The Murky Matter of Musk
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01st September, 2017

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.

Tibetan Musk Grains

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.

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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.

Kashmiri Musk

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:

Tibetan Musk

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.


Siberian Musk

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.


Himalayan Musk

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.


Siberian Musk Grains

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.


Close-up of Siberian Musk Grains

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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

  1. Access to large enough amounts of musk grains to fill the perfume formulas for hundreds of thousands of bottles of perfume worldwide, and;
  2. 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.

Close up of Kasmiri musk grains in Sandalwood

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 Musk

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


About the author: Claire Vukcevic

Claire Vukcevic is an Irish freelance writer, contributor at Basenotes,, and author of the blog



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      • epapsiou | 1st September 2017 14:23

        Holy shit.

        This is the greatest Musk article. Perhaps your top 5 ever. Definitely mine :).

        Jasmine Award - 2018

      • | 1st September 2017 14:46

        Wow. This was like a graduate seminar.

        I think I have questions, but will re-read before posting to make sure I didn't miss anything.

      • Bonnette | 1st September 2017 15:50

        Marvelous article, the most informative and thorough I've ever read on this subject. Thank you, Claire.

      • camorr | 1st September 2017 16:46

        Wow, what a fantastic article! Thank you Claire. I didn't know about Josh Lobb tincturing his own Siberian Musk. Does anyone know if he uses it in any of his fragrances?

        Also, I had a hearty laugh at TL; DR of Salome:)

      • Natural_Juice | 1st September 2017 17:07

        There is only one CITES-approved seller of musk grains and tincture in the USA, anyone else is viewed as an illegal seller under CITES.

        There is another non-cruelty musk source, the tinctured hair from around the scent glands of a rutting billy goat, which I pioneered in 2007 in my perfume Pan.

      • hednic | 1st September 2017 17:11

        Enjoyed reading this article.

      • Starblind | 1st September 2017 18:19

        Thank you so, so much, ClaireV!

        This amazing and intricate and utterly educational article is my new Bible/Torah/Qur'an! As someone who adores musks and animalics in all forms, I will be re-reading and studying this and sending for samples from now till who-knows-when.

        I am genuinely grateful for your extensive work on this, and for your astute and accessible writing style. Love this!!

      • chypre | 1st September 2017 18:39

        I'm a fan of both white and dirty musks, and all varieties in between. Thanks so much for this fantastic article, Claire!

      • ClaireV (article author) | 1st September 2017 19:15

        Thanks so much all for your lovely comments! This has been a huge learning experience for me, and I think I re-wrote the article several times over as new information was coming in! I hope that it's helpful. I have to thank all the artisan perfumers and attar makers who were willing to talk to me behind the scenes, and even those who weren't. It's a controversial subject, so I understand that people might have misgivings about this article. But as a famous British telecommunications company says, it's good to talk.

        Thanks for joining the discussion, Anya. I have great respect for you and the work you do in the natural perfumery community. Interesting about the billy goat hair tincture - is that the same material that was later used by Josh Lobb in his New Sibet by any chance?

        Camorr, Josh does not use the natural musk in any of his fragrances. He doesn't believe his customer base would be open to it. Who knows what might happen in the future though. I think that the success of Areej Le Dore with Siberian Musk might get some indie perfumers thinking.

      • purecaramel | 1st September 2017 20:21


        Again a superb Article and has me feeling that I am a child, out on a School Outing with a competent Teacher.

        Many points that reinforce my view, change my view and challenge my view of Musks.

        I really like this

        "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."


      • camorr | 1st September 2017 20:41

        [QUOTE]Camorr, Josh does not use the natural musk in any of his fragrances. He doesn't believe his customer base would be open to it. Who knows what might happen in the future though. I think that the success of Areej Le Dore with Siberian Musk might get some indie perfumers thinking.[/QUOTE]

        Thanks for the answer Claire. I totally understand Josh's reservations considering the whole animal cruelty controversy.

      • Vernona | 1st September 2017 21:19

        What an amazing article this is! So easy to read and so interesting, I read it one breath! Thank you Claire!

      • Suspended | 1st September 2017 21:48

        Well done Claire!! Fucking Fabulous©

        All that talk of scraping sacks and morning breath has me unable to sit in one position. I'm half way through, but I think I'll save the rest for some red wine later (hopefully it can relax my clenched butt cheeks.)

      • nelamvr6 | 1st September 2017 22:19

        Great article! Very informative!

        Thanks Claire!

      • Mellifluence | 2nd September 2017 08:58

        Brilliant article Claire. A very in depth look into the world of musks.

        Thanks so much for including my Tsuga Musk too, i was very happy to read your thoughts on it.

        Wonderfully descripive article and i look forward to reading more from you.

        Warmest regards


      • Mellifluence | 2nd September 2017 09:43

        Brilliant article Claire. A very in depth look into the world of musks.

        Thanks so much for including my Tsuga Musk too, i was very happy to read your thoughts on it.

