Musk: the story of an animal ingredient!

Discover the musk, a wild and sensual ingredient of perfumery.

You have always loved wearing musk. Its warm and enveloping scent accompanies your daily perfumed ritual and your nose melts each time for its soft and intimate fragrance that shivers on your skin. But what is behind this ingredient prized by perfumers? A history rich in scents has been written about this well-known raw material since Antiquity. Let’s plunge into the heart of musk origins, right up to its current use, and discover the secrets of this addictive note.

The origins of musk

A wild ingredient

Baby perfume, rice powder or fresh sheets… It is hard to resist musk. Yet the origin of this ingredient is quite disturbing. To understand it, we have to go back thousands of years, to the highest plateaus in Asia, between the Himalaya, China and Siberia. It is in these plains that we find the musk deer, solitary animal that looks like a small and primitive deer. Very soon, people realized that during the rutting period, these “Moschus Moschiferus”, from their scientific name, produced bewitching secretions to charm the females. They noticed that these secretions with aphrodisiac powers actually came from a gland nestled in the abdomen of the animal that contained a brown odorous liquid: the musk.

The harvest of animal musk

Desiring to take advantage of this singular smell, the natives tried to extract this liquid. However, musk only retains its appearance and olfactory properties when kept warm under the animal’s skin. As soon as the gland is extracted, the musk dries out and loses all its odoriferous power. Having taken note of the nuance, men therefore undertook a vast harvest of musk, which led to the death of the animal. In addition to musk, the deer was hunted for all the virtues it represented: its leather was used to make bags by the Tibetans and its hair stuffed the cushions and mattresses of the Chinese emperors.

What musk smells like?

Did you know that before being appreciable, the musk is hardly breathable? Once removed from its pouch, the smell of its seeds is so strong and unpleasant, that even the fastest ships did not want to carry it! Highly ammoniated, it gives off wood, fur and feces scents. However, after refinement in an alcoholic tincture, it reveals its irresistible animal and sensual notes. It is used then as a fixative by perfumers in their creations.

A prized ingredient since ancient times

Since ancient times, musk has been used for its many virtues. Already at that time, it was considered a luxury product. Its trade became more important during the time of the great explorers who took part in the export of pouch of musk to all Mediterranean countries. The Arab people quickly fell in love with it and incorporated it into many rituals to fight the evil spells of the deities. It is evoked in the Muslim religion as the perfume that the blessed will smell in heaven.

Legendary virtues

Oriental medicine claims that it purifies the air and expels parasites from the body. In the Middle Ages, animal substances such as musk experienced a veritable frenzy. The wealthiest people used musk in a pomander to fight against bad smells that were synonymous with disease. If between East and West the effects of musk sometimes diverge, the aphrodisiac power of the ingredient is always mentioned! Some people drink it through a straw to make themselves more attractive and release their animality, while Baudelaire emphasizes its sensual side in the Flowers of Evil. A sensuality that lasted for centuries, in the four corners of the world.

When the synthesis becomes sensual

To face up to this growing demand, the mammal hunting was practiced intensively in the 1900s and even more so between 1960 and 1970. Musk production was also a very lucrative business, selling for up to 400,000 francs per kilo. However, to protect this over-exploited species, measures were taken in 1979, banning the hunting of the musk deer. But some have tried to breed musk deer and extract the glands alive but secretion stopped in captivity. The development of chemistry and synthesis raw materials made it affordable. It allows now perfumers to use this wild and sensual scent in their creations without hurting the animal!

The appearance of white musk

Before the ban on animal musk, some researchers were already working on synthetic ingredients to reproduce the musky notes at the end of the 1800s. Their fragrances did not totally replace the characteristic animal smell, but rather evoked a “clean” odor. These new molecules were quickly adopted by laundry detergent vendors to add a fresh scent to their products. It was not until 1926 that Lavoslav Ružička, future Nobel Prize winner and employee of the Firmenich company, succeeded in synthesizing an element of natural musk, the muscone. From this research, a multitude of molecules were created to reproduce the scent of musk. They are called white musks, as opposed to animal musk.

A new olfactory palette

Musky notes, or white musks, offer a very wide variety of facets. Their shades can be mellow, coppery, cottony, floral, sensual… Beyond these scents, synthetic musk has the capacity to be an excellent fixative. It is used a lot as a base note to bind the materials and fix the more volatile ingredients.

White musks are gathered into three families:

  • Nitro-musks, which have long been used in perfumery during the 20th century but are now prohibited.
  • Polycyclic musks whose smell is rather generous. They are only used today by a few laundry companies, as they are known to be poorly biodegradable.
  • Macrocyclic musks are the most used in perfumery today. In this category we find various molecules with a variety of notes, including the famous muscone, but also exaltolide with floral shades and ambrettolide with powdery facets. All of them have particular characteristics, but each will bring roundness, sensuality and suppleness to a composition.

The musky ode by Carrément Belle

At Carrément Belle, the animal and wild scent of musk has seduced us since our early years. Already at the end of the 80s, we wanted to honour this ingredient with the original musc eau de parfum. White musk reveals itself warm and enveloping alongside iris, jasmine and cotton flower. A fragrance that has character but remains discreet, whose sensuality is revealed as close as possible to your skin. A perfume that deserves to be earned!

In 2013, we wanted to give more relief to this composition, without distorting it. We enhanced it by adding fruity shades of melon to the top note and raspberry to the base one. The new eau de parfum musc was born. For those nostalgic for the first composition, we’ve reproduced the original formula in a collector’s bottle. You can find it in the Collection under the name original musc. Two resolutely intimate and wild fragrances for her and him, to keep for yourself or to share in total intimacy…

Did you know the meaning of white musk? Do you like musk fragrances?