The Laboratory Effect:
How Modern Perfumery Has Shaped Our Sense of Smell
Part II, Deer Musk–Fixative or Perfume?
“I love the sandalwood, but I can’t smell the musk” is a response that has become almost predictable when I mail someone a sandalwood musk infusion. Why is that? And what does it suggest? What is musk in the context of sandalwood and altogether as a rare and precious aromatic? How is one to understand the function and aromatic properties of musk in the context of perfume and perfumery?
These are important questions. In this post, I will do my best to give a clear sense of what deer musk is as an aromatic and how it functions.
First and foremost, I feel it is important to understand the difference between “musk” as a modern perfumery category and the genuine aromatic itself. In modern perfumery, “musk” is used as more of a categorical description than a reference to a single aromatic compound. While it is true that the chemical imitation of musk, known as “muscone” (or “white musk”) is used frequently in modern perfumery, “musk” is used more commonly as a form of marketing, and often has nothing to do even with “muscone”. More significantly, “musk” is a category of perfumes that does not offer even a slight approximation of the true aromatic, much as Creed’s Royal Oud is to any pure Oud oil.
The problem is that due to modern perfumery’s bastardization of the aromatic and everything associated with it, people have developed a very inaccurate sense of the true musk aroma. What we think of as “musky” could not be farther from the real aroma of deer musk. And this is where I see the main disconnect occurring.
So what is deer musk? Deer musk is the pheromonal offering of the musk deer, a now seriously endangered species. In order to attract females for mating, the musk deer drops aromatic black granules from its musk pod onto the ground. This is also a way of marking territory. This is what we know as “musk grains”. When these black grains are collected and macerated in sandalwood or tinctured in alcohol, then we have deer musk in a useable form.
Before I get into the different forms in which the grains can be utilized, I want to emphasize that the function of deer musk as an aromatic is that of a fixative.
In perfumery, a fixative is an aromatic (often more than one) that functions to slow down the evaporation rate of the aromatic molecules within a perfume. Different aromatics will evaporate from the skin at different rates–and knowledge of each aromatic’s evaporation rate is how a good perfumer is able to construct a perfume from base notes to heart notes to top notes. It is the top notes of a perfume that are the first to emerge. You notice the top notes immediately–but not for too long. Soon the top notes of a perfume evaporate, leaving you with the heart and base notes. Ultimately, it is the base notes that will see you through, and this is why many are so keen to evaluate a perfume once it has entered its “dry down” phase. Ultimately, an artistically crafted perfume will show more of an integration of the three, so you do not abruptly lose the top and the middle only to be left with the base notes. There should be a complexity that ties it all together and sees it through, that renders a unique fragrance. Rather than disappear, the notes should melt into one another, and allow themselves to be carried by the base notes. And this is where fixatives come into play.
In Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, Steffen Arctander defines a fixative as, “a material which slows down the rate of evaporation of the more volatile materials in a perfume composition”. Arctander also gives four categories of fixatives:
1. True fixatives: “Materials which retard the evaporation of the other components of the perfume by distinct physical effect. Their effect is that of an adsorption due to the high-molecular structure of the fixative. A typical example of a natural fixative in this group is benzoin”.
2. Arbitrary fixatives: “These are odorous substances which lend a particular note to the perfume throughout all stages of evaporation. But they do not significantly influence the evaporation of other perfume materials in the composition. A typical example of a natural arbitrary fixative is oakmoss”.
3. Exalting fixatives: “These materials act as ‘odor carriers’ and often act also as syngergists by improving, fortifying or transporting the vapors of the other perfume materials in the composition. The exalting fixatives may also lend a highly appreciated ‘wearability’ to a perfume, a combination of diffusive effect and retention of the full fragrance of the perfume, slowly exhaled from the human skin to which it has been applied. Although the effect of these fixatives may be considered a physical one, it is inconceivable that the effect is due to an increase in the boiling point of the total perfume composition. The effect of these fixatives is often obtained through the addition of mere traces with respect to quantity. Typical exalting fixatives are musk and civet”. To this list, I would add ambergris, castoreum, and hyraceum.
