front of a fire. It is comforting, sensual, and intimate in a grimy way that never fails to please.
TL; DR: Complex mix of synthetics that mimics scent of real deer musk (briefly fecal)
Available from : Serge Lutens
Tsuga Musk by The Most Beautiful Scents (eBay)
Contains real deer musk: ✓
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
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 turning white and brittle at the edges. 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 attar maker was deliberately 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, appearing more like molecules of sparkling sea air than something you can touch. Towards the base, vetiver, civet, patchouli, and hemlock add a chypre-like woody bitterness that adds backbone to the scent.
TL; DR: Delicate deer musk meets delicate cocoa & orris (Dior Homme flanker?)
Available from : eBay seller page
Musc Nomade by Annick Goutal
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Eau de parfum, spray
It's also a good example of how many people are anosmic to certain musks, especially those with a high molecular weight. Musc Nomade is famous for smelling like, well, a big fat nothing to a large portion of the population. Personally, I can smell most of it, but my husband can't smell a thing and my brother finds it to be incredibly diffusive.
How, then, to describe it to people who can't smell it? Musc Nomade smells at first like baked apples and rose petals, probably due to the ambrette seed. But then it smells plasticky and rubbery, and in turn, milky and caramel-sweet, like the skin on a rice pudding.
Mostly, though, it smells fatty and warm, like the best version of one's own skin. Sometimes, though, it smells cloudy and indistinct, and when this happens Musc Nomade simply smells perfumey, like smelling the tail end of someone's white musk perfume at the end of a long day. It's not fresh, but it's lived in and warmly skin-like.
TL; DR: Imperceptible to some, to others, idealized (milk pudding) skin
Available from: Lucky Scent
Musk Attar 2011 by The Rising Phoenix Perfumery
Contains real deer musk: ✓
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
Musk Attar contains real deer musk. It opens with a strangely familiar odor, which I can't pinpoint exactly except to say that it lies somewhere between glue, plastic, varnish, and something industrial, but still warm and putty-like. Repeated wears has made me wonder if this is due to the type of sandalwood oil used in the attar, which is oily, rich, but very peanut shell-ish in aroma profile. But more likely, it is the combination of the deer musk with the sandalwood oil. 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.
Behind 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 soft, pillowy, and intimate, not just in terms of scent but also sillage and projection: this is not your typical “beast mode” musk.
It is fairly neutral in aroma profile, as well as abstract. It does not remind me of anything definable 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 deep, aromatic, buttery sandalwood in the Rising Phoenix Perfumery fashion. The attar seems to grow in strength and volume in the far reaches of the drydown, probably the musk and the sandalwood amplifying each other until their voices soar a little higher.
TL; DR: Emphasizes the plasticky, stale-air facets of musk (sandalwood-dominant)
Available from : Rising Phoenix Etsy page
Salome by Papillon Artisan Perfumes
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Eau de parfum, spray
Salome is almost indecently dirty. In my original review of this scent, I said it drew on older classic animalic fragrances like Femme and Bal à Versailles. Forget that, I don't know what I was smoking. I don't think that even vintage Joy was ever this dirty. It's great, and almost hilariously filthy.
TL; DR: Niche scent that uses ethical animal musks to slut-shame real deer musk.
Available from: Papillon, Luckyscent
Body Musk (Jism) Blend by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Solid musk cubes, attar (oil-based perfume)
Beautiful on its own, it can also layered under sharp rose oils or even darker musks and ambers to give whatever you're wearing a soft, musky undertone. For anybody who loves creamy, clean musk fragrances like Serge Lutens' Clair de Musc, give this one a try and you won't ever look back. Also, a drop or piece crumbled into your bath is amazing.
TL; DR: The best whiter than white musk on the market.
Available from: eBay
Musc Tonkin by Parfum d'Empire
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Eau de parfum / extrait de parfum; spray
There's no notes list for this fragrance, but at a bare minimum, I'd guess that it features lily, orchid, ylang ylang, rose, synthetic civet, tonquitone, ambrette seed, amber, tree moss, sandalwood, and perhaps either natural or synthetic ambergris. The primary characteristic of the muskiness here is the salty, almost meaty element coming from something like lily or ambergris.
