It would not be an understatement to say that there is hardly a fragrance that does not contain at least one musk component. The power of musk to refine, balance, fix and accentuate compositions without adding a heavy note is exceptional, and no other ingredient can rivals musks in terms of their popularity and versatility. Musk forms the pedestal upon which the entire composition rests. It fuses sensuality and warmth even into the simplest of compositions, and there exist numerous fragrances based solely around musk.
The term musk/musky in perfumery refers not only to the specific ingredients, but also to the abstraction of the complex odours of natural musk, which range from balmy, sweet, and powdery to fig-like, animalic, leathery, spicy, and woody. As Philip Kraft notes in his great overview of musks, “the more one studies its character [that of natural musk tincture], the more contrasting, vibrant and oscillating it becomes: repulsive–attractive, chemical–warm, sweaty–balmy, acrid–waxy, earthy–powdery, fatty–chocolate-like, pungent–leathery, resinous–spicy, fig-like, dry, nutty and woody, to give just some impressions” (144). The abstraction of these complex impressions into “warm, sweet, powdery and sensual” is what can be understood whenever “musky” tonality is mentioned. …
The history of musk is old, mentioned in many ancient texts. Ancient Muslim mosques were said to have been built with musk mixed into the mortar. As the sun shone on the building, it would have been filled with the beautiful scent. Natural musk (often referred to as Tonkin musk due to the fact that the best quality musk was Tonquin musk from Tibet and China) is the dried secretion from a sac in the abdomen of the musk deer (Moschus moschiferus L.) that at one time inhabited an area as far north as Lake Baikal. The cost of musk has always been exorbitant due to the fact that it took the lives of a hundred and forty deer to produce a kilo of musk. In 1979, musk deer became protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the importance of natural musk declined. Moreover, even prior to the signing of CITES, natural musk was eclipsed by synthetic musk aroma-chemicals, which not only offered a more ethical solution, but also a more cost-efficient one.
However, musk deer is not the only natural source of musk compounds. Ambrette seed oil, galbanum oil and angelica root oils allow for the isolation of elements that have a musky character. Thus, Jean-Claude Ellena explores the effect in his Angéliques sous la pluie (2000) for Frédéric Malle Editions de Parfums.
The discovery of the first synthetic musks is a by product of research on explosives. In 1888, Albert Baur, in the process of searching for new explosives noticed that the product of the reaction of trinitrotoluene (TNT) and tert-butyl halides produced a pleasant odour. Musk Baur became the first synthetic musk, classified under the nitro musks category. In 1894 he produced Musk Ketone, which was said to resemble natural musk fairly closely and until quite recently was among the most popular perfume ingredients. The nitro musks (Musk Xylol, Musk Ketone, Musk Tibetene, Musk Ambrette, Moskene) possess a warm, powdery scent, with an ambery and animalic overlay. The sensual warmth of Musk Ketone as well as other nitro musks pervades the base of Chanel No. 5 (1921) and of many other fragrances from that period. Musk Ambrette’s heavy floral tone gave character to Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps (1948), and when it was withdrawn from the market in 1981, the reformulation of the fragrance ran into various problems, as the musk was not easy to replace.
Nitro musks fell out of favour in the 1980s not only because of the hazards associated with their production, but also due to their lack of stability. The new group of musks that arose were the polycyclic musks (Phantolide, Celestolide, Traesolide, Tonalide, Galaxolide), as well the macrocyclic musks (Habanolide, Thibetolide, Globalide, Velvione). In addition, various modern musks are becoming more and more important in perfumery such as Helvetolide, Nirvanolide, and Muscenone. This list is hardly exhaustive, and it merely points out an incredible diversity among the synthetic musks, attesting to the popularity of these aroma-chemicals. From the sweet powderiness of Galaxolide and metallic nuances of Habanolide to the pear undertones of Helvetolide, the synthetic musks range dramatically in terms of their odour profiles.
The fruity side of musks is explored by L’Artisan Parfumeur in the creation of Mûre et Musc (1978) and its sweeter, richer variant Mûre et Musc Extrême (1993). The addition of berry notes accentuates the fruity tonality of musk, leading to the harmonious composition. Woody and fruity accents of another musk ingredient, Moxalone, are juxtaposed with the sparkling grapefruit and red currant accord of Yves Saint Laurent Baby Doll (1999).
Radiant freshness accented by a metallic overtone made certain musks like Habanolide and Globalide particularly popular. These musks are sometimes referred to as white musks. The modern white musk accord was first created by Alberto Morillas’ Emporio Armani White for Her (2001), a combination of various white musks, exploring their elegant fresh facet in order to lend a gentle transparency to the composition. Emporio Armani White ornaments the glacier coolness of musks with the tart sweetness of mandarin, spiciness of ginger, and verdancy of black currant, fig leaves and mint. Moreover, the white musk theme appears in fragrances like Thierry Mugler Cologne (2002), J.Lo Glow (2002) and Serge Lutens Clair de Musc (2003). The hot-ironed fabric feel of Habanolide lends elegance to the gourmand sweetness of Christian Dior Hypnotic Poison (1998).
Functional products are among the biggest consumers of musks, due to the fact that musks deposit well on fabrics during washing, and indeed a few musk odorants entered fine perfumery only after being made popular by fabric softeners. Galaxolide is one such example. Interestingly enough, its association with freshly washed fabric was explored in Estée Lauder White Linen (1978), where it was used at the concentration of 20%. Its characteristic sweet and powdery warmth also pervades Lancôme Trésor and Caron Parfum Sacré.
In fine fragrances, compositions usually include a cocktail of different musks due to the fact that anosmia to musks is extremely widespread, even among the perfumers (indeed, rivaling even the very common anosmia to beta-ionones, which are responsible for the violet notes).
The search for new musk odorants is always continuing, and my overview should be seen as the tip of the iceberg. The new great musk quest can lead researchers to the most unlikely places and can turn them into alligator hunters! Thus, it was reported that a particular type of alligators emits a musky secretion, which was subsequently isolated. However, alligator musk is not to be the next perfume ingredient as the compound turned out to be sweet and rosy, its musky undertone a sole product of impurities.
Photo of musk deer from amur-heilong.net