“Bring, bring that musk-scented wine! That wine is the key to joy, and it must be mine...” The medieval Persian reader scanning these lines by the 12th-century poet Nizami would have understood instantly the subtle nuances of the word “musk.” Since natural musk was black, the reader would have envisioned a dark potion. Also, musk was considered the most sumptuous and alluring of scents, and musk-scented wine would surely be a libation to intoxicate one to the point of ecstasy. Most importantly, however, musk evoked seduction and passion, and in Nizami’s masterpiece about star-crossed lovers, Layla and Majnun, musk is the scented leitmotif. The nights are scented with it and so is the beloved’s hair. Even his dreams about her carry a musk-tinged sillage.
Several centuries later, we also appreciate the association of musk and seduction, but since natural musks have been replaced by synthetic versions, the darkness of musks has paled. Natural musk, such as the one referred to by Nizami, consisted of the dried secretions from a sac in the abdomen of the musk deer. Obtaining several grams of musk took the life of a dozen animals, and when the creature became endangered to the point of extinction, the use of natural musk became prohibited. Today’s versions are more likely to be the so-called white synthetic musks that smell soft and are more likely to evoke laundry than lovemaking.
Yet, what if one wishes to experience the scent of musk close to that Nizami describes in his epic poem? Such fragrances do exist, and they are made without natural musk. Instead, perfumers rely on their imagination to recreate the smouldering effect using a mixture of natural plant aromatics and synthetic materials. For instance, Annick Goutal’s Musc Nomade (€150 for 100ml EDP) cradles a tender musk note in so many layers of sandalwood, vanilla-redolent benzoin, tonka bean and amber that it ends up dark and mysterious. Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Absolue Pour le Soir (€130 for 70ml EDP) was inspired by roses and cumin, but the moment the honey-coloured liquid touches my skin, I’m transported to Nizami’s universe perfumed with musk, sandalwood and incense. This is as intoxicating as any musk-scented wine would be.
Continuing my search for a dark musk, I turned to fragrances by Maurice Roucel. One of Roucel’s signatures is a velvety accord laced with spice and amber. The perfumer studied the chemical composition of natural musk and came up with a composition that to him captured its nuances. Musc Ravageur (£170 for 100ml EDP), created for Frédéric Malle’s Editions de Parfums, seduces from the first inhale. Its animalic accord is seamlessly blended into smoky vanilla and balsams, while the interplay of contrasting sensations, from the hot glow of sandalwood to the icy breath of bergamot, gives the fragrance opulence and depth. Musc Ravageur smells of warm skin and languorous nights, because perfumers – like poets – are masters of enchantment.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.