When perfumes are described as musky, we immediately get an impression of a scent that is sexy and powdery. Perfume ingredients have a way of shaping our perception of a smell even before we've taken a sniff. Musk is one of the most commonly used perfume ingredients, and we're here to explore what exactly is "musky"?
Musk forms the base notes of most perfumes, giving fragrances its long-lasting power. Natural musk was used until the 19th century, before synthetic options became available. It is a popular ingredient which perfumers use to add more richness and structure to an otherwise basic floral fragrance. It is difficult to find a perfume today that does not have musk in it.
In its natural form, musk is extremely pungent. It has to be heavily diluted with alcohol to produce its pleasant odour. To most people, it smells slightly sweet, warm, and powdery, like the scent of lingering soap on skin after a shower on a warm, humid day. Then sensuality of it stems from the closeness of how musk sits on the skin when the perfume dries down. Many people actually believe that the smell of musk is similar to that of testosterone, and females are are apparently more sensitive to its scent.
Musk is a secretion from the testicle glands (about the size of a golf ball) of male musk deer, used for attracting mates. These fanged deer are mostly found in the mountains of Northern Asia, where they are killed by traps laid in the wild. It takes the deaths of about 50 musk deer to produce 1kg of musk. Although only the male musk deer produces musk, female musk deer are also indiscriminately killed in the hunt.
The over-killing of these deer led to its rarity and trade at exorbitant prices. As of today, this lovely deer is classified as "threatened" in 1979 under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Regulated trading of natural musk is restricted to very small quantities, which also means that illegal poaching of this animals still exists today.
The most valuable types of musk are Vietnamese Tonkin musk, Assa musk, Nepalese musk, while the more inferior ones are Russian Carbadine musk and Chinese Himalayan musk.
Because of its origins from a testicle gland, it is only natural that people associate musk with high sexuality and attractiveness. Ancient royalty used it as an aphrodisiac.
Today, the musk notes we see in perfume is synthetic, sometimes known as “white musk”. They are plant-based, derived from garden angelica, muskwood, musk flower and musk seeds, which produce musky-smelling compounds.
Fun fact: Scientist Albert Baur was the first to discover synthetic musk in 1888. He was experimenting with TNT explosives when he caught a whiff of a pleasant, musk-odour. Further improvements of the compound led to what is known today as "macrocylic musk".
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