Amidst the plethora of musk fragrances on the market, some stand out as being individual and bearing their own signature. Decades before Serge Lutens came up with the beastly cajole of Muscs Kublaï Khan, the old New York pharmacy of Kiehl's had broken down that bastion with their Musk fragrance. Its voluminous, expanding earthiness will give you a jolt, searching for that hippy relic sitting some pegs below at the cinema or the theatre (or even the amphiteatre, but let's not go there now). The essence of a seriously funky persona which might have been travelling back from an ashram in India or some Goa hot-spot du jour! Alongside personal enlightenment in the 1960s, there came the musks and the patchoulis essences which characterised a whole generation. And it seems Kiehl's was intent on the pulse despite being founded as far back as 1851.
The archived date for the introduction of Kiehl's Original Musk is given as 1963. However, the company likes to hint with their Musk 1921 oil in the Essences collection (the "essences" are oils on which are thematically based the Eaux de toilette) that the recipe goes far back, since their pharmacopoia dates to several decades before. But here's the catch: It couldn't have. And the reason is one of science & history coherence. Simply put, the musks contained in the formula did not exist before WWII! Even though naturally derived macrocyclic musks like Muscone and Exaltolide existed before that date, their price was very high (Muscone's still is) and there could never enter the formula of a "drugstore" perfume. Therefore, the now banned nitromusks were the appropriate choice for those purposes. And this gives rise to another point, which explains the prevalence of so many "musk oils" in the market (certainly so in the 1960s and 1970s), especially at the very low end of the deal, such as Bonne Belle Skin Musk and Jovan Musk oil: These musky ingredients were almost insoluble in alcohol, rendering an alcoholic version of a fragrance very difficult. This also answers my own question, in regards to why some musk fragrances circulating today have a moniker of "musk oil" on their brand name, even though they're in alcoholic form, like the wonderfully rich Jean Louis Gady Musk Oil Eau de Toilette or the drugstore cheapie beautie Gosh Musk Oil No.6. The answer is, they are probably referring to a prior oil-based formula and have substituted the -now banned- nitromusks with an alcohol-diffusing musk component or two (after all, the polycyclics Transeolide, Celestolide and Galaxolide are very, very popular in the modern fragrance industry, as attested by our article on the subject linked)
Smellwise, Kiehl's Musk 1921 (and to a lesser degree the alcoholic Eau de Toilette Original Musk) is indeed close to Muscs Kublaï Khan, albeit a bit rawer and with a muted, hoarse voice instead of the baritone refinement of the Lutens. Compared to another musk fragrance with a certain reputation, Musc Ravageur by Maurice Roucel for F.Malle, it lacks the sweet spice and is a more to the point musk which can be worn by either sex. At the very start, there is also a similarity of Kiehl's Musk with Kouros by Yves Saint Laurent, which fades later on. The beatific darkness is peeking beneath the floral notes and reveals in fine print what the headlines try to conceal: Here is a living, emoting, squirting human being who hasn't really washed well for a while. If you're not absolutely fanatical about sterilisation, you might get the point in the above.
Notes for Kiehl's Original Musk:
Top: Bergamot nectar, orange blossom
Heart: Rose, lily, ylang ylang, neroli
Base: Tonka bean, white patchouli, musk.
Kiehl's now circulates an alcoholic Eau de Toilette Blend No.1 version of their Musk -apart from their famous oil Musk 1921-, which is tamer (probably due to the exclusion of nitromusks), less skanky and somewhat close to White Musk for Men which The Body Shop introduced a couple of seasons ago. It retails for 39$ for 1.7oz. on the site.
The current ownership by L'Oreal probably means that the cosmetic concerns overshadow any potential adherence to old formulae even more pressingly.
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: The Musk Series (ingredients & cultural history), Scented Musketeers: Musk fragrances reviews.
Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas Williams 1987 via cegur.com.