Monday, October 4, 2010

Mystery of Musk Perfumes

Craving, Perfumes by Nature (Ambrosia Jones)

Dionysus, Lord’s Jester (Adam Gottschalk)

Drifting Sparks, Artemisia Natural Perfume (Lisa Fong)

Eau Natural, DSH Perfumes (Dawn Spenser Hurwitz)

Graines de Paradis, Sharini Parfums Naturels (Nicolas Jennings)

Kewdra, Anya’s Garden (Anya McCoy)

Musk Verdigris, BellyFlowers Perfume (Elise Pearlstine)

Sensual Embrace, JoAnne Bassett (JoAnne Bassett)

Tallulah B, A Wing and a Prayer Perfumes (Jane Cate)

Temple of Musk, Strange Invisible Perfumes (Alexandra Balahoutis)

This is a rogue review of the perfume compositions that were submitted to the Mystery of Musk competition in July 2010 and was done in collaboration with Paul Kiler (the “Real” reviewer) who allowed me to crash the party. We decided to look at 10 perfumes and comparatively evaluate how each approached the perfumer’s interpretation of musk. Since we no longer have real musk as a reference point, all perfumes attesting to muskiness had to be creative interpretations stemming from the imaginations of the perfumers themselves. Adding complexity to this issue was the wearers own pre-conceived notion of what a musk should smell like. So what pops up when one thinks of musk? Jovan? Patchouli-donning flower children smoking musky pot? Men’s underarm deodorant that’s fresh but sexy? It turns out the interpretations offered by the perfumers were much more varied and sophisticated than the one-liners we have grown to expect.

Let’s begin with Graines de Paradis since the philosophy behind the perfume tugged at my heartstrings with stories of hand-picked broom blossoms authentically and painstakingly enfleuraged in organic unguents and charmed into existance. Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous floral and the more I work with naturals, the more I realize how difficult it is to create a floral composition that maintains its structure without succumbing to a base or getting beaten up by top notes. And yet this perfume is long lasting even if its sillage grows faint. Although I’m sure Nicolas Jennings invested countless hours creating this scent for the project, I can’t help but think that many of the accords were worked out previously. This perfume is just too perfect to have been created within the timeframe of the competition which is a legitimate approach. But where was the musk hiding? After having enjoyed the pure and perfect scent of gardenia, jasmine, tiare and other flowers, perhaps I forgot about it or just wasn’t able to peel away the floral layers to uncover a musk, just a rooty base. I could smell the Paradis but not the Graines (de musc).

Craving, on the other hand, demonstrated the perfumer’s strong understanding of materials to arrive at a scent that was able to evoke coffee without having any in it. It was certainly one of the more unusual submissions, bucking convention and flirting with the potentially hazardous terrain of creating a heretofore unbeknownst category; gourmand musk. Ambrosia Jones has created a whole new definition for musk, one that involves our craving for sensuous food. I’m all for this kind of endeavor. In fact, I was hoping something like this would happen. Since few of us have ever smelled musk grains, why not allow ourselves the freedom to explore the issue. I was able to learn a lot about Ambrosia by simply smelling her perfume. She is a wild child, older and wiser now, perhaps with grown children, or maybe even grandchildren, but still seeing the world as a garden of earthly delights through which she can romp with all her senses. Her name “Ambrosia” sums it up. While I was left wanting to smell musk in Graines de Paradis, I was not disappointed by its absence in Craving. In fact, the implied musk in her perfume became all the more satisfying.

So if Craving implied musk, which perfume stated it? The hands down answer would have to be Dionysus, the most unabashedly musky, fecal/feral interpretation of the bunch. I’m not sure Dionysus is the right name for this rutty scent one would rather attribute to the god Pan . . . or to a werewolf! To my mind, Dionysus was more of a dissipated sophisticate who originated partially from peasant stock (his father was Zeus, his mother a mortal), not a lewd he-goat. Frankly, I’m scared to try it on. Maybe I could sneak up on my husband, spray some on him and then suffer the conjugal consequences . . .