        Wonderfully descripive article and i look forward to reading more from you.

        Warmest regards


      • ClaireV (article author) | 2nd September 2017 12:21

        Thanks everyone, thanks Abdullah!

        Adam from Feel Oud just sent me a pic of the Siberian musk pod and grains he will be using for Siberian Musk Intense. However, I can't seem to locate the insert image button - does anyone know how I can insert an image without linking to an external file sharing site?

      • hitman | 2nd September 2017 12:27

        add the picture in your profile gallery on basenotes and insert its path here.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 2nd September 2017 12:38

        Thanks Hitman! Hope this works:

        Just to add to the information:

        This musk is going to be used in the Siberian Musk Intense, which despite the name isn't necessarily stronger but contains even higher quality raw materials such as Indian sandalwood (replacing the Aussie one).

        Adam is also using grains from the previous stock to make a new musky perfume called Flux de Fleur, which he's hoping to release with the other new perfumes, Atlantic Ambergris and Oud Piccante.

      • hitman | 2nd September 2017 14:09

        This article would my "reference" in the subject of "musk". A bundle of thanks @ClaireV on this descriptive article. As a hungry man for "musk" and living in UAE, I have tried (and own) many varieties of musk and I'm fully agree with these words. Superb and great work in fact, I prepared my "test-list" for the mentioned beauties on page 2 :)

      • hitman | 2nd September 2017 14:12

        The link seems invalid or not public.

      • grayspoole | 2nd September 2017 14:56

        Dear Claire-

        I've been eagerly awaiting this article, and I am completely awestruck by the depth of your research and insights. This a dissertation, not an article! Everything here is so intelligently, so generously communicated, and your judicious and balanced discussion of the ethical issues surrounding the use of deer musk is worthy of Solomon. I snorted my coffee a little when I read your description of yourself as "not an expert" but again, that is just the humility of a true seeker of knowledge I will be reading this over and over, and I will follow up on more of your suggestions for musk perfumes. (Already have my sample of Siberian Musk....)

      • StellaDiverFlynn | 2nd September 2017 21:23

        Thank you Claire for shedding light on this complicated matter! What a thoroughly researched and detailed article! Very easy to follow and entertaining to read. I especially appreciate the openness of the discussion on the legality and ethics of using deer musk. It helped me to better understand this tricky situation. I only tried most of the spray perfumes here, and I found myself constantly nodding while reading your beautiful descriptions. Another white musk that I enjoy is The Body Shop White Musk perfume oil. I find the EDP and EDT limpid, kind of "diluted", but the perfume oil version gives out a lovely powdery, enveloping effect of musk.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 2nd September 2017 22:54

        Thanks so much for your kind words, StellaDiverFlynn and Grayspoole - high praise from the two of you!

        Grayspoole, with your interest in the classics, I'd be very curious to know what you make of the Siberian Musk. Yellowtone mentioned to me that she thought there was something of vintage No. 5 in it. Stella, I used to wear TBS White Musk when I was much younger, but I didn't know they still made the oil version (do they still make Dewberry?). I will check in my local department store to see if they have it. I have been eyeing TBS White Musk shower gel, as well as the Kiehl's one, so if you have an opinion on either one of those auxiliary products, let me know!

        Can people check the updated link I posted a few comments up to see if I've correctly made the photo of the Siberian musk pod and its paste available to public view? Thanks.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 2nd September 2017 23:38

        Excellent! Thank you, Hitman, for the advice!

      • furrypine | 3rd September 2017 07:04

        I am feeling inspired to explore more musky perfumes, but I'm going to stick with the synthetic and plant based options. I think the risk of accidentally buying an illegal product is just too great to justify trying something with real deer musk. I'll be happy to just smell real ambrette seed oil! I didn't know that it was a rare and expensive product, as I've seen it listed as a basenote in many fragrances, but it must be the synthetic variant. I need to seek out a scent with real ambrette in it.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 3rd September 2017 10:24

        I completely understand your point of view, Furrypine. For ambrette, I think two benchmark perfumes would be Chanel No. 18, and Musc Nomade.

      • Le vagabond | 3rd September 2017 12:05

        Thank you for writing this excellent article, Claire. It is a extremely valuable source of knowledge on an often confusing subject.

      • grayspoole | 3rd September 2017 14:47

        Hello again-

        Claire, you know me too well. As a vintage-loving geek, I am always going to compare new perfumes to old, so of course I immediately began comparing Siberian Musk to vintage.

        But I wasn’t the only one! As I tested Siberian Musk for the first time, after ripping open the package (at the dinner table, no less), I offered my wrist to my patient DH, who took one sniff and said mildly: “It smells like one of your vintages.”

