After reviewing Serge Lutens’ Muscs Koublaï Khan, I decided to explore perfumes with musk as the main attraction and started to read about real musk. Writing about CBMUSK on his website, perfumer Christopher Brosius of CB I Hate Perfume says: “True Tonkin Musk no longer exists in the contemporary world…. So this is my own interpretation of what I'd always imagined real musk to smell of. Whether it does or does not, I cannot know.”
Fortunately, Tonkin musk does exist because musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) still survive. Unfortunately, the musk they produce is obtained illegally by poachers and sold for use in traditional medicines and, to a lesser extent these days, in perfumery. China, Japan and Korea are major purchasers and users of musk.
Natural musk has been used in perfumery and medicines for thousands of years. The musk deer, a shy animal the size of a mid-sized dog, can be found in China, Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, India and Russia. Musk can only be obtained from the male musk deer (the musk gland is located near the musk deer’s lower abdomen). The musk gland is removed from the dead animal and dried to produce ‘musk grains.’ Between 12 and 20 musk deer must be killed to get one pound of musk “grains".
Musk deer were given protection in 1979 by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) but Michael Green, a musk deer expert, was quoted in a National Geographic news article published on 7 September 2004, "Poachers Target Musk Deer for Perfumes, Medicines", that real musk was still being used in perfumes in Japan and western Europe through the 1980s. In the same article, reporter John Pickrell stated that, according to TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) and World Wildlife Fund surveys, in Russia alone between 17,000-20,000 musk deer stags were being killed yearly to supply the illegal trade in musk. This figure does not include the young musk deer and female deer that were killed during the hunt for musk-bearing stags; taking into account the young and the female deer, the complete yearly death toll of musk deer in Russia could be as high as 60,000. As Asian demand for musk has grown, musk deer populations have plummeted in all countries where it is found. The musk deer faces extinction.
I applaud all chemists (and perfumers like Brosius) who “reinvented” musk and helped ease demand for authentic musk in perfumery. Their work is especially helpful in countries where poaching and smuggling of real musk is rife. Real musk is expensive, synthetic musk is not, so perfumers in countries where musk is available often choose the cheaper option.
CBMUSK starts off murky and musty with a faint whiff of the sewer (imagine standing downwind of an outhouse). This fecal opening does not last long and like many Brosius creations, CBMUSK takes on the feeling of a place, a scenario. I could personally name this scent Seaside Country Store: January.
Up until I was twelve years old, I often followed my grandfather’s eccentric brother on his daily round of errands. My great-uncle was soft spoken, kind to animals, and made preposterous, unfounded proclamations about people, places and things. These assertions, or aspersions, could not be easily refuted because my uncle had trouble hearing; he would calmly talk over any objections that were raised.
When Uncle ‘N’ introduced me to his friends he would say things like: “This is Kevin. He’s a very lazy child. He just sits around and never does a thing. Can you believe it…his grandmother mows the lawn at his house because he refuses to do it. She is 72…and has arthritis! It’s a wonder she hasn’t died cutting that grass!” As I would start to deny his statement, he would serenely talk about other matters and ignore me completely — making me seem desperate, pathetic and downright evil in my attempt to deny his claim, and in other words, call an old man a “liar.”
My uncle was always accompanied by a mean-as-hell Airedale terrier named Shaggy. ‘Shag’ would bite me if I tried to sit in the cab of my uncle’s ancient pick-up truck. In winter, Shaggy had a heat vent aimed at his hoary muzzle in the truck cab as I sat, peasant like, in the back of the truck, bouncing about, teeth chattering, face frozen by frigid wind and abraded by sand and dirt that blew up from the truck bed as we raced along the country roads.
Errands completed, the day ended at the old general store where, in cold weather, a group of elderly men would always be huddled around a pot bellied wood stove, running their mouths non-stop about everything from politics to the oyster harvest to the latest rounds of strokes and heart attacks that had befallen their peers. No matter the news discussed, boisterous laughter was the background noise.
