Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Musk Series 3: The Many Permutations of Musk

In all of perfume speak, "musk" and "musky" has got to be the most casually utilized term, often taking on hidden nuances inadvertedly to the speaker, based on their own perception of the odoriferous molecules creating the impression. We had touched upon this issue while discussing the cultural perception of musk (Musk Series Part 1), peppered with anecdotes. We had also tried to shed some light into the differences between the natural essence (produced from the deer Moschus moschiferous L.) and the vast array of synthetic musks in the industry today on this article (Musk Series Part 2).

In the words of Philip Kraft “the more one studies [musk] the more contrasting, vibrant and oscillating it becomes: repulsive–attractive, chemical–warm, sweaty–balmy, acrid–waxy, earthy–powdery, fatty–chocolate-like, pungent–leathery, resinous–spicy, fig-like, dry, nutty and woody, to give just some impressions” [1]. Still, beyond our interpretation (surely a personal matter) and the more clandestine issue of which ingredients are actually utilized in any given perfume, anyone immersing themselves into the fascinating subject of musks stumbles on another obstacle: What about the denominations that the companies and online boutiques give to their musks and musk notes themselves? What is "white musk", "black musk", "Egyptian musk" and so on and on to infinity? Let's try to find out in this guide.

White musk
The easiest to tackle, because of its ubiquity. You have probably seen the term in single-standing fragrances at the drugstore, such as the famous Jovan White Musk, and you have probably seen it in relation to the continuing success of The Body Shop's White Musk. The latter is comprised of the synthetic musks Galaxolide (7,7%), Tonalide (1,6%) a little Cashmeran (0,1%) for a total of 9.4% of white musks. Galaxolide (an International Fragrances & Flavours synthetic molecule with staggering popularity in the industry in both fine fragrance and functional products) gives a a clean, but also musky flowery-woody odour with a sweet, powdery nuance: You're probably well familiar with it through fabric softeners such as Comfort and Soflan and through detergents like Coral. White musk in perfumery therefore has become synonymous with a "clean", soapy and somewhat biting impression, with a passing floral tonality. Globalide (another musk synthetic, also called Habanolide) is often used in white musk compositions: A metallic smelling, fresh radiant musk which opens up the bouquet. Indeed its coupling with Helvetolide in Emporio Armani White For Her, by Alberto Morillas in 2001, gave rise to the term "white musk" as official perfume lingo beyond the brand names of yore ~its olfactory profile opposed to the balmy darkness of the prior nitromusks. The same synthetic (Globalide) enters the aldehydic musk Glow by Jennifer Lopez, accenting the fresh white floral components of the formula, while it also gives the cooly herbal-soapy feel of Mugler's Cologne and the baby-soft"clean" of Clair de Musc by Serge Lutens. It also outlives the blackberry top notes of the popular Trish McEvoy #9 Blackberry Musk.

Egyptian Musk
Even though the adjective might make you think that these musks come in their own little sarcophagi chanting in an unknown language, the reality is far removed from such exoticism. Simply put, Egyptian musk does not originate in Egypt, but is simply a variant of a musk blend in which the clean, scrubbed-skin nuance is the dominant part. The laundry day feel is there, much like with white musk (see above) but in general the effect is less screetchy and subtler to detect. Famous examples in use include the perennial Narciso For Her, where the fractialised patchouli (keeping the cleaner aspects) and the synthetic white flowers are highlighted by the clean muskiness of the base and smoothed out by a recent amber molecule, Amberlyn and a hint of honey. The Cuban born designer was inspired by an Egyptian musk oil he used to buy in New York City along his friend and muse Caroline Bessette-Kennedy. (It turns out it was Abdul Kareem's Egyptian Musk). The Egyptian musk part is easier to detect it if you test the Musk For Her by Narciso Rodriguez in the same line of fragrances (for a breakdown of the confusing concentrations of the line, please refer to this guide). There, Egyptian Musk stands almost solely on its own. They have recently updated the line with specific Musk editions.
The combination with "clean" patchouli seems to be an approved shortcut for this variant. Reading through this recipe for homemade Egyptian Musk, you come across the mention of patchouli leaves and rose petals entering the composition in a vegetal-base oil.
Several indie perfumers such as Ava Luxe, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Sonoma Scent Studio, as well as etailers (the likes of Nemat, Sweetcakes, Utopia Oils et al) make Egyptian musk fragrances. Its popularity has to do with its sheer subtlety, it would never offend a scent-phobic environment and it is pleasant to have around when you don't feel like perfume. The popular Egyptian Goddess oil from Auric Blends is a good example of a plain, unadulterated Egyptian musk with no other tonalities included: it smells a lot like fabric softener! You might also encounter this as "Pearl Musk" such as chez Ava Luxe, who offers both this and an Egyptian Musk version.