The fourth category is not significant for the purposes of this discussions, so I am omitting it. A discussion and lesson on fixatives is important if one intends to understand musk and how it works. Some may be surprised to learn that musk is used in a perfume without truly lending its aroma to the composition, as an arbitrary fixative such as oakmoss would. This is due to the impression that modern perfumery has given of the “musk” aroma.
And this is why it is difficult to wear musk as a perfume in and of itself. One may attempt to wear ambergris as a perfume, but it is very difficult to do so, because its usefulness is primarily in a perfume. As an aromatic, its function is much more esoteric. As I stated in the beginning of this article, the most common response I receive from individuals who try a sandalwood musk maceration is that they cannot smell the musk. This is because what they are looking for is something that has been imprinted on them by modern perfumery, whether they realize it or not. People are looking for a strong, overpowering, intensely projecting aroma. But when they smell musk grains that have been infusing in sandalwood for years, they smell something very different and can barely identify the musk at all. They feel as if all they are smelling is sandalwood, which they find to be unusually deep. This is because, essentially, one is smelling infused sandalwood. Sandalwood infusions are a perfect example of musk’s function and effect. The musk reveals itself only in interaction with another aromatic. This is when it springs to fragrant life. It exalts the sandalwood, giving it a depth and lift that was not previously perceivable. Likewise, sandalwood absorbs the aroma of the musk grains into itself, making the two a perfect marriage.
Musk is an elusive aroma. It has subtleties and complexities. One must develop a nose for it. My suggestion is that individuals who are interested in smelling deer musk should have a sample of plain sandalwood of the same type as used in their sandalwood musk maceration. Smell the musk infused sandalwood and then smell the plain sandalwood. Go back and forth until you can sensually identify the musk. You should be able to identify the changes that have occurred to the infused sandalwood, but moreso, you should be able to very clearly identify the musk.
In a sandalwood infusion, the musk aroma is evident as a kind of top note that sits on the recognizable sandalwood aroma. Rather than adding an intense odor of its own, it lends an incredible texture to the fragrance that is at once sharp and soothing. It creates an incredible “lift”. With more careful exploration, one will find that the musk has completely transformed the sandalwood, rendering it a new aromatic altogether. Yes, the sandalwood is certainly recognizable, but it has come a long way from its original state. And this alchemical process exemplifies the use of musk (and other exalting fixatives) in a natural perfume. It is alchemy.
Ensar Oud’s Borneo Zen was a very popular release, and for many, was an introduction to deer musk. But when I smell Borneo Zen, I am not smelling musk. I am smelling a perfume as a whole. I could just as easily say, “I don’t smell the musk, but I love the perfume”. What then should I make of Ensar’s description of the perfume when he states that he used a significant quantity of a sandalwood musk infusion in crafting the perfume? Was it just a weak infusion, or did he just use too little? The answer to these questions is that Borneo Zen is perfect as it is. What I notice about Borneo Zen is that there is an incredible pull, a magical liveliness to the perfume. When I wear it, the aroma vibrates. The notes of rose and jasmine are mysteriously tied together in an aromatic dance, exalted beyond the average floral blend. The perfume itself has a wonderful texture that is addicting, that keeps me going back, calling me to itself. You can’t quite describe it. It is similar to smelling Oud for the first time. And this effect is due entirely to the musk in Borneo Zen. It would be a worthy experiment to replicate Borneo Zen as exactly as possible but with sandalwood rather than sandalwood musk.
As a perfume, it does not last all day on your skin. In fact, one could apply multiple wearings of the perfume throughout the day. As for sillage, it certainly does not project like a modern perfume, nor would I want it to. And I do not believe that someone who smells it on you is going to identify that you are wearing “musk”–certainly not by their standards.
Borneo Zen is simply a good example. It illustrates what musk is about and how it truly functions as a fixative. To truly enjoy musk, one must erase all expectations and be open to knowing it for the first time. Let your nose inform you. Eventually, you will “know” the musk aroma, and will find satisfaction in its mysticism–even if it does not satisfy the common expectations for sillage. Musk is a potent aroma, but that does not mean it has insane projection. It is much softer than people think. Its potency is what qualifies it as a fixative–but “potency” does not equate “projection”. Rather, it has an aroma that does not readily dissipate. One often hears stories of people who used to wear perfumes with real musk, and how the smell of musk still lingers in their rooms and so forth.
