It is said that truly great perfume can’t happen without musk. The sensual background – often described as “spicy” – that anchors more ephemeral floral notes has something palpably human about it. It’s the lingering scent of warm skin flushed from sun or sex, the invisible hug in a bottle that won’t let you go. “When we smell musk, the sense of intimacy is unmistakable. It’s like lying with your head on a lover’s stomach,” muses perfumer Roja Dove. “Musk is about gentle, erogenous, sustained sensuality.” Put another way, musk is perfume’s ultimate secret weapon – and the perfect ingredient to capture the elation and languor of summer affairs implicit in the newest wave of urbanely sensual, very feminine floral fragrances. But while musk’s enduring seduction has made it one of perfume’s most compelling ingredients, it is also one of its most controversial.
For centuries musk pods – pheromone glands on the flank of the male Himalayan musk deer – were dried, powdered down and soaked in alcohol to be used as a fixative for more volatile scent ingredients. Not that you’d have consciously recognised it, but there was raw, raunchy musk hiding behind the impetuous zest of 18th-century colognes such as 4711, waiting to reveal itself in the soft, reassuring dry-down. Musk was also key to the Guerlinade – the poignantly spicy, powdery olfactory signature running through the great early-20th-century classics from Guerlain, such as L’Heure Bleue, Shalimar and Mitsouko. And since the mid-1960s, the healthy dose of musk that anchors Christian Dior’s intensely lemony, masculine Eau Sauvage has enthralled wearers of either sex. “As fixatives, musks are essential,” says olfactory profiler and researcher Diane Thalheimer. “They make scents feel more rounded and help them to retain their fascination even into the next day.”
Small wonder, then, that in the 1970s, along with patchouli, musk became the olfactory backing track to the decade. With sweetly louche undertones of blackberry and warm leather, oils of varying provenance promoted musk from perfume understudy to major protagonist. As a design student, Narciso Rodriguez was utterly seduced. “At first I thought I was crazy that something so abstract could evoke such emotion in me,” he recalls, reliving the first time he caught a waft from an attractive stranger. “Musk is both sensual and mercurial with an uncanny ability to reflect the nature of whoever wears it. Its rawness is so elemental, so earthy that the challenge in perfume is to transform it into something elegant, refined and sophisticated without losing its original appeal.”
Rodriguez’s lifelong passion – he still wears musk oil – is undoubtedly the reason why, nine years after its launch, musk-hearted Narciso Rodriguez For Her remains among the best-selling fragrances in the UK. In its most recent limited editions, white musks mingle with agarwood (oud) to give For Her Eau Délicate Eau de Parfum (£56, 50ml) an enveloping depth; while in For Her Eau Délicate Eau de Toilette (£49, 50ml) musk gives fig an almost mordant fleshiness. “Musk is like an addiction. Its allure is both cerebral and emotional yet it’s never overpowering,” Rodriguez says.
At the end of the 1970s, the increasingly rare and costly “real thing” became outlawed for commercial use when musk deer were officially placed on the endangered list. Synthetic alternatives had, in fact, been used in perfumery for decades – yet these molecules continue to prove no less contentious. Studies have highlighted some synthetic musks as potential endocrine disruptors, linking them to an increased risk of breast cancer, and as such they are closely monitored. Last year finally saw musk xylene – one of the most convincing and extensively used synthetic nitro-musks – banned by the European Commission after the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) had already voluntarily put a stop to its use in scents. Accidentally discovered as long ago as 1889 as sweet-smelling analogues of TNT, nitro-musks posed little threat of explosion at levels used in fragrance, yet their carcinogenic potential has concerned experts for decades. So widely used was xylene that, in its heyday, you couldn’t broach a pack of washing powder or fabric softener without being mugged by a musky overdose. But it was found that the ingredient used to impart long-lasting freshness outstayed its welcome in the environment.
Billions are spent by major scent manufacturers on research to develop and patent molecules (or captives) that smell as natural as nitro-musks, but without the risks. According to Thierry Audibert, global head of science and technology at Givaudan Fragrances, up to eight per cent of the company’s annual turnover is dedicated to research, and creating new molecules claims a major chunk of that. Of the average 3,000 new molecules that emerge yearly from this work, only between one and four will eventually crop up in scents. In the two to five years it takes to graduate from test tube to atomiser, each new ingredient is subjected to multiple quality and safety tests before registration in Europe, America and China.
Right now, the smart money’s on “linear” musk molecules, such as Givaudan’s Sylkolide, launched last year. “These new musks please everyone – they’re good for scents and better for the environment, as they are easily degradable,” says Givaudan perfumer Stephen Nilsen. Almost everyone can smell them, for curiously, it’s estimated that up to 40 per cent of people are anosmic to some musk molecules.
Even if we can’t smell musk, however, the almost tactile extra dimension it brings to scent is unmistakable. “We don’t smell musk as such, but perceive it through other senses, often comparing it to the lightness of feathers, the softness of suede and the freshness of crisp, white linen,” Thalheimer points out. “It’s the reassuring clean-sheet feeling that’s so relaxing,” she says, conceding that musk’s time in the laundry has lodged in our subconscious. Ironically, given musk’s “down and dirty” origins, it’s these hygienic associations that make its sexiness not only acceptable, but compulsively desirable. The world’s somehow less threatening with an earthy-sweet musk cocoon to cushion its impact and now, after a brief spell of more demanding leather and heavy amber-based oriental florals, the time’s right for a swing back to more traditional smells. The new florals are elegant, moss-tinged chypres, and musk is the ideal wrapping, bringing opulence and all-important sillage to their long-lasting classic allure.
“Everyone loves feminine, comfortable scents that leave a trail,” Thalheimer believes. “Their diffusion is reassuring, like a signature – a unique identity, even if it’s not easy to describe.” Perfumer Roja Dove exploits the principle exquisitely with Mischief (£195, 100ml); exuberant orange blossom, jasmine and rose are spiked with racy green freshness, before oakmoss and natural ambergris partnered with musks exert a suede-like insistence. And for the first time in a Prada fragrance, perfumer Daniela Andrier has relied on white musks to add voluptuous, powdery intensity to neroli and vanilla in Infusion d’Iris Eau de Parfum Absolue (£59.50, 50ml). Meanwhile, a blend of amber, white musks and rosewater characterise Carita Eau de Parfum, (£65, 50ml) – the debut, unashamedly “boudoir” scent from the revered Carita Maison de Beauté in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. According to Nilsen, “People don’t understand the subtle role musk plays in fragrance. Vanilla absolute and amber create the addiction accord that pulls you in, but musk will bring you back for more.”
For those die-hards who still like their musk served rare, hairstylist-turned-perfumer Michael Boadi’s Illuminum Black Musk (£150, 100ml) has an animalistic, oily intensity laced with incense and old stable mate patchouli, as if 1970 Kensington Market air had been captured and swiftly bottled. By contrast, Lorenzo Villoresi’s Musk (£65, 50ml) is soft, woody and rose-rich; while Alessandro Gualtieri’s Nasomatto Silver Musk (£108, 30ml) intrigues with an initial, peppy shower-fresh high that soon dries down to something dark and almost dusty, like a thrillingly dirty secret. Misleadingly, perhaps the most celebrated of all musk fragrances, Musc Ravageur by Maurice Roucel, master perfumer at Symrise, for Editions Frédéric Malle (£90, 50ml) owes its “elegantly depraved” reputation more to an overdose of woody amber. Such a tease may, in fact, prove a one-night stand. For, as Roja Dove warns us, “amber is all about promise, but musk delivers”. And so the love affair continues.