        And it certainly does. No need to overanalyze this: Siberian Musk smells just wonderful. The bergamot in it made me run to dab on one of my treasured vintages on my other arm, a perfectly preserved Emeraude parfum from...the 1930’s?...which has the most beautiful bergamot of any bottle I own. Very similar in their opening phases, but SM develops into a much more musky perfume. To me, there’s nothing fecal or indolic about its muskiness, just a warm umami effect that supports the floral notes so beautifully--orange blossom and surely some rose, yes? No pine, no galbanum, no vetiver appear for me, but that’s okay, I don’t need them. I am reminded of vintage Joy parfum, vintage No. 5 (from my 1950's bottle), vintage Bal a Versailles parfum and my oldest Vol de Nuit extrait, from a 1930-40’s bottle.

        But Siberian Musk is its own, unique creation. Bravo Russian Adam!. It is very heartening to see artisanal perfumers equalling the achievements of the great perfumers of the past. As in cooking, the ingredients come first, then the skill of the cook.

        I’d be curious to hear any additional thoughts you have (and those of others) on the subject of musk in vintage perfumes, Given what I’ve read about the immediate commercial success of nitromusks in the 1890’s, I have assumed that the musks I smell in my vintage perfumes are always these now-banned musks, and not natural deer musk, as suggested here by another researcher:

        Until the interwar period, for economic reasons, the perfume and cosmetic industries only relied on three compounds: musk xylene (2), musk ambrette (3), and musk ketone (4). These became universally employed ingredients even when polycyclic and macrocyclic artificial musks appeared. The famous Chanel N°5 by Ernest Beaux for Parfums Chanel, 1921, originally contained 3.5 % of musk ketone and 2.5 % of musk ambrette.

        David, O. R. P. (2017), “Artificial Nitromusks, Stories of Chemists and Businessmen.” Eur. J. Org. Chem., 2017: 4–13. doi:10.1002/ejoc.201601249. This article is a wonderful resource, referenced by Paul Kiler, if memory serves, on the DIY Forum.

        If the classics are all built on nitromusks, then the enthusiasm for these compounds was well founded, because they really do resemble deer musk quite closely, it would seem to me, based on my experience with Siberian Musk. Newer musks, not quite so much, in my opinion.

      • Scarce | 3rd September 2017 15:03

        Terrific stuff, of course.

        (Am I the only one who found Papillon's Salome not quite filthy enough?

        Interesting take on Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely as well, as it sells for pennies nowadays. Proving that there are still bargains around if one knows where to look.)

      • ClaireV (article author) | 3rd September 2017 20:25

        Thank you very much, le vagabond! I appreciate that.

        Grayspoole - sounds like your husband has been unwillingly exposed to your vintage obsessions over the years! Well, sometimes the virgin nose can peg it even quicker than we can. I agree that the pine/citrus notes in Siberian Musk aren't aggressive or jarring, although a few have found them to be intrusive or distracting - to me, they appear only briefly as a pop of bright lime or bergamot, before the sweet orange blossom, waxy notes, and musk move in - and yes, rose too. Starblind has compared the bright citrus/pine effect to modern re-workings of the chypre theme such as Diaghilev and Maai - I don't have any experience with the former but plan to do a side-by-side with Maai soon. Of course, I realize that the associations drawn are loose. But your mention of the older Joy and Bal parfums is intriguing. I can definitely see where you are coming from with those comparisons.

        I don't think that No. 5 ever contained deer musk, but I have heard that nitro-musks were a very accurate representation of what deer musk actually smells like, especially in its powdery, sweaty-intimate, and sweet-grimy facets. I have not been exposed to nitro-musks much beyond a 1950's No. 5 parfum I used to own, and a vintage Cuir de Russie Eau de Cologne that reeked to high heaven with costus (it smelled more like No. 5 than Cuir de Russie), but if I remember correctly, the effect of the nitro-musks was far more subtle than many modern "dirty" musk fragrances.

        Scarce, yes, you were the only one who thought Salome wasn't filthy enough :-D

      • Scarce | 4th September 2017 03:14


        I liked the attempt at making a retro animalic perfume, but it never smelled all that convincing to me. Certainly not anywhere near what Cuir de Russie is in terms of quality. I'm not sure dialing Salome up to 11 is the answer either, but it wasn't the home run for me that it was for other people.

      • StellaDiverFlynn | 4th September 2017 06:03

        TBS still offers the perfume oil version, but since about two years ago, they've changed the packaging of their fragrance range and I haven't yet compared my old packaging with the new one. As for the shower gel, sadly I haven't tried either of them.

      • grayspoole | 4th September 2017 19:24

        Hi Scarce!

        You're not the only one. On me, Salome opened with a little filth but turned into a nice polite girl. Lovely perfume though.

      • Ebenas | 4th September 2017 19:45

        Great article!

        I am finally starting to get my head around notes and will keep this as homework for later (once I have a smattering of iris!)

      • Diamondflame | 5th September 2017 03:30

        Thank you, Claire for another wonderfully informative piece on a murky subject. I love how you use readily accessible imagery to describe these notes though 'morning breath' is something one can eliminate easily with a pre-bedtime ritual of teeth-brushing, flossing and gargling antibacterial mouthwash. I've added a few more names to my 'to try' list while I patiently wait for Siberian Musk Intense...

