A Brief History of the Sexy Stink in Perfumes
Animal extracts have been used in perfumery for centuries, and continue to this day. Who was the first brave or just curious perfumer who thought to use the dried, aged chunk of ambergris, wax and fragrant debris from beehives, beaver gland, fossilized Hyraceum urine, civet excretion, musk deer scent gland or goat hair? The answer is unknown, but all perfumers and perfume wearers who chose to use fragrances containing them are enthusiastic about them and love the warm, diffusive or exalting touch they add to a blend.
These scents tend to be lumped together as “musk” even though technically the musk deer is the historic cornerstone of the term musk in perfumery, you’ll find some reference to the musk ox, musk rat, the musk shrew, the musk beetle, musk duck, musk turtle, an alligator from Central America, the North American King Snake and from several other animals.
The exalting fixatives:These materials act as “odor carriers” and often act also as synergisms by improving, fortifying or transporting the vapors of the other perfume materials in the composition. The exalting fixatives may also lend a highly appreciated “wearability” to a perfume, a combination of diffusive effect and retention of the full fragrance of the perfume, slowly exhaled from the human skin to which it’s been applied. The effect of these fixatives is often obtained through the addition of mere traces with respect to quantity. Typical exalting fixatives are musk and civet.
There are not many written records to indicate that animal aromatics were used in ancient perfumery, except perhaps for an aromatic shellfish, ambergris (another marine product), and musk. The major source of information that we have about this is Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Most natural perfumers who use animal products for scent, pheromonal seductiveness, or perfume fixation will use only cruelty-free ones. Cruelty-free means that the animal was not harmed or abused when the essence was collected. Musk sacs from the musk deer, and civet paste and absolute from the civet are generally regarded as cruelty products because the deer is hunted and killed, and it is believed the civet is held in captivity and tortured to extract the paste from its anal glands (some sources contradict this).
Ambergris, an expelled mass from the sperm whale, is highly valued in perfumery. Recent studies have confirmed it’s a fecal product, not a vomited substance, which was conjectured for years. Sometimes found as a black, smelly mass (which is a highly inferior grade), ambergris must be aged for years as it floats on the sea, buffeted by the salt water and warmed by the sun, before it becomes a lighter- colored mass with a pleasant aroma that is the ambergris of perfume fame. Because of the need for the substance to age in the sun and salt water, if the mass were removed from a slaughtered whale, it would be (probably) useless for perfumery.
There are several grades of ambergris, from the already-mentioned black, through many shades and scents, to white/gold/grey, which is generally regarded as the finest. The image above shows a mass of grey/gold ambergris. I worked with an international team to certify that this specimen was authentic. It became known as The North Carolina Beach Ambergris.
Perfumers grind ambergris into a fine powder and tincture it in ethanol, or infuse it in oil at a 3% solution for six months or more before it is used. Because it is naturally expelled from the animals, it is considered to be a cruelty-free product.
Beeswax absolute is made by solvent extraction of the wax that is collected from bee hives. Natural perfumers tincture the “end caps” and hive debris (collectively known as “bee goo”) in alcohol in order to create terroir extracts that function as beeswax absolutes – to fix and impart an animalic, honeyed scent to perfumes. The scent can vary greatly, according to the source material. The age of the hive, the variety of flowers that are pollinated, and other factors contribute to the creation of the scent. Beeswax and “bee goo” are regarded as cruelty-free animal products, but vegans object to their use in products because bees die in the process of making honey.
Castoreum comes from an abdominal sac that is harvested from beavers after they are killed for the leather industry, where the sac is regarded as an industry by-product. It is ground and tinctured or infused, and then aged before it is used, similar to the way in which ambergris is treated. Castoreum is a base/fixative, and is often used in “leather” accords. It is not regarded as cruelty-free because the animal must die before the sac is obtained.
Civet paste is an exudate from the anal glands of the civet, a small mammal that people have mistakenly called a cat. Most civet paste is produced in Ethiopia, it is believed the animals are kept in cages and prodded with sticks to cause them to become agitated, which produces more paste. Others say that the civet farmer does not prod the animal, that the animal naturally produces the paste and in the way a house cat or dog may scoot across the floor to empty their anal glands, the civet will rub his rear on the wooden bars of the cage, where is is collected. Civet is prized for its base note properties and its fixative and exalting properties. An absolute is also made from the paste.
Goat Hair can be clipped from around the horns of a rutting billy goat, or the hindquarters, each area having a different scent. The former smelling like goat cheese or milk, the latter smelling more like deer musk. The hair is tinctured in alcohol and used in minute quantities to impart an animalic pheromone and fixative base note to perfume. Alternatively, a cloth soaked in 190 proof alcohol can be used to wipe down the hind quarters of the goat in order to obtain the scent. Goat-hair tincture is a cruelty-free product. Early writings on the formulation of Indian perfumes include the scent of goat hair. Most essential oils of cistus and absolutes of labdanum contain the goat scent because goats roam the labdanum fields, and the hair and resins mingle.
Egyptian Pharohs glued goat hair “goatees” to their chin, and the scent of the goat musk and labdanum resin perfumed the air around him. It was regarded as a sign of virility.
Hyraceum is the fossilized feces and urine of a small African mammal, the cape hyrax, or dassie. The material is often sold under the name of hyrax. The fossilized material is made into an absolute by French companies, but it may be possible to obtain the raw materials and tincture it on your own. Hyraceum is used for base and fixative animalic notes. It is a cruelty-free product. However, hyraceum is now becoming an endangered product, and lower quality material is finding its way onto the market.