With all of that said, I am often asked what the best way is to wear musk or to use musk grains, and what ratios to use. And these are good questions. But I hope that it is clear why it is difficult to wear musk as a perfume in and of itself. If one desires to do so, then the expectations for its performance as an aromatic must be entirely re-examined.
In natural perfumery, musk is most often used in the form of an alcohol tincture, usually at 3% strength, although one may also use a 5-6% strength. For an alcohol tincture, one should find an organic perfumer’s alcohol that is non-denatured. But I prefer to soak the grains in sandalwood.
I am often asked if making a stronger infusion will make the musk project more, but this is a pitfall to be avoided. It is associated with a misunderstanding of what musk truly is. As Arctander so eloquently noted, “mere traces with respect to quantity” gives significant effect. The rule of thumb amongst natural perfumers is that if you can smell it in your perfume, then you’ve used too much! So really, a 3% strength is sufficient. The idea of the animal fixatives is not to lend their own aroma into the perfume. It is to exalt and fix the odors in the composition. Some may find they want to intensify the effect of the musk in their composition, and so a 5% or 6% tincture could be used. There is nothing wrong in using a higher strength, but it should be known that a higher strength will not give the unnaturally potent projection of “muscone” or other synthetic aromatic compounds.
Most of the inquiries I receive about musk stem from both a curiosity about it and a desire to wear it as a perfume. But this is inherently problematic, since musk is primarily a fixative rather than something that can be worn on its own. Its greatness is in its interaction with other aromatics. But, for those who wish to wear it as a perfume, I suggest wearing a sandalwood infusion. The alcohol tincture only has its purposes in a perfume. I do not suggest trying to wear it by itself as a perfume. A sandalwood infusion is my preferred method to wear musk on its own and also to use in a perfume. Some may feel that the sandalwood aroma interferes with their desire to only smell the musk. And in some sense, it is true that a tincture will allow for a clearer scent, since there is no other aromatic interacting with the musk. But I find the alcohol lends a texture that is undesirable, and to me it is too much of an interference. I prefer the musk when it has already come alive in the sandalwood by means of interaction and alchemy. However, if you just want to smell musk, then simply keep the grains and smell them whenever you want. Do not infuse them in anything. By themselves, the grains offer the most potent and direct aroma–the only limitation being that you cannot wear them!
To make a sandalwood maceration, one should use a ratio of 1g musk grains : 9ml sandalwood. For higher strength, this can be doubled to 3g musk grains : 9ml sandalwood. I presently have 4g of musk grains steeping in 30ml of Mysore sandalwood. One can use any sandalwood they like, but I would recommend vintage Mysore as the best possible choice, with santalum album from Sri Lanka as a second choice, and Hawaiian Sandalwood as a third choice. There are some Indonesian sandalwoods that have a depth that is uncharacteristic of most Indonesian sandalwood, which would make them a candidate. But, in general, Australian and Indonesian sandalwoods are too light for my liking in the case of a musk maceration. That is my personal preference and recommendation. The grains can steep for up to 5 years, upon which the aroma from the grains has most typically been fully absorbed by the sandalwood. But one will start to notice changes around 6mos-1 year. At 2-3 years, one has a very good maceration for use in perfumery. 5 years is best. One should note that the sandalwood will begin to turn a deep orange as time goes on, as per the pictures.
Musk is one of the greatest aromas, and my favorite–second only to Oud oil. But as I’ve attempted to explain, it is very different from Oud oil and modern “musk” perfumes. Oud oil is a unique aromatic in that it can be worn as a perfume in and of itself. Musk is a powerful and tantalizing aroma that has a powerful effect, pulsating with life-energy. In my opinion, its enjoyment is in perfumes more than by itself. But a high quality maceration is an excellent way to know and experience musk in its fullness.
I hope this article has been informative for those curious about deer musk and those who already have some in their hands and are looking for ways to explore and wear it. Similar to Oud oil, there is a significant amount of education required to fully appreciate musk. I also want to say that I believe that people who are unsatisfied with deer musk will find the diffusive power and animalic musky potency they are after in civet. In many ways, civet is more akin to people’s impression of musk than deer musk is. Civet is also a fixative, but it offers more diffusiveness and a pure pungent aroma that people will readily identify as “musk”.
Deer musk–fixative or perfume? This is something for everyone to consider.