If Muscs Khoublai Kahn recalls the sweet muskiness of the male perineal region, then Musc Tonkin, with its oyster-like brininess, recalls a female sort of muskiness. What's wonderful about Musc Tonkin is that all this is wrapped up in a silky, creamy warmth that makes it truly comfortable to wear on the skin.
TL; DR: A fragrance that relies on salt and indolic florals to create the illusion of real musk
Available from: Lucky Scent
Kiswat Al Kaaba by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi
Contains real deer musk: ?
Format: attar (oil-based perfume)
This is a good example of an attar that, while it is not likely to contain much if any deer musk, smells authentically musky if one takes Muscs Khoublai Khan as the bellwether. Although the surrounding notes are different – patchouli and green notes replacing MKK's rose and castoreum – the faintly fecal taint of the musk note is roughly similar.
Roughly translating to the scent that comes from the cloth covering the Ka'aba in Mecca, this is an excellent attar that mixes a pungent, fecal musk note with loads of camphoraceous Indian patchouli for a greenish, antiseptic effect. It would be quite close to Abdul Samad Al Qurashi's Ajeeb Musk Blend, a rather heavy duty patchouli musk, were it not for the labdanum, and perhaps a touch of fruity Cambodi oud providing a pleasantly woody, oriental background. The overall feel is rich yet dusty and serene.
The musk is properly dirty in tone, with that flat, inky indole that some sambac jasmine oils possess, a hint of tar and smoke dancing around the edges of the aroma. On the skin it is dense, fragrant, and almost sweet, with a sillage and trail that is quite impressive (although not 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.
Available from asqgrp.com
Egyptian Musk by dearmusk (eBay seller)
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
This is the best version of an Egyptian-style musk I've come across. Practically every attar company in the world produces their own version of this, possibly the most famous one being the oil produced by Abdul Kareem Essential Oils - the personal scent of the late Caroline Bessette Kennedy.
The Egyptian musk trope is popular in commercial perfumery too, and we are probably all familiar with a famous example, namely Narciso Rodriguez for Her, created by the same designer who made Bessette Kennedy's wedding dress (leading one to assume that the designer was originally inspired by Bessette Kennedy's use of this oil).
Although all Egyptian musks are based on the same synthetic white musks found in white musk attars, they used to be 100% natural, drawing upon costly ambrette seed, wild herbs, and florals for their musky effect. Nowadays, Egyptian musks differ in “flavor” from white musks simply through the addition of patchouli and rose.
This particular oil uses a fruity, bubblegummy jasmine that brightens the topnotes and gives the wearer a bit of childish glee. But then it settles into a very sensuous, warm musk aroma that closely mimics the scent of real skin, unlike white musks which simply broadcast laundry-fresh cleanliness. This is a real “my skin but better” musk oil and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Egyptian musks. Other Egyptian musk oils with a good reputation include Auric Blends Egyptian Goddess and the Egyptian Musk Oil by AgarscentsBazaar.
TL; DR: An Egyptian musk oil with a real “my skin but better” sensuousness.
Available from: Etsy store
Musk Rose Attar
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
The muskiness in Musk Rose – which doesn't appear, by the way, until the far drydown – comes entirely from plant-based sources, and specifically by way of a rare Hina musk attar, a traditional Indian shamama distilled from hundreds of different aromatic materials, including charila (Indian oakmoss), henna flower, ambrette seed, herbs, vetiver root, saffron, davana, and kewra (screwpine flower). A genuine, traditionally-made hina musk attar costs in the region of several thousand USD per kilo, even within India itself, where prices for attars tend to be at their least inflated, which I mention only to highlight the fact that some botanical musks are as expensive as deer musk.
Anyway, the hina musk attar gives Musk Rose a drydown that is authentically “musky” in smell, with a lingering, body odor sourness mingling with sweet mustiness, and something sweetly saliva-ish. Deer musk or not, Musk Rose occupies the same sort of mental space as Bogue Perfumery's creations, Maai and MEM, which is to say scents that seek to recreate the musky, animalic richness and complexity of older, pre-IFRA-era fragrances.