      • Juxtapozbliss | 5th September 2017 17:11

        This article is a musk-read.

        Brilliant as always!

      • ClaireV (article author) | 5th September 2017 20:48

        Thank you very much, Ebenas, Diamondflame, and Juxtapozbliss!

        Unfortunately, I was informed today that JK DeLapp has been expelled from the IPF (International Perfume Foundation) for his participation in this article, because the article is deemed to be "promoting the use of musk". The IPF charter requires its members to refrain from talking about either natural deer musk or its synthetic replacements in public. (It took me a while to understand this, but the IPF is against both synthetic musk and natural animal musk). However, I'd like to clarify that the aim of the article was not to promote but to inform. JK DeLapp wasn't proselytizing - he simply answered my questions as openly as he could, in the interest of educating readers. I am truly sorry that being open cost him his membership in IPF.

      • | 6th September 2017 01:50

        I'm having trouble grasping the finer points of this argument. Has the IPF issued any kind of statement explaining their position on this matter?

      • Diamondflame | 6th September 2017 03:40

        Yikes! I'm so sorry to hear that. Sounds more like a rule for The Fight Club...

      • deadidol | 6th September 2017 06:41

        You've set the bar high many times, Claire, but this piece blows the bar into orbit. A fantastic article that I plan on reading multiple times to fully absorb.

        I'm a huge fan of stinkers, and the Areej le Doré line is riding high on my must-sniff list. I've smelled one of those deer musks listed above, and it reminded me more of leather than a musk. Kind of a trippy material overall.

      • Vernona | 6th September 2017 08:25

        I will not pretend that I understand the logic behind this or the higher reasons, but so many perfumes use synthetic musk today. So you're allowed to use it, but not to speak about it. Same goes for legally obtained deer musk. It's ok to use it as long as you don't say so? I am very sorry about what happened to JK DeLapp and I hope it will not be a permanent thing. It makes the whole perfume industry Game of Thrones a little bit more murky doesn't it? This article is probably the best and most informative piece ever written on the subject and clearly no sides were chosen, noone was applauding or promoting use of any ingredient, just providing informations. I can't believe that would lead to such penalty.

      • gandhajala | 6th September 2017 08:30

        It's like Trotsky and the Communist Party all over again...

      • ClaireV (article author) | 6th September 2017 10:28

        On the IPF matter, I am repeating information given to me by JK DeLapp himself, but the IPF is very welcome to come and make a comment here to correct me if I am wrong in understanding it:

        - The IPF is against animal musk because of cruelty to animals; but the organization also opposes the use of synthetic musk (because they are against synthetics of any kind)

        - The IPF disapproves of this article because they think it promotes interest in the use of musk - both synthetic or natural (not sure which one is more evil)

        - The IPF expelled JK DeLapp from the organization because he gave me information for the article and thus contributed to growing interest among readers for both natural and synthetic musk

        - To be a member of IPF, you have to commit to not using animal or synthetic musk, not using synthetics of any kind, and talking about musk (either natural or synthetic) in public for fear of creating more interest among the public for musk (either natural or synthetic)

        - JK talked about musk publicly and allowed himself to be quoted/featured, so out he goes.

        I understand that many, if not most, people do not like the idea of animal musk and cruelty to animals. I also understand that there is a segment of the natural perfume sector that abhors synthetics of any kind, including many isolates. To have both those beliefs combined in one organization doesn't leave one with much wiggle room, but that's really none of my business. However, to punish a member simply for talking openly about a raw material is mind-boggling to me. Surely it benefits everyone - from the customers to the scientists, the perfumers, and even the deer - to have an open and free discussion on musk? Pushing it under the carpet doesn't achieve anything.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 6th September 2017 10:32

        Thanks so much, Deadidol! I appreciate that greatly. If you are having trouble locating a sample of the Areej Le Dore, let me know and I will send you a sample. Which one of the deer musks reminded you of a leather more than a musk? Interesting you say that because most of the natural deer musks I smelled displayed a fascinating array of notes that are not present in synthetic musks, like glue, cocoa, dry newspaper, mold, plastic, rubber, etc.

      • Vernona | 6th September 2017 11:44

        Thank you Claire, for clarifying that. Now there's one organization I'd never want to be a member of then. I'd rather not have anyone sit on top of my freedom of speech, as long as it is not offensive or damaging to anyone, which this article was not (deer included), in any way. Such rigid and pointless rules, that actually stand against an intelligent discussion.

        Seems to me that nowdays one can't possibly write an intelligent, informed piece on any even slightly delicate matter without getting punished for it one way or the other.

        But thank you for writing it in spite of that.

      • camorr | 6th September 2017 13:54

        I don't imagine they have a large number of members with rules like this.

      • Scarce | 6th September 2017 14:29

        Considering the speed at which the expulsion occurred from the time of publication, it was probably an arbitrary decision made by a few people, or even just one person alone. I'm leery of such organizations anyway, as too often they turn out to be just marketing vehicles for goods and services for those involved. On their website, it says they've been around since 1995, so perhaps they're well-intentioned and legit, but I wouldn't take any of these places at face value until looking into them further.