African Musk
Despite the "wild" evoking name, African musks usually are variations on the theme of Egyptian musk, soft, clean, inoffensive with an inclusion of sweet vanilla which makes them even cuddlier.

Red Musk
A chromatic variation in the name which was inspired by the "white" adjective, it bears an incense note reminiscent of the Eastern temples. Several etailers provide "red musks".

Black Musk
Similar concept with red musk, but this time with a woody, somewhat dirtier background, although not exactly animalic.

Blue Musk
Another variation poised on colour colding, this is close to white musks, with perhaps a sweeter musky nuance, a little softer and close to African Musk. If a manufacturer makes both Blue Musk and African Musk, it would be advised to try out before investing in both.

China Musk
Inspired by Body Time's China Rain, China musk types usually feature a distinct aldehydic and green top which brings on a refreshing feeling. Halfway between the metallic feel of white musks and the suaveness of Egyptian musks, China musks are saturated with light and are very pleasant. Ava Luxe makes an exceptional speciment termed China Musk.

Oriental Musk
A slight tweek on the China Musk idea (see above). Usually brought by jasmine inclusions and powdery background. Ava Luxe has one in her line.

Tunisian Musk
Generally the term refers to a sweet variation on the clean Egyptian theme (see above). Some manufacturers offer both Egyptian and Tunisian versions, so there is a slight twist in there. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz as well as offer their versions.

Turkish Musk
Inspired by the traditions of tea and exotic leathers brought through the Silk Road to Constantinople, perfumers have come up with a musk blend that uses tarry topnotes to denote black tea and leathery nuances. Drier than the African-termed musks and with a little bit of sophistication, while still a wearable musk for layering or wearing alone. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz has a nice offering in this category.

Tibetan or Himalyan Musk
A variation seemingly close to the real Tonkin musk tincture but in reality not even close. These are warmer, sweetish interpretations presented by etailers and street vendors which can be very pleasant and inviting with good lasting power and hushed tonalities. Nemat makes a lovely Himalayan Musk oil which is supreme for wearing alone or layering purposes under other fragrances or oils to make them warmer and softer.

Nude Musk
I took the term used by Ava Luxe's fragrance to denote this category which also includes Perfect Veil by Creative Scentualisation and Sonoma Scent Studio Opal (for a comparison review of all three, click here) just because it's so erotically charged. This is a category which is meant to smell like "your skin but better", obviously a very popular demand and considered quite sexy (the skin-on-skin concept). It takes a lightly citrusy top (bergamot) and rounds it out through sandalwood and other creamy notes, blending into the skin where it smells as if you rolled into bed after a shower: That would be the scent you'd leave on the sheets. Suggestive, I know...The permutation with sandalwood was famously introduced in the 1970s with Bonne Belle's Skin Musk, Sarah Jessica Parker's longtime standby (this is now made with a slight reorchestration by Parfums du Coeur).

Wild Card musks (or anything goes...)
Some of the musks which you will encounter in your galivanting among fragrance lines are imaginatively named with poetic overtones leaving you wondering what they entail. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz has a whole array of unusual musks. Among them she makes a terrific animalic musk called Almadina Musk, which although reminiscent of the Arabian Al Madina, is in fact a leathery (lots of castoreum) and green marvel which projects with swagger and is highly recommended as a stand-alone fragrance. The Body Shop has a similar case of a musk which is not really musky: Japanese Musk is really a chypre in the manner of powdery chypres of old (see Ma Griffe); starched, cool, delightful and wonderful on a handkerchief tucked inside a purse.
DSH Special Formula X is a skin-friendly and erotic perfume that evokes boyish musks of yore, presented in the plain and longer lasting Extreme version. Dawn's Old School Musk is reminiscent of the 70s specimens specifically, such as Kiehl's as well as Houbigant's and Dana's, slightly greener and animalic. The touch of ambergris at the base makes it a bit like salt-water dipped skin.
The Fragrance Shop boasts an Almadina Musk too which they describe as "a spicy bitter musk with animalic undertones". Coty on the other hand makes the wonderful old barber-shop evocative Wild Musk which has a fougere overlay over the musky base. A retro fragrance with warm, inviting and lightly masculine accents, superb! Sonoma Scent Studio makes a spicy musk, called Sienna Musk, which is truly wonderful. (for a full review, please refer to this link)