TL; DR: No deer musk but smells convincingly deer-musky (Indian shamama attar)
Available from: https://www.etsy.com/ie/listing/239426337/musk-rose-attar-available-in-quarter?ref=shop_home_feat_1
Al'Ghaliyah by Kyara Zen
Contains real deer musk: ✓
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
I've written about Kyara Zen's Al'Ghaliyah before, but I include it here again because it is a good example of how an attar can use real deer musk to give a subtly animalic undertone without allowing it to overshadow the key players of the perfume, which in this case are the rose and the oud. Ghaliyah attars are common in Middle-Eastern perfumery but the bulk of them appear to be synthetic in nature. Kyara Zen has confirmed that their Al'Ghaliyah is all natural and does not contain any synthetics.
That makes their achievement in this beautiful attar even more impressive. It is one of the very few rose-oud mukhallats out there that successfully manages to achieve perfect balance between the elements in the blend – a rich, perfumey oud that smells like liquid calf leather, a winey rose with no sourness or sharp corners, and what smells to me like a golden nectar of apricots, peaches, plums, and osmanthus soaking into all the other notes. And all this without any heavy lifting from synthetics, therefore doubly impressive!
The deer musk in Al'Ghaliyah is very soft and subtle, demonstrating that natural musk is not as loud and overbearing as modern synthetic reproductions sometimes make it out to be. The presence of the musk is simply to imbue the base with furry (clean) animal warmth.
TL; DR: Attar that shows that deer musk doesn't always have to take over in a blend.
Available from: https://www.kyarazen.com/ (Al Galiyah is only available sporadically and is not being advertised for sale at present)
Musk Gazelle AA by Ajmal
Contains real deer musk: ?
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
Ajmal's Musk Gazelle (issued under two different names or versions, which seem to vary only in concentration) is a great example of what most people believe real deer musk smells like and should smell like, and, therefore, to a certain extent, this famous musk has become something of a benchmark. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to contain any real deer musk and therefore has probably fooled many people into thinking that this is what deer musk must smell like.
It is loud, very dirty to the point of being downright fecal, and quite harsh. Wearing it sometimes feel like one is on the losing end of a bet. In case anyone is in any doubt about how this one smells, it is like being forced into a barn with a thousand defecating animals.
TL; DR: Liquid slurry, only not as subtle (gives deer musk a bad name)
Available from: eBay
Al Lail by Sultan Pasha Attars (SPA)
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
Al Lail is a good example of an attar that recreates the feel of a musky 80's masculine without using a drop of natural musk or civet. This attar, whose name is Arabic for “The Night”, is Sultan Pasha's tribute to one of the stinkiest, muskiest, most civet-laden fragrances of all time, the notorious La Nuit (The Night) by Paco Rabanne.
However, Al Lail is not a literal copy, thankfully side-stepping the pissy tones of the honey in the original and using instead a combination of muscone and Muscenone instead of real animalics to recreate its musky depth. Moreover, while La Nuit always smells a little bit like heavy horse sweat to me, and therefore impolite for use outside of the home, Al Lail takes a more elegant approach, folding the animalic musk and leather notes into a dusty, spicy floral musk that owes more to the carnation-heavy fragrances of the past, such as Caron's Bellodgia and even Opium, than to La Nuit.
Al Lail is an elegant little stinker made with love for those who revere the huge, floral-animalic fragrances of the past such as Ubar by Amouage, Joy parfum by Patou, Jasmin Eugenie Imperatrice by Creed, and indeed any of the older Carons. Think Bellodgia and Tabac Blond with their spicy, powdery clove-tinted glove leather, but wrapped up in a fuzzy straight jacket of rude musks, civet, and dried flower petals.
TL; DR: A more elegant version of La Nuit using complex cocktail of synthetic musks and naturals for a retro, classic floriental feel.
Available from: ebay
L'Animal Sauvage by Marlou
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Extrait de parfum, spray
L'Animal Sauvage is a softly animalic musk that smells a bit like the furry underbelly of kittens and their nesting box, but it gains most of its character from the huge dose of orange blossom and caramel, notes that give the scent an almost candied feel. Think wet puppy or kitten paws doused in powdered sugar. The contrast between the dirtiness of the synthetic musk used and the extreme sweetness of the flowers and gourmand notes is what gives the scent such an authentic “sweet n' dirty” musk character.