      • Diamondflame | 6th September 2017 16:05

        "Against synthetic of any kind"?? Lol. How ironic. The whole idea of wearing fragrance is 'artificial' to begin with!

        To keep on topic, don't you think a blanket ban on musk-related information only serves to trigger greater demand for a 'forbidden fruit'?

      • epapsiou | 6th September 2017 16:24

        I guess no one at IPF knows about Streisand effect. But then given their contradictory policy on musk, smarts must not be an arrow in their quiver.

        Hope the increased interest of BN community overcomes this setback for JK DeLapp.

      • schnozz | 6th September 2017 18:02

        A Russian jury is in deliberation and asks the judge for instructions. "How will we deal with these New Russian litigants? The defendant gave us $7,000 and the plaintiff gave us $5,000. What should we do?" After ten minutes of thinking, the judge says, "Well, I have an idea. Let's return $2,000 to the defendant and then we'll decide according to the law"

        This is a very informative article written with characteristic sparkle, but I do think it suffers from one fallacy. While Claire plainly acknowledges the rampant illegality in the musk trade where hunting is forbidden, she repeated and painstakingly details the manner in which Siberian musk is “legal.” Based on my business experience in Russia, this strikes me as involving vertiginous levels credulity about the Russian kleptocracy. When the simplest commercial transaction in Moscow is fraught with corruption, we are to believe that in regions where the zip code is E-I-E-I-O hunting “is tightly controlled, with hunters applying for licenses in a seasonal lottery that determines what number of deer they can kill”? I would bet a lot of money that this system is 100 percent effective roughly 10 percent of the time, and to categorically state otherwise is like believing that Godot’s bus is just running late.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 6th September 2017 19:31

        Schnozz - absolutely, no doubt about it, there's a lot of corruption going on in Russia. But that doesn't mean that everything that comes out of Russia is illegal. I've talked to two people who import deer musk from Siberia, and both confirm that the hunting is properly controlled through licensing. As for how thoroughly it is checked, I was told of one hunter who was arrested for not properly documenting his kills. Hunters are asked to show their licenses before entering the hunting zone. Of course, I can't speak to how thorough or even oversight is, but my impression is that because the deer is a valuable local resource, it's controlled. Makes sense, as deer hunting is as much a source of income for Siberian officials and local government as it is for the hunters.

        Edited to add: 100% of Ireland's laws are effective roughly 10% of the time....

      • Terry Johnson | 6th September 2017 19:49

        I wanted to clarify the situation with JK and IPF.

        IPF developed Natural Perfume Guidelines and Standards that specifically exclude the use or promotion of musk whether natural or synthetic. These Guidelines and Standards were created by a panel of IPF Natural Perfumers, not by IPF itself.

        Each person is free to agree or disagree with these Standards, but they are IPF Standards and anyone wishing to be IPF Certified has to promise in writing to follow IPF Guidelines. JK not only signed our Certification Application promising to abide by these Standards, but promised verbally and in writing to remove all references to musk from his website. He made these promises to IPF freely.

        Providing content on musk to this widely read publication was determined to violate IPF’s Guidelines and Standards which was the second time he had done so.

        The first time he violated the Guidelines, IPF discussed the situation with JK and decided (after many assurances from JK that he would not use or promote musk again) to take no action. This second violation resulted in IPF and JK separating.

        IPF feels very strongly that musk should not be used in perfumery and synthetics cannot be used by IPF Certified Natural Perfumers. We have a fantastic group of Natural Perfumers who gladly follow IPF Guidelines and Standards.

        We don’t profess to be in the mainstream at this time, but we have the right to join together to promote Natural Perfumery the way our group believes it should be done.

        Any Natural Perfumer who agrees with these Standards can apply to join our great group. Anyone who does not agree has the same right not to join.

        Terry Johnson

        IPF Vice Chairman

      • schnozz | 6th September 2017 22:41

        Having owned a business in Russia, Claire, I do not share your optimism -- and forgive me if I am actually tickled by your statement, perfectly reasonable by Earth-logic, that effective controls and regulation likely does exist because, after all, we are dealing with a "valuable local resource" and it "makes sense." The presumed enlightened policy self-interest you describe perfectly applies to the lion's share of the Russian economy. Despite this, not only is it the case that "there's a lot of corruption going on," corruption is astoundingly pervasive. Siberia in particular has one or two slightly more valuable local resources than deer musk, and those sectors are notoriously corrupt. Indeed, the major demonstrations in Siberia's capital city earlier this Summer had nothing to do with political repression and had everything to do with corruption -- the protesters literally marched under the banner, "corruption is robbing us of our future."