When I smell CBMUSK that country store and its people come back to me vividly. I smell the waxed plank floors, the wood stove, the damp wool coats and caps of the men (damp from rain or fog or snow). I even smell Shaggy, snarling from the sidelines with a vanilla ice cream cone between his front paws. And I smell, more than anything else, tobacco: pipe tobacco, cigar tobacco, chewing tobacco; I smell stale tobacco aromas emanating from pomaded hair and old work clothing.
Brosius says: “This is a very rich scent that wants to be worn only in specific places.” By “places” I don’t know if he means parts of the body (neck/chest) or localities (“at home”, “outside”). I would only wear CBMUSK in cool weather in an outdoor or airy setting, with a tiny dab behind each knee (CBMUSK smells best from afar).
Wearing CBMUSK was an experience. I really appreciate scents that trigger the mind and emotions. Most fragrances I smell these days bore me and leave me unmoved. The day I wore CBMUSK I was reacquainted with a place, and I even got teary-eyed thinking about Shaggy.
CBMUSK is $75 for 15 ml of perfume oil. 2 ml samples are available for $15. For buying information, see the listing for CB I Hate Perfume under Perfume Houses.
Note: image of Musk Deer (Moschus spp.) via www.fao.org. Copyright, FAO, used with permission.
Note from the author: I hope perfume companies who helped put musk deer in danger of extinction have contributed substantially to organizations that are now striving to save them. Instead of a few new bottles of perfume, I wrote a check to a wildlife organization that helps protect the musk deer and its habitat. In India, the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary was established to protect and preserve musk deer; also guarded in the sanctuary is another animal used (and abused) by perfume interests, the civet cat.
Hey Kevin –
Great review – wonderfully written. I agree that CBMusk, as much as I love it's blatent originality, is a special scent and should be worn discreetly. About 2 months ago, I decided to slather myself in CBMusk before an “artsy-fartsy” performance event in a tiny loft downtown L.A. Well, not only did I stink up the whole place, but after the performance, everyone wanted to know what I had “bar-b-qued” for dinner!!! Regardless, CBMusk remains one of my favorites…..even if I just wear it alone, for myself.
Marko: that is hilarious…! I used to wear an amber-spice cream perfume from India every now and again and remember being asked once after pouring it on: “Did you have a submarine sandwich for lunch?” Another time: “Did someone just BURP in here?” I stopped wearing the scent as you can imagine. K
LMAO. What a priceless story about your great-uncle and Shaggy.
I adore CB Musk. My skin seems to minimize the skank notes in this one, so that it's really quite wearable. It's also been quite beautiful as a layering scent.
I share your hope that perfume companies who have used real musk in the past are now contributing to help save the musk deer.
If you would like to know more about the history and use of animal musks in perfumery, here is someone who has extensive knowledge of their use, and the climate of today.
Thank you for sharing this quaint and enjoyable memory.
…and quite possibly helping me to give up a lemming
My skin seems to make all raunchy musk accords explode. (It's a miracle I'm such a huge dog lover…I was bitten so many times by Shaggy, Sno-Ball and other of my uncle's dogs! Even his Canada geese would attack me! HA! K
ZZ: thank you, K
MM: Thank you, and sorry to steer you away from a lemming. Buy a TINY sample and still give it a try, K
Nice review! On me CBMusk smells orange and creamy. Weird. And I run screaming from MKK (I get old socks and underpants or worse from that one).
HoS: ORANGE and CREAMY!? I can only assume your bottle was mislabeled! HA! K
I had a chance to smell at natural musk in Moscow, in the perfume museum of Novaya Zarya, where they installed a perfumer's organ with all natural ingredients incl. ambergris, musk and a lot of others.
The natural musk smells of cleanness and sweetness, it is not a smell that someone can describe as animalistic. Among synthetic materials there some that are quite similar to the real musk taken apart from other ingredients. The beauty and uniqueness of the real musk can be seen only in compositions where it develops a very warm sensual feeling.
This one company, Novaya Zarya, developed a scent for members of the government, which is not sold in stores but can be only obtained as a gift from the Moscow government. It contains real musk and smells very well of course.
I have already tried to purchase some natural material, but it's rather to difficult.
I also sniffed at CBMusk, which is rather a fantasy than a musk interpretation. That is why I could not really appreciate it.