I chose L'Animal Sauvage as an example of the theme because I like its raunchiness, but there are other great musk fragrances that pair synthetic musk molecules with candied florals and semi-gourmand notes to create musk accords that are as powdery and sweet as some natural musks. Among these I would list Musc by Mona di Orio (powdered almonds, heliotrope), Pure eVe by The Different Company (candied almonds and dried fruit), and Teint de Neige by Lorenzo Villoresi (rose lokhoum). These are all great example of musk fragrances that leave a powdery, sweet, candied-floral trail in the air when wearing them - sort of boudoir-ish and feminine, but utterly seductive.
TL; DR: Example of candied sweet florals creating a musky effect
Available from: Lucky Scent
Phoebus by Arcana
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: American indie perfume oil
Phoebus is a good example of use of the red musk that is 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, of course, and is simply an imaginative way of dressing up synthetic white musk as witchy or mysterious-sounding. But indie perfume oils are imagination-driven, not raw materials-driven. What's important here is that the result smells good and matches a certain atmosphere or effect the consumer is looking for.
Phoebus is built around the same resin-beeswax-woody-vanilla axis found in many of Arcana's perfumes, but differs significantly in by way of the addition of a big bubblegummy red musk, 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 squares 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 doesn't feel grown-up in the slightest, but that's probably half the fun here.
TL; DR: Great example of an indie “red musk” (bubblegum on a grill)
Available from : Femme Fatale Cosmetics, Pretty Indulgent
Kiehl's Original Musk by Kiehl's
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Perfume oil (rollerball) or Eau de Toilette (spray)
The EDT version has more florals (ylang and rose) than the oil version, which goes straight to the musky heart and stays there; however, the EDT projects more generously. Either version is a fantastic entry-level musk for people who are unsure of how musky they want to go just yet.
More than any other musk fragrance, commercial or niche, Kiehl's Original Musk demonstrates the enormous attraction of smelling not quite clean, not quite dirty, but something poised irresistibly in between. It is also one of the biggest attention getters around: wear this and prepare for random strangers to want to snuggle up.
TL; DR: The OG musk, still showing other fragrances how it's done (no bells and whistles).
Available from: Kiehl's
Musk au Chocolat by Duftkumpels
Contains real deer musk: ✓
Format: Attar (oil-based perfume)
A good example of how deer musk can be made to smell almost entirely gourmand! Musk au Chocolat goes on dusty and flat, but soon 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 foodie 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 really noticeable when you take your nose away from the skin for a while and then return it.
Actually, Musk 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 attar 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 wouldn't want to eat it.
Available from: contact the attar maker, Shafqat, at: shaft1405[at]web[dot]de
Musc by Bruno Acampora
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Oil, extrait, and Eau de Parfum
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 now that the famously fungal opening to Acampora's Iranzol is also due to this very Italian, very pungent (almost saline) medley of wet kitchen herbs and patchouli. The clove note here is dusty and stale-smelling, like radiator dust mixed with sweat. But I'm also betting on some myrrh in there, myrrh being bitter, anisic, and mushroomy in essential oil form.
The salty, aqueous nature of Musc makes me think of the peat bogs of Western Ireland, where clods of wet, minty 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, and I will always remember the “summer of love” that I spent there, getting paid peanuts by the 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 a 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 70's enough to make you feel like a shag pile carpet and a full bush are required to wear it.
Available from: Lucky Scent
Lovely by Sarah Jessica Parker
Contains real deer musk: X
Format: Eau de Parfum
But this soon merges with a creamy, rosy musk that makes the wearer feel like they have just emerged pink and naked from a steamy bubble bath, like Venus on the half shell. One of the best throw-on-and-forget-about-it floral musks out there, and at a fraction of the cost of other designer perfumes, it is difficult not to recommend. Personally, I recommend the body cream over the perfume itself, but both are very nice.
Available from: Show stockists
How about you? Do you have any musky loves that are not included in this list? If so, let me know what I left out or overlooked, and why you think they should have been included!