Although mentioned in passing above, some etailers such as The feature lots of ethnically named musks, such Nigerian Musk (green-ish and named as a variant of Egyptian obviously; same with Tunisian, Indian etc). Generally they indicate what kind of "blend" they fit into, but trying out is always recommended first. As with everything...

The Musk Series will continue with lots of other interesting info and reviews.

[1] Kraft, Philip. “Aroma Chemicals IV: Musks” in Chemistry and Technology of Flavors and Fragrances, ed. by David Rowe. Blackwell Publishing, UK, 2004
Photograph of Lisa Lion by Robert Mapplethorpe. Perfume pics via parfum de pub


  1. Great post, and I'm very pleased to see some of my favorites get their props. Coty Wild Musk really is a delightful bargain. The fragrance Shop's Almadina Musk is terrific, too. It's one of the fragrances in the "Scent Made Visible" series on my blog. You can see artist James Linkous's interpretation of it here.

  2. Anonymous16:25

    I love the Musk scents. I have the
    Almadina Musk.

  3. Oh, Helg, I do adore your tours. It's always a pleasure to be led through territory by a good guide.

    I am intrigued by the DSH Almadina musk...curious to see what happens when elements I like separately (green, leather, castoreum) come together over this "bitter" musk you/she mention. As for Coty's Wild Musk...really? Who knew? I love that in the same paragraph, I've been intrigued by a niche and a dimestore offering.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series.

  4. Thank you! One can always count on you to give a detailed description of things I blindly guess at. :) I've been wondering for quite some time what is it with that musk that it appears everywhere and when I finally realize I smell a musk note, it is not even similar to the one I recognized in some other creation.

  5. In the end it was you, E., who taught me to try some musks although i thought i disliked them before... ;-)
    Of course, i was wrong!

  6. Anonymous21:53

    Very informative! Thank you so much for these articles!!!!

  7. Oh, that ehow "recipe" is horrifingly inept, like much on that site. Have you heard of Attar Bazaar? Owned by Imam Hakim Chisti, a Unani healer and author of The Book of Sufi Healing (which I cherish). They are very popular in the States. Before I knew better, I believed the hype and thought they were real - we're talking 30 years ago. Over time, I got to shy away from them, as they were just flat. When I took them out of a drawer after 15 years or so, they had all degraded to the same, sickly sweet synthetic base.

    None of those mentioned by you use ambrette seed?

    Ah, but real musk. Powdery, subtle, like skin that is perfumed from within. Nothing like it.

  8. Anonymous23:40

    Fascinating article!

    Do you know whether modern perfumers still use actual musk from deer or other animals? If so, which ones?

    It is very heartening to hear that there are so many synthetic varieties now, and I very much hope that the animal-derived types of musk are no longer being used.

  9. Mystic Knot06:18

    Very interesting article- I always learn from you Helg !
    And.... I love that picture- a strong woman indeed .
    My favorite musk is Ava Luxe's Pearl Musk - just a gorgeous metallic, shiny ,clean musk to me and I like Royal Muska by M Micallef.

  10. I just love these articles, I learn so much ... thank you!

  11. Very illuminating post E! Unfortunately I am one of those people who cannot stand Egyptian Musk (or any synthetic musk for that matter). Even on other people, which is challenging in Portland where EM is everywhere!

    I'm just really sensitive to it. Serge Lutens seems to love musk in the drydown of many of his fragrances, so SL perfumes that I would otherwise love are not options for me.

  12. M,

    hello darling! How are you? Thanks so much for the compliment and also for the great link to the drawnings of the students based on the scents. That should have been tremendous fun!
    Yes, Almadina (judging by the DSH which I love) is leathery and greenish. Which suits me (us?) fine I guess.

