In Search of Dark, Opulent Musk

“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 Nezami* 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 Nezami’s masterpiece about star-crossed lovers, Layla and Majnun, musk is the scented leitmotif.

The topic of my new FT column, In Search of Dark Musk, is the dark, intoxicating musk, and I search for a perfume with such a character. No white musks, clean musks or baby-skin musks will do. I want a musk that smolders and that would have been as close as possible to the kind of fragrance the Persian poet described.

You can read about the results of my search here, and of course, I look forward to reading your ideas on a perfume that smells dark and musky.

*Nezami or Nizami, Hafez or Hafiz? The Persian reading of these poets names’ is Nezami and Hafez, with a short “e”.  Nizami and Hafiz is an old-fashioned spelling, which still tends to be preferred by Western academics.

Image via FT; Persian miniature




  • Henry Richmond Young: gorgeous article victoria! November 9, 2018 at 9:50am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! November 11, 2018 at 5:07am Reply

  • rosarita: As always, I enjoy your article, V! About eight years ago, I embarked on what I called my summer of musk. I tried every musk perfume I could get my hands on (it was back in the days of perfume swapping on Makeupalley, which I sorely miss.) White musks like Lutens Clair de Musc are pretty and have their place but I prefer Muscs Koublai Khan, Musc Ravageur and Kiehl’s Musk. I admire many Parfums de Nicolai scents but her Musk Intense was too fruity for my taste. November 9, 2018 at 12:53pm Reply

    • Andy: “Summer of musk”–I love it! We share many of the same favorites. For a simple musk, I too love Kiehl’s, and in the same family, Smell Bent Commando is a slightly dirtier and darker take on the theme. Mona di Orio’s Musc is soft and cozy, though still very sensual to me. I love Musc Ravageur, though it has a tendency to stay closer to my skin than I’d like once it hits the drydown. I re-discovered Bulgari Thé Blanc this year, and it wears as a clean musk cologne on me. It’s sort of bland, but when I wear it I invariably find myself sniffing for it throughout the day. November 9, 2018 at 1:45pm Reply

      • rosarita: Au The Blanc is a summer staple for me but it smells clean and fresh on a cold snowy day, too, probably just due to my imagination 🙂 I have tried lots of Smell Bent scents but I don’t believe I’ve tried Commando, obviously I need to! November 9, 2018 at 5:06pm Reply

      • Victoria: Au Thé Blanc is my own favorite too. November 11, 2018 at 5:10am Reply

    • Victoria: I do like the idea of a summer of musk! This summer I ended up testing a whole range of scents based on musk, and some worked really well, especially Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely. November 11, 2018 at 5:09am Reply

  • maja: Lovely article, thank you!
    I sometimes struggle with dirtier muscs – they either make me slightly nauseous (L’air de Rien) or I am randomly anosmic to them in warmer weather (Musc Nomade). But thankfully on a cool day at least Musc Nomade works perfectly in all its cuddling and intoxicating glory. I am wondering how they could be layered though… November 10, 2018 at 6:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Musks are the most interesting perfumes to layer, because the effect can be so dazzling. But I’d try it on paper first to find the right proportion. November 11, 2018 at 5:11am Reply

  • Aurora: I laughed so much at ‘evoke more laundry than lovemaking’, thank you Victoria for tackling the vast subject of musc. I think I am a little afraid of dark muscs (I haven’t tried my sample of MR) but vegetal ones like angelica (a note you explored so well not long ago) are very appealing to me, I discovered thanks to you. I enjoy Musc Nomade very much, and I think Paloma Picasso is beautiful but a little intimidating. I also find the musc in my l’Air du Temps Parfum de Toilette addictive, it is much less wan than in EDT, it transforms what would be a nice floral and nothing more. By exploring it recently, Sortilege has a complex drydown which maybe contains musc and I always thought the musky drydown of Arpege extrait really beautiful but I can’t really wear it on skin. I didn’t know about Maurice Roucel’s signature, how clever to recreate the splendor of natural musc, ‘master of enchantment’ indeed. How much I enjoyed your article, it really started me thinking. November 10, 2018 at 8:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it!

      Our experiment around classics made me realize how varied the musks are in the older compositions. November 11, 2018 at 5:12am Reply

  • Aimbl: What a lovely article! I als9 had a summer (cough, or a year) of musk, until my husband mentioned his father wore something like them in the seventies. Musc Ravageur (whihc truth be t9ld turned a bit baby powder on my skin, but not as badly as molinard) Koublai khan, kiehls, Egyptian musk plus CdG Avignon as per Sarah Jessica Parker before she did Lovely? I forget. A bunch of dark musk roses, in my rose phase. . . And, some vintage Estes lauder, Dior’s, balmain. .. I do recall in high school in the early eighties wearing men’s fragrance with their musk undertones. There were some that turned horribly on my skin (I think bal de Versailles was one). Nowadays what seems to work is slightly dark and earthy but sadly not musky like malles fleur de cassis or iris poudre; vintage mitsouko, voleur de roses or something for a special night: vintage tabac blond or poivre. November 10, 2018 at 9:30am Reply

