I’m often asking people to sniff things and when I do, a common response is “it’s a bit musky”. This always strikes me as an unusual answer, mainly because many of these fragrances would not be classified as musks in the typical sense. Perhaps people see ‘musky’ as anything that is slightly funky, or perhaps it’s just anything that is difficult to describe and where musk seems like the safe descriptor. Whatever it is, this got me to thinking seriously about what musk really smells like and what it brings to a fragrance.
What I do know however, is that musk is a spectrum, one that ranges from laundry-like purity to animalic pornography. It’s a wide scope for sure and one that traverses a huge range of fragrances. In this post, which is the start of a new series entitled ‘Six Scents’, I take a look at six fragrances on the musk spectrum, moving from the cleanliness of a spin cycle to the shocking sin of a scent between the thighs. Buckle up, fragrance nerds, because this is going to be quite a ride!
Laundry musks have increased in popularity in the ’90s, ’00s and ’10s, due in part to the world’s desire to wash away the chemical remains of the 1980s, which was a decade full of toxic flowers, atomic aldehydes and feral fougères (many of which were fab, let’s be honest). As an antidote along came the laundry musk, a fresh, clean and starchy type of musk that gave the impression of freshly laundered white shirts. With the laundry musk there is no hint of body odour, of animal fur or of sex, no, instead it presents a pure blanket of cleanliness that adds diffusion and lift, much in the same way that a summer’s breeze billows through laundry drying on the line.
Francis Kurkdjian is the master of laundry musks and he has put them to exceptional use in his brand’s best seller: Aqua Universalis. This fragrance tumbles around in the drum with a capful of sparkling bergamot and a couple of tablets of laundry musk. It’s a weightless, shimmering citrus fragrance that is extended by its musky base, which allows it to have impressive diffusion and presence. The musks have a creamy texture, appearing on the skin like smooth brushes of white paint that envelop and elevate the other notes rather than diminish them. Aqua Universalis is the olfactory equivalent of a clean white t-shirt and it is an utter joy.
Aqua Universalis is available in 70ml and 200ml Eau de Toilette. Prices start at £110. In the UK it can be found at Les Senteurs, Selfridges and Liberty, amongst other retailers.
The sanitised end of the musk spectrum is also home to the steamy musks – those ingredients that do more than just make things appear clean, they give them the feel of something hot and pure. These are the musks that give the impression of jets of hot steam from an iron, or whirling clouds shooting up from the spout of a boiling kettle. These musks are cleaner than clean, they are sterile and hot – the deep clean of the fragrance world.
Hands down, the very best use of steamy musks in a fragrance is MUGLER’S Cologne. This cyber-green creation blends juicy fruits with a plastic, Selotape-like sheen and green, grass-like vetiver with a veritable hurricane of steamy shower musks. One can practically smell the condensation as it whooshes out of the bottle and onto the skin. Seriously, this is the most refreshing fragrance there is – it cuts through humidity like a knife through butter. What’s more, those musks have a subtle undercurrent of clean sweat on warm skin, which is more than just a little bit sexy. So, when the mercury rises, Cologne should be the only thing you reach for. It’s a hot shower in a bottle.
MUGLER Cologne is available in 100ml Eau de Toilette for £31. It can be found at most department stores and online at Mugler.co.uk, which also offers a 300ml splash size for £60.
Is there any musk smell as nostalgic as baby powder? It’s a scent that everybody knows, whether they came to it as a wee bairn or as a parent, desperate to stave off nappy rash from their baby’s bottom. The smell is pure comfort and it represents this, not only through softness, but also through the memories it conjures up: of new lives full of possibility. Unsurprisingly, baby powder has been utilised in numerous fragrances and most notably in Lorrenzo Villoressi’s Teint de Neige, but none have captured this childhood/parenthood scent so perfectly as Mizensir’s Musc Eternal.
Musc Eternal, like all of Mizensir’s fragrances, was composed by the great Alberto Morrillas (the man behind CK One and MUGLER Cologne). It is the purest, most finally milled baby powder ever, filled with sweet, rosy goodness and tons, and tons of powdery musk. What I love about this fragrance in particular is its balance. Where others amp up the sweetness to an uncomfortable and almost toasted level, Musc Eternal is much more measured, presenting roses that have been crumbled into a fine dust. It’s powder clapped between the hands – a cloud of musk and memory.
Musc Eternal is available in 100ml Eau de Parfum for £165. In the UK it can be found at Harrods.
