Monday, June 21, 2010

Kiehl's Original Musk & Musk 1921 oil: fragrance review

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


  1. I enjoyed reading your comparison of Kiehl's Musk vs. MKK.

    MKK has somewhat of a "beast" reputation, but on me it's smooth as fur. Along with Annick Goutal's Musc Nomade, is my musk "gold standard"; to my nose, all other musks have a slightly chemical undertone. Like cellophane. Weird, I know.

  2. Patuxxa,

    thank you!

    You put it wonderfully: "smooth as fur". I agree with you! Personally I never understood why some people find it repulsive, it's so cozy, so silky. Yet, they do apparently :/
    You got a great duet there, really great musk fragrances those two, albeit so different from one another (which of course justifies owning both! LOL)

    And I'd wager that most musks being synthetic, they'd have some chemical undertone in there. Do you have anything specific in mind?

  3. oh, E!
    You wrote 'Here is a living, emoting, squirting human being who hasn't really washed well for a while"

    and I spit my coffee everywhere!

    really? squirting?
    ah ha ha ha
    you are killing me!

  4. Dea,

    someone noticed... :-)
    I was about to include a pic from an indie pic which I like which would be obvious to anyone having watched the movie what it entailed, but I did not. I'm saving it up from another post.
    But yes, the Kiehl's is "dirtay!"

  5. Oh dear, I meant to say "a pic from an indie film"...see what happens to my concentration when my mind is in the gutter? :D

  6. Anonymous21:25

    Serge luten musk khan smells like male camel balls .. I don't believe it's a good musk .. Musk smells sweet and not balls.. With all the respect to perfumes.. You need to smell the real thing not the chemical .. However I didn't came closer to a perfume thats smells like real musk because I know how it's smell like.. The molecules in the real musk when you smell it will make you feel happy but the fake chemical that you are smelling today won't do anything .. There are many benefits of using the real musk and not only perfume ... Real musk smells sweet some smell woody earthy .. Depending on the quality and place .. Some smells animalitic which are called black musk usually smells like khan musk by luten, it's not used for perfumes it's used for the cleansing the private areas for the women it heals and cure alot of diseases in the vagina parts.. You can find it in oil based store and Samad qurashy it's the leading perfumes in middle east.. With all my respect to the blogger website .. People have to understand about musk in Islam religion point view ... And start using the real thing .. It cure depression, and a lot of things ... Start searching and you will understand what I'm talking about .

  7. Anon,

    thanks for commenting and I appreciate your point of view.

    For what is worth I am indeed among the lucky few who has smelled real, natural deer musk, apparently from a good source and a batch used for fine fragrancepe. Indeed I have some at home to sniff from time to time. :-)

    I can't say that it's particularly sweet, it has a rather urinous, warm smell which is not displeasing in dilution. And I do believe that as a natural substance it should have beneficial properties to some ailments. But do read on to see my reluctance below.

    Re: perfumes replicating the smell of natural musk:
    Whether there is a single perfume on the market approximates it, that's a complicated question. I doubt that a perfume which is de facto a composite would smell of only one ingredient, however complex and nuanced that might be. So probably it's not even fair to demand it of them. Does that make the comparison more logical or allowed to you?

    Musk has a sanctified image in Islam and I can well see why. I have been to places where the scent of the holy is supposed to have permeated the place and it's a mix of musk and myrrh to my nose. Quite lovely!
    That said, extracting the actual musk from the deer is such a delicate procedure that it raises all kinds of ethical concerns on just whethere we're allowed to harass an animal to get what we want. I know that the musk pods could be extracted without killing the deer, but the process hasn't been perfected (or the deers are very unwilling to stay put and have the process imposed on them), so it's probably a good thing that natural musk has stopped being legal to get. Older batches from when it was legal, though, that's another matter. What's done is done and can't be undone.

    As to MKK by Lutens smelling like camel balls, that should be a pair of lovely smelling balls to be sure! Or perhaps I'm very anosmic to some ingredient or other in this perfume (a distinct possibility), because I'm among those who never got the "dirty" parts so pointedly to begin with. I just find it cozy, warm, furry, a half-domesticated animal.

  8. In the second paragraph you've described two macrocyclic musks as polycyclic, in this bit:

    "Even though naturally derived polycyclic musks like Muscone and Exaltolide existed before that date . . ."

    The linked section has them in the right category so that was obviously an unintended slip, but probably worth correcting.

    Good article: my own coverage of the subject is decidedly pedestrian by comparison. Thanks!

  9. Chris,

    thanks for stopping by, you're absolutely right! Indeed, I had categorized them correctly before and then ...what was I thinking???

    Many thanks for your unwavering eye (it's good to be factually 100% accurate at all times since we don't want to mislead any readers) and for your overall expertise.

  10. Anonymous19:06

    I really enjoyed reading your article on Kiehl's original Musk and has inspired me to try out more perfumes with a more pronounced musk component. What does musk suppose to smell like anyway when it is used in perfumes? Is it sweet smelling? I tried Caron Pour Homme and the musk smelled slighty sweet, if that was actual musk I was smelling or just vanilla, I have no idea. But it did smell good.

  11. In the nose,

    thanks for commenting and good question! (there are no silly questions in my book)

    I believe the vanilla and the more caramelic end of the spectrum of the lavender do create a sweetish smell by themselves, but the element of musk is also present to give cosy warmth.

    This is what musk usually smells like in a perfume: cozy warmth, a bit powdery, a bit fuzzy like a small animal's furry paws, friendly, close to the skin. It's not just musk which gives this effect though in "musk fragrances" (those tagged with the ingredient in the name, I mean); it's a complex synergy, even if they pretend to be simplistic.
    White musks have a floral component and end up smelling cleaner and less "furry" but still cozy. Sometimes they can feel like fabric softener, due to our familiarity with them in our household items.


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