Musk animals and plants

The Latin (originally Greek) word moschus and its derivatives in the name of an animal mostly refer to the strong smell, and often are translated as musky.

The word Moschus on the first place of a Latin name refers to a musk deer and indicates the genus of the species.

On the second place of a Latin name of other species the derivatives of the word moschus (like moschatus, moschata, moschatellina) refer to other (than musk deer) species possessing a strong smell and often related to musk..

Next to the Musk deer there are also other species called moschata or musky. They are:
Among animals: Aromia moschata – musk beetle; Cairina moschata – muscovy duck; Hypsiprymnodon moschatus musky rat-cangaroo; Eledone moschata – musk octopus; Sternotherus moschatus – musk turtle; Desmana moschata – Russian desman; Ovibоs moschatus - muskox.
There is also Chrysolampus moschitus, but I can’t find any information on what animal it might be. Probably it’s a musk bird. Nosotragus moschatus – this beast I couldn’t find also.
Among musky plants there are: Abelmoschus moschatus – ambrette seed; Fragaria moschata – musk strawberry; Adóxa moschatellína - Moschatel; Achillea moschata – Musk milfoil; Malva moschata – musk-mallow, Mimulus moschatus – musk-flower.
There is also a musky fungus - Fusarium moschatum.

Not all “musk” animals or plants called “moschata” are used to obtain musk. For example, no musk is obtained from the muskox. From other side there are also animals, which Latin name doesn’t refer to a musk animal, like Paleosuchus palpebrosus or Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman. This musky caiman is used to obtain musk. Or the muskrat Ondatra zibethicus.

Tonkin (or Tonqine) musk from the Tonkin musk deer is still the superior in quality and is preferred to other musk sorts.


The reference for musk - natural musk

Image: Musk deer from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musk)

Russian version - click here

As Octavian writes on his blog there are four types of musk – a natural musk obtained from the musk deer, natural musks from other animals and plants, synthetic musk molecules and musk fragrances. Each group can represent a certain musk reference with wide variations of standards within the group.

Natural musk – was one of the most used ingredients in perfumery. Arctander says that it’s not only a good fixative, but it cal lift and give life to almost any well balanced perfume. The importance of natural musk in perfumery can be seen in Poucher’s “Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps” manual where he shares formulae for single floral accords like rose, lilac, violet, jasmine, etc. For each soliflore accord he suggests a perfume that can be made from the floral accord by adding of some natural essential oils and absolutes, often ambergris tincture and almost always a musk tincture. It’s as if the formula of rounded floral perfume was = floral accord (or a combination) + corresponding naturals + ambergris (or it can be another animal component or orris) + musk. The last one is almost obligatory for any perfume as it comes back almost in each perfume formula in this book.

Musk is obtained from the male musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) and sometimes from other Moschus species or other animals like muskrat. It’s a secretion of an internal pouch in the abdomen. Although it’s possible to collect the pouch without killing the deer, it has been a common practice to kill the animal. About 70 000 male musk deers were killed annually to produce about 500 – 1500 kg of Musk. According to another source you need to kill 30 – 50 animals to produce 1 kg of Musk. And the demand for this product was growing despite the price that was twice its weight in gold. So in 1979 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and national laws protected the musk deer. High price, laws and regulations significantly restricted the use of natural musk in perfumery – you can’t find it anymore in perfumes. And many modern perfumers even don’t know what does natural musk smells like.

After extraction from the deer the musk pod was dried (to let its content to form the so called musk grains) and sold. Musk grains were used to prepare either musk tincture or musk absolute (via musk resinoid). The best quality was the Tonkin musk (obtained from Moschus tonquinensis), a musk deer species from China, Tonkin (an area corresponding with modern northernmost part of Vietnam) and Tibet. The smell of musk grains is referred as sweet, very persistent, animal-like and amin-like.

It’s very difficult nowadays to smell the real natural musk and use it as a reference. It’s still can be found in many (of not almost any) vintage perfumes. I have a sample of Musk Rose perfume made by a fellow perfumer who used natural musk in it. Of course, it’s difficult to distract a single (and unknown) component from a well balanced perfume, but I guess I have an idea what natural musk smells like and what it does in perfume. I guess it’s a part making me think about Musk Rose as a vintage perfume (although it’s not). I guess it musk gives a kind of depth, intensity and brightness to the natural rose accord making it warm, sweet and dark. It’s really painful for me to understand that I either should give up an idea of using such a beautiful raw material in perfumery or to accept the high price, problems with regulations and laws as well as moral dilemma and conscience-stricken of killed animals. Well, I guess I’ll try to follow the idea of Maurice Roucel in his Musk Ravageur who tried to reconstruct the wildness of natural musk from synthetic components.