      • ClaireV (article author) | 7th September 2017 01:47

        Just because I used mild language to speculate about the corruption in Siberia doesn't mean that I'm optimistic or naive about corruption. Having spent 17 years in the post-war free for all frenzy that was Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro, it's rather to the contrary. I ran an anti-corruption program in the Balkans for many years that financed lawsuits against public officials for conflict of interest and corruption, but I was also a private citizen, and like all private citizens, ran up against corruption at all levels of ordinary life, from having to give doctors money for operations to paying for legal documents.So when I say that self-interest influences how well a local official will enforce a piece of legislation, I speak from direct experience.

      • Ebenas | 7th September 2017 11:54

        I'm really sorry to hear about JP and the IPF.

        I have an allergy to supression of any knowledge and also to that too easy black and white thinking that often passes for 'awareness'. I am very queasy about animal suffering of any kind, but happily suspend any qualms to eat meat and fish, so I can understand the cognitive dissonance involved in these matters, although I don't like it to be pointed out to me, as I have to consider my ethics and can't keep claiming credit for my intentions so easily ;-)

        Claire's interview with JP and musk article were very informative, balanced, and unsullied by hectoring about anything. In other words, journalistic rather than campaigning. In clearly describing the process of musk extraction, it provides food for thought and allows the reader to consider the question for themselves and seek further information if needed. I can see how, to someone completely convinced on the wrongs of musk extraction, it may have been somewhat disconcerting to be presented with information on the practice they oppose strongly, but that information is not pushing the practice. As to the corruption point, I know nothing about Russia, but have worked for a long time with refugees, so I've seen 'initiatives' of all kinds. I have little faith in them doing what they set out to, but have come to appreciate that they keep issues in the public mind which may provoke discussion and further action, and at the very least, publish standards to which they can be held in the court of public opinion, even if enforcement is less than great.

        I've tried and really liked some of JP's oils and hope he is not affected much by this storm in a teacup.

        Anyway, back to musk sniffing! As the only definitely musky perfumes on the list I own are the Acampora Musc and (now!) Musc Gold, on Claire's advice I can avoid any razor-based interference in my own nether regions - have to say I first read that as 'full BLUSH'! Now where can I find a shag carpet?

      • DuNezDeBuzier | 7th September 2017 17:19

        Excellent journalism! Made my morning. Keep 'em coming Claire!

      • dogma | 7th September 2017 18:39

        looks like someone is a little defensive about declaring that Russian-sourced musk is presumptively legit.

        implausible, but a particularly tough sell for a crowd who generally wouldn't even buy a designer fragrances from Russian-based ebay sellers.

        I hope readers slogged through to the reviews -- the best part.

      • purecaramel | 7th September 2017 20:16

        I hope that readers choose to read through the superb reviews and the banter following. As a whole, it holds the exercises necessary to understand the views of others and further, to assist in the development of critical, listening, reading and thinking skills.

      • MzM | 7th September 2017 21:39

        Excellent article Claire! Quick question, does Abdullah of beautiful scents have a website?

      • hitman | 7th September 2017 22:08

        appreciate the link :)

      • rynegne | 8th September 2017 16:30

        Claire, thank you so much for contributing such a fantastic write up to basenotes. You are such an asset to the fragrance community!

      • Kiliwia | 11th September 2017 22:46

        Thanks for the great article, Claire!

      • ClaireV (article author) | 12th September 2017 21:15

        Thank you Kiliwia, Ryan, and DuNezDeBuzier!

      • cazaubon | 15th September 2017 13:36

        Thank you for this extremely detailed and informative article. I also appreciate you pointing out the hypocritical stance of those who decry the use of real musk because of animal cruelty while at the same time consuming farmed animal products and fish.

      • therese19 | 16th September 2017 16:23

        Thank you very much for this morning's read!

      • dunkybase | 21st September 2017 23:13

        Holy shit Claire! What a fantastic piece of writing. I particularly enjoyed your description of the Bruno Acampora musc. This is one of my all time favourite scents and one which I've always struggled to put into words as I find it maddeningly dirty and clean at the same time. Thank you so much and keep up the good work, Duncan

      • Starblind | 22nd September 2017 02:06

        I adore this scent, and was VERY sad to have my husband claim it smelled exactly like Comet(!)

      • ClaireV (article author) | 22nd September 2017 11:10

        Thank you very much, Cazaubon, Duncan, and Therese! You know, when anyone says Holy Shit to me, I always think of Holy Shit, the perfume by Pekji perfumes - have any of you tried this one? It's very, very dirty, as well as smoky and dry, like a dirt-encrusted leather jacket thrown on a campfire, with a side of wet, sulfurous cow pat for good measure. Then it dries down into a rich, musky leather and resin scent. I love Mick Trick's review of it for Basenotes:

        It's all musty catacombs, dust covered remains of resinous altar offerings, smoke impregnated cassocks and sweat infused leathers, pain followed by ecstatic howls and mewling. A light slightly damp movement of air from adjoining tunnels is slightly cooling but unrefreshing. This is what I wanted 1740 Marquis de Sade to be. It's creepy, liturgical, and a little scary, but in parallel possesses a kinky charm that beguiles.