MUGLER’S Over the Musk is my latest obsession. I literally have not stopped thinking about it since I first got my nose on it earlier this year. Seriously, for the last few days I’ve been walking around the house and exclaiming “oh that musk” every time a waft reaches my nose (much to my husband’s dismay, I add). It’s just so enveloping and wonderful. In terms of the musk spectrum, this sits squarely in the middle, being neither particularly clean nor filthy. It’s a soft and billowy take on musk that is distinctly floral, but it’s also so finely constructed it conjures up the image of meticulously pieced together couture, hence why it has earned it’s place in this guide as ‘The Couture Musk’.
Thierry Mugler’s fashion has come on a long way since the zoot suits and waspish waists of the 1990s. Now, the house, which from a fashion perspective is headed up by David Koma, is all about clean, sharp lines, pure fabrics and the collision of materials such as metal and silk. Over the Musk is this new spirit in fragrant form. It has a pure, tactile feel to it that is clean and simple in the way MUGLER pieces are, but at the same time it has a futurism to it that encompasses the spirit of the brand. I cannot think of a musk that smells like it. The fragrance is a loud, radiant musk which boasts ambretolide and ambrette seed to give it a velvety, animalic vibe, like the fur of a beautiful white deer, but it also showcases waxy white flowers and vanilla too. Over the Musk is a musk that I don’t think I will ever be able to get over. We’re bound for life.
Over the Musk is available in 80ml Eau de Parfum for £135. In the UK it can be found online at Mugler.co.uk and in store at Harrods.
Brace yourselves because it’s about to get a little bit sexy up in here. That’s right, folks, we’re heading towards the more, shall we say, x-rated musks – the musks that are verging on the pornographic and that have a penchant for the carnal, lustful and downright dirty. Like the overarching spectrum of musk we have been referring to in this post, the animalic musks could have their very own sub-spectrum, ranging from the mildly funky to the obscenely filthy. Think of the latter end of this wheel of filth as fifty shades of grey but with MORE sex. Anyway, we’re not quite there, so before we dip our toes in the sea of musk-based shenanigans, let’s take a look at something that is more flirtatious foreplay than full-on fornication.
Bruno Acampora’s Musc is well known as a dirty, subversive take on its titular note. It’s a musk that smells of warm, salty skin, evoking the idea of naked bodies and animal fur. To my nose it is utterly feline, embodying a comforting sweetness that is entirely reminiscent of cuddly cats. It also has a strong, mushroom-like facet that is cold and earthy, much like the smell of the spongy pads on the bottom of a cats paw. It feels intimate but not necessarily sexual – more cuddle than coitus, if you feel me. From top to bottom, Bruno Acampora’s Musc is a delight. It is sweat on skin and earth on fur, and it smells absolutely beautiful.
I had to stifle gleeful giggles the first time I tried Musc Gold, one third of Ermenegildo Zegna’s new gold trio (the others being Incense Gold and Amber Gold). It really is that disgraceful. But before we get into that, let’s talk about filthy musks. Way back in the day, when animal rights were not the concern of much of the world (as they absolutely should be), real musk was sourced from the glands of the male musk deer. They were, as one would expect, entirely more animalic, especially when mixed with other animal products such as civet, castoreum and hyraceum. Used mainly as a base material in many of the old classic florals, mainly to provide an undercurrent of filth, musk occasionally makes its way into a composition front and centre, creating a composition that is fatally funky in the very best way. Musk Gold is one such scent.
Musk Gold stinks. It’s an intense barrage of fecal musk, mixed with a rich blend of cumin, all supported by pongy leather and oud, which makes for a sweaty and masculine odour. It smells like it has been stored between the thighs for quite some time, if you catch my drift, and it’s glorious. Where so many fragrances shy away from being animalic, for fear of being unpleasant, Musk Gold is utterly fearless. It says I am man, hear me roar, and by the way, I haven’t washed under my arms for a few days. In these times, a strong portion of scents attempt to capture that heavy-hitting spice of the Middle East but Musk Gold is one of the few that actually has the balls to dare to be dirty. It’s utterly brilliant, even if it could do with a bar of soap…
Musk Gold is available in 125ml Eau de Toilette for £145. In the UK it can be found at Harvey Nichols
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Sample of Aqua Universalis via Maison Francis Kurkdjian. Sample of Musc Eternal via Mizensir. Sample of Over the Musk via MUGLER. Sample of Musc via Bruno Acampora. Sample of Musk Gold via Ermenegildo Zegna. Images are my own.