Musk is the most prized and most controversial of all animal products that are used in perfumery. Obtained from the tiny musk deer of the Himalayas and a few other isolated Asian areas, the harvest of the sac has historically required the killing of the deer, which is now on the endangered species list because it has been hunted to near-extinction. Besides perfumery, the other major demand for musk is in Chinese medicine. The government sells confiscated musk in a tightly-controlled licensing program. There are now musk deer that are kept in captivity and the musk sacs are surgically removed by tiny, endoscopic incisions. The deer is not killed, and can quickly recover. However, musk is still regarded as a cruelty product.
Seashells, such as those used to produce the essential oil known as choya nakh are submitted to a “destructive distillation” (distillation at high heat) in order to extract the scent of toasted seashells. The result is an oil with an extremely smoky scent that is a strong base note. Because the shells may contain some of the dead mollusks, choya nakh is not a vegan product. However, it is considered to be cruelty-free.
Animal extracts in food
Animal extracts have been used in food for hundreds of years, and many consumers are not aware of this. Scent extracts can have a beneficial taste component, and for that reason have been researched and approved by governments as food flavorings. Next time you have some chewing gum, or raspberry ice cream, you may have a bit of “natural flavors” added that came from a beaver or civet. Civet, hyraceum, musk and other extracts have also been used in folk medicine, but for the most part, that may not be of consequence to the modern, urban reader, since they don’t have a local shaman dispensing it to them.
Castoreum in food:
Castoreum extract (CAS NO. 8023-83-4; FEMA NO. 2261) is a natural product prepared by direct hot-alcohol extraction of castoreum, the dried and macerated castor sac scent glands (and their secretions) from the male or female beaver. It has been used extensively in perfumery and has been added to food as a flavor ingredient for at least 80 years. Both the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regard castoreum extract as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Acute toxicity studies in animals indicate that castoreum extract is nontoxic by both oral and dermal routes of administration and is not irritating or phototoxic to skin. Skin sensitization has not been observed in human subject tests. Castoreum extract possesses weak antibacterial activity. A long historical use of castoreum extract as a flavoring and fragrance ingredient has resulted in no reports of human adverse reactions. On the basis of this information, low-level, long-term exposure to castoreum extract does not pose a health risk. The objective of this review is to evaluate the safety-in-use of castoreum extract as a food ingredient.
Castoreum is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, FEMA and other regulatory bodies, and is especially useful as an ingredient in raspberry & vanilla flavored foods. You may find it in ice creams, candies, syrups, pastries, and cigarettes.
Cookbooks dating from the 17th Century tout the use of ambergris and musk in recipes:
Robert May’s White Ambergriese Cakes:
Muskedines [Musk Candy]
“Take the purest refined sugar that can be got, beat it and searse it; then have six new laid eggs, and beat them into a froth, take the froth as it riseth, and drop it into the sugar by little and little, grinding it still round in a marble mortar and pestle, till it be throughly moistened, and wrought thin enough to drop on plates; then put in some ambergriese, a little civet, and some anniseeds well picked, then take your pie plates, wipe them, butter them, and drop the stuff on them with a spoon in form of round cakes, put them into a very mild oven and when you see them be hard and rise a little, take them out and keep them for use.”
“Take half a pound of refined sugar, being beaten and searsed, put into it two grains of musk, a grain of civet, two grains of ambergriese, and a thimble full of white orris powder, beat all these with gum-dragon steeped in rose-water; then roul it as thin as you can, and cut it into little lozenges with your iging-iron, and stow them in some warm oven or stove, then box them and keep them all the year”
In the past few years, modern cooks have been adventurous and whipped up some tasty treats, such as author of Floating Gold, Christopher Kemp. He describes making eggs with white ambergris. Are you game for this? Probably not, if you’re not in the market for putting the stuff on your skin, but there are plenty of adventurous souls out there who do want to try something exotic, and animal extracts used in perfumery fit the bill.
I’m an adventurous artist, and I use many of these essences in my perfumes, but I haven’t yet had the desire to add civet or ambergris to my food. I wanted to include the flavorings side of animal extracts because as we perfumers are moving towards total transparency, it may be time for the flavorings industry to do the same. Also, the realization that the 'stank' of castoreum or another animal essence is in that chewing gum or ice cream may cause the consumer to rethink the boundaries of fragrance and flavor. I know it was an eye-opener for me that animal essences were used so freely in food, maybe it is for you, too.
For this series of articles, I approached four other perfumers about the topic, and was amazed by their various takes on the subject: psychology and healing, poetic prose, a wonderful discovery, and hunting and lures in the realm of perfumery. Their individual responses were as intimate and varied as the perfumes they create.
Artisan perfumers are at the forefront of experimentation, questioning, musing, and developing new paths for themselves as auto-didacts in a world where the industry is focused on conventional perfumery. Old perfumery books are combed for secrets of unlocking the animal essences and working them into something usable and beautiful for perfume. The journey of discovery is illuminated by their first whiff of real ambergris, the examination of the chunk of Hyraceum, and working through the process to bring the primordial stank to a fine perfume. The Internet has helped the artisan perfume community discover trusted sources of animal essences in the past ten years or so, and for that, the perfume lovers of handmade perfumes laden with a touch – or a big dose of stank – are thankful.
Next: Tri-dimensional and Spiritual Perfumes
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