Layla’s Musk : Dark, Rich Fragrances

“Bring, bring that musk-scented wine! That wine is the key to joy, and it must be mine… that wine is the key that will open wide the door to the treasure of rapture’s rich and varied store…” 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 the 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 nights are musk scented and so is the beloved’s hair. Even the dreams about her carry a musk-tinged sillage.

Several centuries later, we also understand the association of musk and seduction, but since natural musks have been replaced by synthetic versions, the darkness of musks has paled.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 Nezami, 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 musks are more likely to be the so-called white synthetic musks, which smell soft, cuddly and evoke laundry, rather than lovemaking.

Yet, what if one wishes to experience the scent of musk as close to what Nezami had described in his epic poem? Such fragrances do exist, and they are made without natural musk. Instead, perfumers rely on their imagination to recreate the smoldering effect using a mixture of natural plant aromatics and synthetic materials. For instance, Annick Goutal’s Musc Nomade 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 was inspired by roses and cumin, but the moment the honey colored liquid touches my skin, I’m transported to Nezami’s universe perfumed with musk, sandalwood and incense. Absolue pour le Soir is as intoxicating as any musk-scented wine would be.

Inspired by my discoveries, I continued my search for a dark musk and turned to the fragrances by perfumer Maurice Roucel. One of Roucel’s signatures is a velvety accord laced with spice and amber. Roucel studied the chemical composition of natural musk and came up with a composition that to him captured its nuances. Musc Ravageur 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 cinnamon 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.

What are your favorite dark, opulent musks?

Image 1: Persian miniature via Wiki-images, some rights reserved. Image 2: Shiraz, The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, by Bois de Jasmin.



  • Donna: Adding the last two to my “must smell” list!

    I’ve not smelled Goutal’s Musk Nomade, but understand how the impression of musk arises from blending materials of santal, benzoin, tonka, vanilla…orris, too. There’s such a warmth and delicate fur/skin/velvet texture.
    Have you ever smelled real Tonquin musk, Victoria?
    I have a wee vial of vintage musk. Beautiful but makes me feel sad about the deer. January 15, 2024 at 9:25am Reply

    • Victoria: I have! I can see what Roucel meant in Musc Ravageur. It’s quite similar in feel. January 17, 2024 at 9:52am Reply

  • Christine Kalleeny: Thank you for this beautiful, inspiring post, Victoria. For me, nothing in Western perfumery, I feel, compares to the Saudi Misk al-ka3ba oil I get from Egypt: dark as pitch, almost chewy, as deep as a bottomless well and sinfully animalic. The only issue is that it is so polarizing that I almost don’t know where to wear it! It’s truly love or hate for the Western nose and even for fellow Middle Easterners (Egyptians, Levantine etc) since they gravitate towards Western perfumery. If only I lived in a region where this richness is appreciated, while not ubiquitous. January 15, 2024 at 10:29am Reply

  • Gretchen: While I am supremely thankful that animal-based components are no longer used, it takes a skilled artisan to recreate the amazing fragrances that musk (and ambergris and civet) gave us. For dark, I would suggest Angelos Olfactives Danse Lascive. It’s as intense as any of my vintage fragrances, with a modern little twist like all of Angelo’s amazing scents. January 15, 2024 at 10:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s hard to replicate that richness by other means. January 17, 2024 at 9:53am Reply

  • Alityke: Eris Perfumes Ma Bete is a dark musk but more in the sweaty horse register of SL MKK.
    I like Musc Rav but to me it’s a spice fragrance rather than a musk.
    I know I am anosmic to larger musk molecules. I sense them as holes in the “textural fabric” of fragrances & some induce frontal headaches.

    I do have a musk fragrance I adore. Marlou Poudrextase has the smell & texture of powdered inner thigh. She is subtle & beguiling. Seducing gently rather than the full on skankiness of many musk forward scents. More a silk satin peignoir compared to Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” installation January 15, 2024 at 10:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I forgot about Eris’s musk, but I agree, it would be a good contender for a rich, opulent blend. January 17, 2024 at 9:54am Reply

    • Kaisa: I like Carnicure, but Poudrextase sadly doesn’t work for me. Agree about Ma bête, it’s quite something. January 22, 2024 at 2:42pm Reply

  • Maria: I have the pleasure of owning some vintage (pre 1977!) Bal a Versailles parfum, and I think it very much fits in with this theme! From what I’ve read many people think of it as loudly animalic. I find it sophisticated with a sensual, almost dangerous edge.

    I can see why natural musk was so prized, but I always feel a bad for the animals. Thus, I’ve resolved that if I’ll be getting any natural castoreum, civet, and musk pods I’ll be getting them from vintages! It can make finding the natural stuff difficult, but I think it’s worth the effort. January 15, 2024 at 12:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Musk deer is also severely endangered. It’s a fascinating animal and it’s sad to see that an illegal trade in musk pods continues. Of course, most perfumes made today don’t use natural musk. January 17, 2024 at 9:56am Reply

  • Aurora: Like many others I am thankful the charming animal is now protected. Kiehl’s original musk satisfies me, I find it very well balanced and the slightly more animalic l’Air de Rien is my edgy musk. January 15, 2024 at 1:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Both of these are excellent. January 17, 2024 at 9:56am Reply

  • Marsi: When I think of dark musk, Serge Lutens MMK comes to mind. The drydown — about four hours in — is gorgeous. Unfortunately, it’s preceded by smelling like a pantload.

    Life is truly a rich tapestry that such a perfume even exists. January 15, 2024 at 1:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also prefer its drydown, but either way, I tolerate MKK in small doses. January 17, 2024 at 9:57am Reply

  • Emily: Mmmmm. Musc Ravageur is my go-to cozy chic scent (& the one most often commented on by non-perfume people). As a special treat for myself this month I’ve been applying Bruno Acamporo’s Musc oil to my wrists & back of neck, then layering Musc Ravageur in the cleavage. A celebration of skin, makes me happy to be in mine. & transforms a low-light snow day from dingy to decadent. Olfactory cashmere.

    Still haven’t smelled any actual musk, would be open to the opportunity if something vintage presented itself. In the meantime, Parfum d’Empire’s Musc Tonkin is up next on my full bottle wish list. & I fantasize about adding MKK to the library someday.

    So far the only musk that has registered to me as raunchy is Marlou’s Ambilux (still loved it but may not require a full bottle, I can create sweaty dance floor reek all on my own). Taking notes from all the comments here. Want to get my nose in all of it. January 16, 2024 at 10:25am Reply

    • Victoria: Musc Ravageur is blended enough that it does not smell too animalic. And I love your description–olfactory cashmere. January 17, 2024 at 9:58am Reply

  • carole: I love Goutal’s Musc, and even have a stash of body cream to go with it. Their creams were so good-as potent as the fragrances, and they had a real healing power for my skin.

    I love Mona di Orio’s Musc scent-has heliotrope too, which I love. I have a huge bottle of SL Clair de Musc which is nice but there’s a note in it that takes me right back to when I was 14 and smelling something really inexpensive and cheerful at Towers Dept site lol. It was a Canadian chain, not sure it existed in any other country. Def not upmarket but cheerful. The note in CdM reminds me of looking at Maybelline cosmetics, deciding they were glamorous and I’d buy some when I was older and had some money. It’s a good memory but so strong that association stays with me all day if I wear the fragrance-I feel 14 again. Scent is amazing, isn’t it? January 21, 2024 at 1:57pm Reply

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