      • fumeguy | 27th September 2017 14:17

        OMG . This article is the most detailed and best researched I have ever read on Musk.

        Thanks for this, it will go to my bookmarks as a reference for anything related to Musk.

      • oudaddict | 7th October 2017 18:18

        Brilliant musk article, very informative. I have been trying different musk scents, especially in the Arab world, for over 18 years and have noticed a sharp decline in natural musk. It's useful to know that it can be synthesised almost as good as the natural.

      • Gin&tonic | 8th October 2017 12:12

        What an informative article. Going to revisit this from time to time. Answered a great deal of questions I had and I myself owned and Attar that I wasn't sure if it was musk or not. The description of the scent is so varied (from medicinal to spicy, fecal to woods) that I was confused as to its origins. I can now after reading this assure myself that my Attar is indeed Musk. Thank you again :)

      • fazli | 7th November 2017 23:04

        An interesting articles on musk, the articles rendered more on the experience of a few perfumers point of view of musk when referred to smell. I do applaud your effort. However , when referred to old scriptures, it does mentioned that musk smell sweet. i am a bit perplexed on the articles available on the net pertaining to the smell of it. Animalic is the main ingredient of the smell, dirty earthy and others protruding the smell of musk is such.

        in the late 70's , i remember the smell of pure musk worn by people who attended the wedding reception or ceremony. The whole room smell of musk. It is so cloying and overpowering and induced a bit of headache to me. Now it is rather difficult to obtain a pure musk. My greatest fear on the misconception of musk is that it will be a legend. No one knows, just like the legend of a dragon where the shape differ greatly between european and the east.

        I would propose that a more detail research is done on musk pertaining to the originality of the smell that is mentioned in the old scriptures. I believe a search on kamrup musk should be able to assist. As far as the smell of the musk i can still recollect is more incline towards flowery which magnolia flower or champaca is the nearest. ref

        My apologies if it offend anybody but, i love perfume and i always love that the true smell of musk mentioned in old scriptures as sweet never animalic, dirty or earthy is proclaimed is considered to be searched thoroughly and compared. please write another articles on kamrup musk where it explained by researchers , among them is Dr K.M Nadkarni and others

      • Mellifluence | 8th November 2017 06:54

        This is very interesting Fazli.

        I think it will have a lot to do with the way the musk is rendered.

        When you smell raw deer musk grains, the smell is always animalic and earthy. But when it is macerated in sandalwood it becomes much sweeter over time, notes emerge thar were not evident. Yet when tinctured it tends to bring out the raw notes of the grains again.

        So these different methods bring about different facets of the musk, much the same with other methods of extracting a scent.

        If you extract vetivers scent by C02, you'll lose a lot of its beautiful freshness, yet an essential oil distillation will bring a much more enchanting aroma.

        I will love to read more on the old scriptures of musks smell too, i know in Islamic texts the smell is also referred to as a sweet one.



      • fazli | 8th November 2017 08:08

        Thank you abdullah..what you are saying is true in one aspect. However the type of deer where musk is obtained is also a determining for how the oils is obtained i seen the maceration and other techniques, but i was told verbally, my apologies for the lack of reference, that in the olden days musk is applied straight away to the skin, it contain fatty acids thus it is oily, it require a lot of musk to milk it though. I also heard about distillation of the strong and pungent smell to obtain a clear colored musk oil, again no reference my apologies.

        I have an argument with numbers of perfurmers that insists musk is animalic, i told them that it depend on species and how the oil is obtained.

        Again my concern is i do not want knowledge is lost and i want it to conserve, beside conserving the wild deer, knowledge is very important too. If one knows the true smell of something one can appreciate and benefit from the creativity of perfumers in interpreting musk.

        Yes abdullah the hadith mentioned musk to be sweet, so does ayurvedic and chinese old scriptures.

        Thank you

        ps: i am still trying to find people that had smell species of aqualaria rostrata, there is only one tree that was found in malaysia, the elderly often describe to me as being really sweet and even there is a legend that even animals like to linger around it. ( my apologies for deviating from the topic), The reason is there are articles describe oud as smelling like lavender and other weird things, i am concerned that similar fate happen to musk happen to oud too in years to come.

      • jazztweety | 12th May 2018 23:03

        Dear Claire,

        thank you for this amazing and incredibly well researched article, the most complete one I ever came across.

        I would like two add my very small two scents: even if Musk Deers are not killed in the Chinese farms, they suffer terribly because they are wild animals that cannot be domesticated. They are traumatized, in panic and literally go up the walls. There are videos on youtube on this, google ''musk deer farming''.

        I would never, ever rely on terms like ''legally hunted'', many deer are caught in steel traps and two out of three die in vain since they are female or young!

        All in all a very nasty business that I personally definitely don't want to support. I also consider Hyraceum as a great ingredient to add an ethically derived animal note.

