Musk is one old-school scent. Its history stretches back thousands of years, during which time it was used not only for its smell but also for medicinal purposes. The intense smell of musk might call to mind anything from a mother’s perfume cabinet to a walk in the woods. It’s difficult to assign any descriptive words to musk with certainty, since there are so many different kinds of musk to be smelled.
No matter the variant, there are a few characteristics that most musks seem to share: they’re earthy, intense, oddly sweet, raw and sexual. Musk has a strong staying power so it’s a perfect base note. If you’re feeling down-to-earth, sassy, elegant, old-fashioned, determined, androgynous, feminine, masculine, or anything in between, you might want a musky perfume to reflect your mood.
(Disclaimer: I know, I know. So far this article is not helping you choose your new favorite musk perfume. First we have to talk about musk’s history. Then in part two we’ll take a closer look to the variants of musk and some of Possets’ muskiest perfumes.)
Musk derives its name from the musk deer. You’ll find these slender yet sturdy, small-tusked mammals roaming the mountains of southern Asia in countries like China, Siberia, and Mongolia. Today their lives are much more peaceful than they may have been during the 19th century and before, when their musk glands were still being harvested for the pungent scent they carried.
The musky scent was obtained from the secretion in the animal’s musk gland. The musk gland forms on mature male musk deer, and is located in front of the penis. The gland resembles a scrotum and earned the deer—and this scent—its name, which ultimately comes from the Sanskrit word mushkas for testicle. In order to harvest the secretion, the musk deer would have to be caught and killed and the gland removed. Once removed, the secretion would be dried and turned into a tincture with alcohol.
When a musk deer is alive and well, it probably uses this scent to attract potential mates—which reflects one reason why we may choose it in our perfumes. In both cases, a little goes a long way. Musk that isn’t diluted is overwhelmingly powerful and perhaps even unpleasant.
Today the musk deer is endangered, and thankfully that old process of obtaining musk is illegal. Long before anyone was concerned with the well-being of the musk deer, there was still want for a synthetic version, simply because the process of obtaining natural musk was so difficult. Musk was, and still is, one of the most expensive animal products in the world.
Now the perfume industry—Possets included—uses all synthetic musks. Even all-natural companies will include a disclosure to confess that their products must contain a synthetic musk ingredient for the well-being of the animals.
Synthetic musks have contributed plenty to the perfume world. They’re used in big, classic scents like Shalimar by Guerlain and plenty of smaller, boutique perfume lines. Musk serves very well as a strong, long-lasting base note, and the pungent addition of its scent tends to round out a perfumer’s composition nicely.
The production of synthetic musk has also lead to an expansion of the musk library. If you shop for raw ingredients for mixing perfume, or read the notes on already-made perfume products, you’ll find all sorts of different musks: dark musk, white musk, Nubian musk, Egyptian musk, Woody musk… the list goes on. On the one hand, the more musks available as ingredients, the more possible combinations. On the other hand, if ever there was a truly musk-scented synthetic musk, that scent is probably lost in the sea of musk variants. This leads to some confusion, too, when a scent is described as “musky” because it could mean a number of different things.
Humans have been using musk since at least 3500 B.C. It’s been used in rituals, as incense, as perfume, even as a breath-sweetening lozenge. The history of musk’s role in society and perfume is just as interesting as the tragic and peculiar source of its natural scent. (I, myself, would like to know more about who discovered musk way back in the day—and how. But so far it seems the discovery of the musk deer’s musk gland will remain a mystery.)
Musk was imported to different corners of the world from places like China and northern India. It was adored by Elizabethans, and was mentioned by poets and playwrights throughout the years.
In 1888 the first synthetic musk was developed. This was the early stage of synthetic scents, and the second half of the 1800s also brought a synthetic formulations for vanilla and violets.
In the 20th century, musk continued to be valued as a strong, long-lasting addition to many perfumes from the biggest perfume houses. It makes sense, then, that musk has an old-fashioned association for many people.
But about mid-way through the century, the intense, sexy scent of musk made a different type of association for itself. New, inexpensive scents came out using strong synthetic musk as their star note, and were marketed towards the younger generations emphasizing a sense of rebellion and sexual liberation. Musk became something akin to the scent of rebellion in the hippie generation, its sexual properties both intuitively in line with things like rock and roll, and also blatantly enforced as means for advertising.
For instance, Jovan Musk oil, which was created by an entrepreneur in Chicago in the early ’70s, was sold with a tagline that read, “It releases the animal instinct.” Like patchouli, musk was largely associated with hippies and head shops until the 1980s when musk began to find its way back into upscale perfume as well. It was as if either the hippies had grown up and needed a perfume reminiscent of their freer days, or as if the older generation wanted it to be their turn to go a little primal with their scents, but would only do so if they were sold from elegant cosmetic counters.
Either way, musk sales saw a major increase in the early 1980s. Since then, the scent has played a consistently relevant and intriguing role in some of the most desirable perfumes out there—including many by Possets.
by Katrina Eresman