Musk is a whole class of fragrant substances used as base notes in perfumery. This wonderful animalistic note creates a groundwork on which the rest of the aromatic shades and nuances of the composition rest. Musk is the most commonly used raw material, present in almost all fragrant compositions. What makes it so indispensible in the perfume industry is its unique property to balance the composition and add a subtle touch of sensuality and warmth. It is also prized as a wonderful fixative, which reduces the evaporation rate and allows the original composition to last longer while keeping its true fragrance.
Musk is a name that originally designated a strong-smelling brownish substance secreted by the male of the musk deer of the genus Moschus. Each of the adult male representatives of this animal species has a musk gland that lies in a sac positioned between the genitals and the umbilicus, and secretes powerful pheromones used to attract mates. It has been rumored since ancient times that wonderful musk odor works as an excellent aphrodisiac, and modern science has offered an explanation for this. Even though the debate on the existence of sex pheromones continues, there are scientists who believe that the smell of musk closely resembles the smell of testosterone, which may act as a pheromone in humans.
The term "musk" is often used to describe a wide range of musky substances, typically animalistic notes such as Civet, Castoreum, and Hyrax, or various synthetic musks, known as white musks, which are created in chemical laboratories. The original deer musk has been used and prized for thousands of years as one of the most precious raw materials in perfumery. This lovely animal is still found in the mountain forests of India, Pakistan, Tibet, China, Siberia and Mongolia, even though classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The musk deer populations could be driven out of existence because of the black-market price for the musk from their glands that reaches almost $45,000 per kilogram. This is one of the most expensive natural products in the world, even more valuable than gold—the all-time highest price of gold ever recorded is $1,913.50 per ounce (there are 0.0284 kilograms per ounce). What is really worrying is that only a few tens of grams can be extracted from a single animal and around 160 deer need to be killed for each kilogram of musk collected. It is possible to remove the gland without killing the animal but, unfortunately, this is hardly ever done.
Deer musk has been used since antiquity and some of the first references of its use in the perfume industry point to Arab and Byzantine perfume makers of the 6th century. It was generously used by the caliphs of Baghdad and highly regarded among the Arabs. This fragrant material was even added to mortared walls of mosques during their construction, to emanate the wonderful fragrance whenever it’s warmed by the sun. Al-Kindi, the famous Philosopher of the Arabs, who wrote hundreds of original treatises on a range of subjects, including perfumes, mentioned this ingredient in many of the perfume recipes, making it one of the mostly prized luxury goods imported from the East. However, musk was not used only for its olfactory features but also because of its curative properties. The Arab and Tibetan healers used it as a stimulant for male health; Ayurvedic practitioners used it in the treatment of cardiac, mental and neurological disorders, and it still holds as one of the most important ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, being included in the recipes of more than 300 different medicines.
In perfumery, the term “musk” doesn’t always apply to a concrete perfume component, but rather designates the overall impression of the fragrant composition. Natural aroma of musk is very complex and usually described with so many contradictory attributes. It's description may range from sweet, creamy or powdery, to rich, leathery, spicy and even woodsy. Most typically, the musk note is described as an animalistic nuance, with a lively and oscillating, often contrasting nature. The typical musky smell develops from the natural musk tincture once the volatile parts have evaporated, allowing the sensual and warm “true musky” notes to come up to the surface.
Until the late 19th century, natural musk was extensively used in the creation of perfumes before it became much too expensive and controversial. Luckily, there are some plants that share similar olflactory properties with musk, capable of producing musky-smelling macrocyclic lactone compounds.
Ambrette by Bob Richmond
Many of these plants, such as Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica), Musk Flower (Mimulus moschatus) Abelmosk or Ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), are now widely used as a substitute for animal musks.
Musk Flower by alexlomas
In 1888, the scientist Albert Baur was the first to discover an artificial musk. This was a completely accidental discovery that occurred while the scientist was experimenting with TNT explosives. After an attempt to produce a more effective form of trinitrotoluene, he suddenly noticed a very pleasant musky-like odor in the air and attributed it to, what was later named, nitro-musk. This was the first member of the family of synthetic musks, but it was banned from use due to its instability and potential toxicity. Later on, polycyclic musk and macrocyclic musk classes were developed, of which the first one is most commonly used in modern perfumery. Macrocylic musks are derived from plants and they most closely resemble the natural scent of musk, but their production is more costly. Another interesting fact about macrocylic musks is that around half of the population cannot detect their smell in a fragrant composition. For this reason, successful perfumers usually combine a variety of musks in the formula in order to truly convey the original idea behind the fragrance.
The use of natural musk was prohibited in 1979, when the musk deer was protected as an endangered species. Today, white musk note is one of the most commonly used in creation of perfumes, offering a more ethical approach and being less expensive than the natural musk. Some of the wonderful perfumes highlighting this note are Serge Lutens' Clair de Musc, Montale's White Musk, Il Profvmo's Musc Bleu, and Narciso Rodriguez For Her. Michael Boadi’s musky quartet from the Illuminum collection plays with the musk olfactory group in four different compositions and perfectly illustrates the broadness of this term: Cashemere Musk, Rajamusk , Piper Leather and Wild Berry Blossom.