    • Trudy: The vintage Mitsouko was amazing. I’m usually not much for musk but I do remember receiving a small bottle of Mitsouko as a gift back in the late 70’s or maybe very early 80’s and loved it. I was very young and the perfume was maybe a little too sophisticated for me at the time but I do remember the fragrance very well. I have since revisited it and it seems harsher than what I remember…so yes the key here is vintage (in my opinion). I do, at times, wear Narcisso’s Her in the black bottle and like it very much (it reminds me of Lovely but just a little prettier…IMO). The other ones you named for a special night sound lovely. November 10, 2018 at 12:57pm Reply

      • Aimbl: Totally agree re the narcisco musc for her! It’s anazing! Somehow I forgot it’s a musk, since I think it’s neither dirty nor laundry! November 10, 2018 at 2:05pm Reply

  • Filomena: I loved the article and love musk…it’s always been one of my favorite notes. November 10, 2018 at 9:45am Reply

  • Pat Borow: L’Air de Rien. Pre-refo. I have a few mLs left and I hoard it fiercely. November 10, 2018 at 10:17am Reply

  • Matty: I loved this article as well. I don’t really like strong musky smell. The comments have given me some ideas. November 10, 2018 at 11:11am Reply

  • Tara C: I love all the scents you’ve mentioned Victoria. Musk is a favourite note. Areej le Doré is using real deer musk, sourced legally in Siberia according to his web site, for anyone who cares to experience the real thing. I am happy with the synthetic versions myself. November 10, 2018 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, please don’t buy it! There is no such thing as “legally sourced musk from Siberia.” Musk deer is endangered, so just because the Russian government says that certain dealers (no doubt, connected with the local government) are allowed to kill the animals, it doesn’t make the musk they obtain either legal or ethical. And then about 80% of all Russian musk is killed by poachers, so as a consumer one simple have no idea what one gets. November 10, 2018 at 4:27pm Reply

  • Debby: Animalic musks are not something I choose to wear very often, I find them too much these days. Perimenopausal hormone related I think. But I admire them on an academic level.
    Perfumes I have a little of for reference are Papillon Salome and Zoologist Civet. One I do find myself wearing quite regularly is the 90s formulation of Schiaparelli’s Shocking November 10, 2018 at 4:56pm Reply

  • John: I have not delved all that far into musks, but I have a great little bottle of the Kiehl’s EDT I picked up at an airport last summer. I think it’s a friendly, versatile introduction to musk that feels authentic enough to carry some nostalgic associations (I was born in the early 70’s….) but is very wearable, I think, perhaps even for those who don’t wear a lot of fragrance. I like layering it as well, so far with Yatagan or Kouros. Does anyone have any experiences with this to pass on? November 10, 2018 at 11:56pm Reply

  • Carla: Pleased with FT for continuing your column. I love Theo Fennell EDP for musk. I used to wear Absolue pour le Soir as well.

    But I tried MEM by Bogue yesterday and was transported and now I want florals all winter long, specifically jasmine! But why is it called MEM? ( I had a colleague in the past, Mary Ellen M., and she would note our collaborations that way so it makes me think of her.) November 12, 2018 at 9:04am Reply

  • Noelle: Lovely article! Thanks so much Victoria. I’ve adored Musc Ravageur since I was 20 (when I can only afford a small decant); I’m 28 now and this fragrance is a comfortable, old friend.

    Not sure if this is strictly an American thing, but my family always bought fabric softener and dryer sheets, which shaped my perception of what musk was–I absolutely hated it (I’ve also read that my generation as a whole generally finds fabric softener unnecessary lol). Very grateful for my bottle of MR.

    Can’t wait to sample the Kurkdjian! November 12, 2018 at 11:55am Reply

  • Ine: Great article 🙂 I agree about Musc ravageur. Another great dirty musk is Ava Luxe’s Kama. November 14, 2018 at 7:49am Reply

  • Inma: I love Musc Nomade! I’ve been wearing it when I go out in the evening for two years or so. I love its open sensuality. I usually combine it with a rose soap. Recently I tried Panthere (Cartier) and I felt it close, although dark musc and gardenia, as I read in this blog.

    Even though, the whole nuances of Musc Nomade are realle special for me. I won´t finish the bottle, I want to keep some so I can go back to it when I need it, because some times I feel I need that smell.

    And now I feel so curious about Musc ravageur! November 22, 2018 at 8:24am Reply

  • Megan in okc: Hmm. Looks like the link to the article is now broken. Shame, I wanted to read this. September 10, 2020 at 6:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it is unfortunate. They are in the process of changing the website, so it’s not possible to access the old content for the moment. September 11, 2020 at 2:46am Reply

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