  13. Thanks B, appreciate your comment!

  14. S,

    thanks for the kind words. It's such fun writing these although they do require some prior scheduling for comparison purposes and of course some research. But hopefully worth it.

    The Almadina is very individual, do try it out! As for Coty's, WM is among the best things from the brand in the last 50 years I think ;-) Don't knock it just because it's at the drugstore, is the moral.

  15. Ines,

    thanks honey, I do believe that sometimes there are lots of people who notice the differences/nuances but are intimidated to voice their impressions because there is some prevalent notion of how musks/whatever should smell etc etc. Glad to see you have noticed these things yourself!

  16. N,

    darling, I am so glad I did, if you say so! Obviously there are hundreds of musks and it's a maligned category, probably due to overexposure to cheap "white musks" in later years. But they is something for everyone.
    Hope you're having a wonderful time!

  17. Anon,

    you're most welcome! Thanks for saying so.

  18. Anya,

    thanks for chimming in.

    I have no doubt the "recipes" are clumpsily composed, but it's probably a first step for those who would like to wet their foot, so to speak. Definitely it takes a LOT more to really compose a perfume!!

    Much as I appreciate real musk as a scent, I do get a little apprehensive thinking of the extraction methods. It's well that there is some very old stock at the vaults of some perfumers. Some synthetic substitutes are quite lovely, in their own way, even if no match.
    I believe DSH uses ambrette seed in her scents (not all of them), but I would definitely doubt it for the most part of etailers etc. It just doesn't feel like they do and it would seem illogical from a price point of view. Didn't know about Attar Bazaar's but I believe you.

  19. Anon,

    as I mentioned to Anya above, there is no use of animal-derived musk nowadays. The extraction method was dcetrimentary to the animal, hence it stopped. A handful of indie perfumers I know have some very old stock at their vault for very expensive and very exclusive bespoke scents, but that's it!
    So you can be sure 100% that when you're buying a fragrance today (mainstream or niche), there is no animal-derived musk in it.

  20. MK,

    thanks! It's an honour your saying that.

    Yup, that photo reminds me of both fragility (the white tint, the cloth on the face) and strength. I believe Lisa Lion was in a terrible accident or such and emerged with little injury thanks to her extraordinary muscle power (here's a positive incentive to work out I guess).
    I hope to review some of your musk loves soon! :-)

  21. Prox,

    so glad! You're welcome (and I do take suggestions too)

  22. T,

    thanks honey!
    I can see how many people have an aversion to synth musks: they have been sooooo overdone in some fragrances and also functional products, they bordeline engulf everything. But I always thought Egyptian musk was the most inoffensive of the lot. Guess I was wrong and there's a first time for everything!
    Yup, Lutens sure loves his musks. He does use ambrette in MKK though.

  23. Just to clarify on above about MKK: alongside other ingredients, of course (meant to say it). In case anyone gets misleaded.
    Well, let's keep the rest for an upcoming review!

  24. Just catching up on my reading (hopelessly addicted to the NCAA Tournament), but thank you for a beautifully researched and written article. ~Donna

  25. Anonymous10:25

    Great article!
    Are these two shops any good? I would like to buy something.
    I have only white musk from The Body Shop, but they have a japanese one too, my friend likes it a lot.

  26. D,

    belated thanks, honey!

  27. Lavinia,

    better late than never: Yes, the shops are good. The Japanese Musk from the Body Shop is really exquisite, only it's really a floral chypre scent, perfumey-mossy-dry and powdery, rather than an outright musk type.
    I don't know what they were thinking when naming it, it doesn't compute. :/ Do try it though, if you can, it's really lovely.

  28. This helped so much!

    I'm trying desperately to get a replacement for my beloved auric blends Egyptian goddess. The scent changed somewhere around 2010/2011. I've heard of some people getting a good bottle here and there, but on a whole everyone agrees it smells mostly of vegetable oil.

    I wonder what happened? Cutting the oil more? Bad supply?

    Actively seeking a replacement if anyone has any suggestions.

  29. My kingdom for a scent resembling "Satana Oil of Musk". It was the only scent in my entire life that was ME... and it was so unique. Would truly be grateful for some before I die...


Type your comment in the box, choose the Profile option you prefer from the drop down menu, below text box (Anonymous is fine too!) and hit Publish.
And you're set!

This Month's Popular Posts on Perfume Shrine