Musc Ravageur

Image from - Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Musk is a very famous and broadly used ingredient in perfumery. Natural musk combines warm, sweet, animalic and ammoniacal aspects and does not only enriches the perfume composition, but also gives it more affinity with human skin and fixates the fragrance. It’s not used in perfumery anymore substituted by synthetic analogues. Unfortunately they don’t poses all the nuances of natural musk. Stripped off warm animalic and ammoniacal notes synthetic musk is too clean and its sweetness seems to be the only aspect left.

But Maurice Roucel succeeded to unleash the beast and to recreate the fragrance that shows the true character of the real natural musk without using any of it. Chandler Burr reveals the secret in his review. A transparent sweetness of synthetic musk base was fed with warm and animalic notes of synthetic castoreum and dirtied with some filthy animalic and ammoniacal aspects of synthetic civet. Et voila – a natural musk effect and no animal is hurt. But when you create a beast you should think about taming it. But what can balance the dark nasty devastating monster? Of course it should be something white, soft, sweet and kind like Mother Goose… or Vanilla (translated into perfumerian language). Musk and vanilla strengthened with spices like cinnamon and topped with the citrus notes of bergamot and tangerine – that’s the core of Musc Ravageur.

Luca Turin in his guide doesn’t show much enthusiasm about the wild musk creation of Maurice Roucel. He gives it 3 stars and calls it a “hippie musk”. Luca compares the fragrance with Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens. And the dry down of Musc Ravageur reminds Luca the dry down of Envy for man (Gucci). It’s funny to notice that original version of Envy (the one pour femme) is also created by Maurice Roucel in 1997. Well, to me Musc Ravageur indeed shares similar aspects with Ambre Sultan, but is more animalic.

Another interesting comparison is between Musc Ravageur and Shalimar by Guerlain. Well – both fragrances use noticeable doses of vanilla in combination with animal notes, amber and spices. They share similarities, but they are different. But if you like one of them you may like to try another as well. Unlike Shalimar Musc Ravageur doesn’t have any flowers in it – no floral heart at all (as said in the description of this scent). But is it entirely true? Maurice Roucel seems to use Magnolia as a signature scent for the most creations. I don’t recognize magnolia in Musc Ravageur, but I smell an interesting transparent note there. It seems to be an extension of the citrus note – fresh, slightly fruity and floral. It might be hedione and it is the only floral aspect I can find here – like frozen white flower petals.

There are also similarities between Musc Ravageur and Oud 27 (Le Labo). And if you like to try a clean version of transparent sweet musks washed and stripped of all filth and decorated with flowers you might like another creation of Maurice Roucel – Rochas for Man in a very suggestive bottle.

On my skin this fragrance begins with a funny cacophony of all notes playing at once dominated by animalic and ammoniac civet – it’s like the sounds of orchestra warming up just before the theatre performance. But as soon as alcohol evaporates the fragrance finds the balance on my skin. Warm, deep and sweet base of musk and vanilla is present from the beginning through the whole fragrance transforming into the amber. Citruses here are rather cold and frosty (but not crispy) than warm and sunny. The contrast between cold and fresh, but sweet and fruity citrus and warm sweet and deep base of amber, vanilla and musk is the main theme of this perfume. Sometimes I smell a note of almond that reminds me of Louve (Serge Lutens) and later I smell that soft transparent floral note coming from citrus. Spices are present, but they are rather supporters than the main actors. Silage of Musc Ravageur is moderate. I used two sprays on my body and one on my wrists and I couldn’t smell this fragrance all the time (unlike Ambre Sultan, for example). After 4-6 hours it was almost gone and I could only smell it only after putting my nose very close to the skin and warming it with my breath.

To me it’s a wonderful fragrance for the cold time of the year. The flowers are gone (and you can’t find them in the fragrance either), the air is cold and frosty like the citrus part of Musc Ravageur. But you are wearing warm jack, a scarf and gloves made of the warm ambery base. I guess I’ll put this scent together with my other Amber scents as the most animalic amber and use it when I need to use less sweet and a bit nasty amber that doesn’t give too much silage, but still warms my body and soul.