      • Sharona125 | 27th June 2020 14:48

        Having recently joined basenotes in an attempt to update my aging LOtV, rose, musk fragrances, I came across this amazing article followed by equally interesting Comments. Thought I would pull it out so others’ here could enjoy.

      • Orangecloud | 10th November 2020 23:04

        Well said and I agree 100%. Real musk has no place in perfumery in 2020.

      • Mona Visa | 11th March 2021 22:21

        Thank you so much for this! I am so. confused. about. musk. When musk is listed in a fragrance's note pyramid I'm not even sure what it is I'm supposed to smell. I'm not sure I *can* smell musk. And white musk and laundry detergent and the concept of "clean"-- yeah, that means that musk doesn't always mean what I thought it meant. I grew up thinking that musk was synonymous with animalic and sexual. (Elon Musk excepted of course.)

        If there is a single, unifying attribute for all things called musk today, what would that be?

        In any case, great article, and I am going to find some of these fragrances so that I know what it is to musk.

      • Mona Visa | 18th March 2021 23:30

        That was excellent. I spent a long time last night reading about musk.

        So... some anosmia to musk is very common, and some anosmia to certain musks can come and go. But there's one musk she mentions, and 50% of us can't smell it, which is why perfumers use combinations and yada yada yada, but when I read that I had a sinking feeling and a big question. The sinking feeling is that I am in the 50% who can't smell that particular musk and that I should go rewrite my review of Narciso Rodriguez's Fleur Musc for Her right the heck now with my apologies.

        My big question is, if I am anosmic to that musk, have I always been? And will I always be. Is there anything I can do about it. More than one question I guess lol, and I am not expecting an answer really, I will Google.

      • PStoller | 19th March 2021 01:04

        I can't answer whether you've always been or always will be anosmic to a given scent (my uninformed guesses would be "maybe" and "probably"), but since lots of people are anosmic to that musk—and even if they weren't—I hardly think you need to rewrite your review. Perhaps just qualify it with your suspicion of anosmia. So long as your perceptions are honest and reasonably well expressed, the review is valid.

      • grayspoole | 20th March 2021 13:44

        Glad you enjoyed your musky reading! ”Musk” is such a satisfyingly complex perfume concept, running the full gamut from clean to impure.

        Regarding your anosmia to a specific musk ingredient, my non-expert opinion is that this might come and go, and it may depend on concentration and relationship to other ingredients. The DIY gang here often writes about not being able to smell a certain musk aromachemical and how to train one’s nose by smelling it at lower concentrations or at shorter intervals.

        I think your reviews are absolutely great, and I don’t think you need to change your review. I haven’t explored the Narciso Rodriguez’ scents thoroughly (although the bottles are definitely cool). My impression is that they are all precisely engineered, subtle stews of modern musky aromachemicals, designed to be minimalist and evocative without being precisely identifiable with anything in nature.

        My specific musk reflections tend to focus on whether or not I am destined for an early death due to my addiction to vintage nitromusks.

      • ClaireV (article author) | 20th March 2021 16:02

        Hi Mona Visa!

        I'm so sorry it's taken me until today to see your question (and I see that Grayspoole and PStoller have already jumped in with additional resources and reassurance that your perception of musk in your review is completely valid). It is true that certain people aren't able to perceive certain musk molecules, or indeed, perceive them overly much to the extent that they mask other parts of the composition.

        A very good litmus test is Musc Nomade by Annick Goutal, a perfume that features a specific mix of two or three musk materials that some people (including myself) have trouble smelling because one of the musks famously obscures or masks the others, resulting in a scent that has odd gaps in its structure, like a record that skips. I do think that prolonged exposure can change your physical perception of musk molecules. I can now smell all parts of Musc Nomade, for example, whereas previously I only caught little whiffs of it, interspersed with long stretches of smelling very little at all. My understanding is that exposure (both over-exposure and short, timed bursts of exposure) to certain materials can train your nose in one direction or another. I once perceived the Iso E Super (a material some might call musky also, because it is a sort of expansive, radiant 'white noise' cast over a perfume, though in truth it is more woody than musky) in both Ormonde Woman and Indochine to be super-sharp, ice-picky, and almost painful in a poisonous manner (like those burnt-smelling medicated acne creams by La Roche-Posay) - but by training myself with small samples over the space of a couple of years, increasing exposure gradually, I was able to "see" the other parts of composition more and the Iso E Super less, so much so that I wear those perfume with great enjoyment now. However, I was never able to get used to the Iso E Super jutting out at me in Reve d'Ossian, and 1270 by Frapin, so those I had to reluctantly release back into the wild. Wish I understood better why I can train myself to tolerate doses of one material in certain perfumes and yet can't bear a similar dosage level of the same material in others.

        Anyway, not sure this is helpful to you. Musk aromachemicals are particularly obtuse things, and I thought your review was great. Like PStoller said, your perceptions are valid because they are honestly given and well-described, rather than because you know what a certain molecule smells like in isolation. To me, a bit of technical knowledge can be great for context, but the best reviews are those that paint a picture for the reader, and yours do exactly that.