What synthetic musk compositions have you smelled that duplicate the real musk you got the chance to sniff?
I must say that the wide-scale slaughter of musk deer in Russia is appalling to me; I'm surprised even a perfume museum would display the real thing. (But I don't know how long real musk lasts and remains viable…whether the museum is displaying “old” stock.) Of course buying and selling real musk is illegal in many countries.
I would not speak of a “wide-scale slaughter of musk deer in Russia”. The real danger for musk deer comes from Chinese hunters that illegally kill Russian deer and sell the material for use in traditional Chinese medicines. As I mentioned earlier, it turned to be rather difficult to get the real musk when I checked all the sources available as well as hunting societies. I am sure that the real musk lasts for decades and the stock in the museum is not a new one. Musk ketone as a pure substance, for example, smells quite similar to the real musk but its development in compositions is different.
I really like this one, but it doesn't smell what I think of as “musk”- i get some berries in it- blackberries to be exact. That heavy unctuous sweetness of blackberries picked in high summer from their shady brambles.
MKK I think of as more like a traditional musk, even though on me it doesn't come across as heavy of fecal. thank goodness..
Certainly China fuels the killing of musk deer for medicinal use within its own borders but I'd never heard that Chinese hunters actually entered Russian territory to kill the deer themselves — (if that's what you meant). The person I spoke with at the U.N. while I was writing this article did say that officially Russia, China, etc., are against the killing of musk deer, but are unable to properly police the situation due to the isolated areas the deer live and localized 'circumstances' where officials are guilty of bribery or “looking the other way” as deer are trapped and killed. A sad situation. Thanks for all your comments…I'll try to get a sniff of musk ketone. K
Hi Tom…when the weather cools a bit I'll retry this and see if I can detect the blackberry you noticed…I certainly got a good blast of sweetness at one point in the development but did't associate it with fruit but with an old hair pomade that certainly had some vanilla in it …but a bit of fruit in this, esp. a dark berry, would be nice. Maybe I'll try CBMUSK with some of Voluspa's Santiago Huckleberry spray. K
Information on hunters from China that are illegally crossing the border and hunting in Russian forests can be found quite often. And of course you can not explain to an animal that borders are not to be crossed. I also would like to mention that at the turn of centuries there were two varieties of musk known – Chinese and Siberian. The well known Russian perfumer Henry Brocard moved to France before the revolution. He used to include Siberian musk into his compositions. When he was in France and had no source for Siberian musk he had to replace it with several other ingredients incl. ambergris and Chinese musk to restore the original impact.
This one is so tonka bean heavy on me, that it's nearly obscene to refer to it as “Musk.” Of course, anything even remotely vanillic does seem to have an odd way of clinging to me like a life raft, so perhaps my own experience is unique. It's also like the closest I've gotten to Esteban's Teck & Tonka candle in fragrance form that I've ever found, which might sound like a backhanded compliment but it's not! It's not really strong on me, either, just VERY full of character.
… And thanks for the discussion on the musk deer. I think it's one that still needs to be brought up from time to time.
K: yes, I can smell the tonka bean/vanilla but it is so muted on me…this one CAN be called MUSK without apology on my skin! Either I'm the perfect pH for musk or the person who should never wear musk! HA! K
Really beautifully written, Kevin. It was such a joy to read this! Thank you,
D: thank YOU, K
Wow, Kevin, you are a great writer. I’m at university here in Australia studying writing and literature, and the number of people who try to do exactly what you have done–blend vivid descriptions of memories with a commentary on whatever artform they’re pursuing–and fail miserably, is just depressing. So seriously (as we’d say) mad props to you, because you would smash most writers featured in (apparently) respected print publications around here.
nwatts88: thanks so much…very kind of you to write!
Nothing ever can replace the scent of real animal musk, i was blessed to experience the smell of real musk during the early 80s. If as humans we have conquered the sea,air,space and moon, we can’t we have a farm just as we have poultry for birds that produce the musk deer for use in perfumery.
CB musk is foul. It has no hint of the smell of musk but maybe the musk from a person’s unclean body. I put some on and not only washed it off but used astringent becase it smelled like it could give you a serious disease.