Another clear statement of musk came from Dawn Spenser Hurwitz whose elegant ambrette soliflore, Eau Natural, captured my imagination. Her perfume evolved from a simple statement about botanical musk to a warm and rich scent exploration replete with pepper and gourmand honey notes. The fact that she was the only perfumer to restrict her aromatic palette to the notes listed in the competition brief while creating an incredible perfume is a testament to the clarity of her intentions. Eau Natural really does enhance the natural scent of skin in the buff or as the French would say “au naturel”.

I’m a huge fan of SIPerfumes’s Musc Botanique, but was surprised when I experienced Temple of Musk. Instead of the light, sheer sweetness of ambrette I was greeted by a discordant and somewhat camphorous opening that segued to an herbal accord. I was also mystified by the name, because the mandarin, blackcurrant and myrtle notes did not fit my concept of “Temple”, that of incense and mystery. Perhaps Ms. Balahoutis was trying to arrive at a cool herbal scent that could calm the body as the “Temple” of the soul? And then I thought this could be the start of a very interesting perfume. Temple of Musk certainly highlights the difficulty of the proposed project: to create a complete perfume in such a short period of time. I wish Ms. Balahoutis would pick up the gauntlet and complete her exploration so that she could better define her concept of Temple of which Musc Botanique is the quintessential Dionysian version. Perhaps Temple of Musk could become its Appolonian counterpart.

Speaking of Dionysian revelry . . . which era captured that spirit in our recent history? The sixties, of course! And the perfume that best defined that feeling would have to be Kewdra. I loved the clever play on words, a cross between Kewra, a heady Indian Attar made from Pandanus flowers and Kudra, the curvy Indian heroine in Tom Robbins Jitterbug Perfume who stays eternally young through her Kama Sutra practice and distillation of beet flowers. Kewdra comes on strong and stays strong seemingly for ever. The “great and powerful Oz” (Paul Kiler) declared that it had lasted a week on his scent strip! Kewdra is riotous and bawdy. You have to love Kewra in order to appreciate it as pandanus likes to take over the party. This could be a woman’s answer to Viagra!

Sensual Embrace, on the other hand reminded me of a classic perfume someone like Stevie Nicks would have worn in the seventies dressed in her vintage inspired lace outfits and soft full curls (listen to “Gypsy” or “Leather and Lace” when you wear this perfume). I’m reminded of the antique shops I used to rummage for Victorian blousons and petticoats. By the late 70’s amber and patchouli were blended with antique rose for a more classic take on sensuality. Now I understand why JoAnne Bassett decided to call her perfume Sensual Embrace. Unlike the raw sexuality of the 60’s, her interpretation of musk is all about sensuality.

Musk Verdigris, Drifting Sparks and Talullah B all share the bond of soft freshness and femininity. Drifting Sparks being the sweetest of the three, Verdigris the greenest and Talullah B the most watery. All three are balanced and expertly blended so that no note dominates but rather the whole creates a scent impression of soft, fresh musk. However, soft, fresh musk has become somewhat synonymous with deodorant in our contemporary culture, particularly Mum roll-on, a classic scent I happen to adore. While we’re on the topic of armpits, isn’t that exactly where we expect to smell our own funky human odors? So why not openly explore this dimension through perfume? I propose taking deodorants out of the closet, so to speak, to examine their potential. What I like about Mum is that it doesn’t simply mask body odor, but creates a veil between the scent of the wearer and the image of a feminine ideal. These three perfumes accomplish this while reminding us of the Three Graces; goddesses of charm, beauty and joy in their ability to delight.

It’s not easy to create an animalic scent using botanical ingredients, but there are some impressive submissions that span the spectrum of interpretation. It’s also clear there is no single definition of musk and yet we can all pretty much agree that it is a quality that appeals to the animal side of us. I’m currently reading a book by Michel Odent, the father of water birth who argues that humans are mammals designed to give birth as such. Yet our culture has hi-jacked this natural process and attempted to turn it into a man-made conception. When did we loose sight of our most fundamental animal nature? Regardless of interpretation, it’s clear to me that a musk perfume should remind us that, despite our cultural proclivities, we are still and always will be, animals.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Public and Private Realm of Perfume - Part 2: Natural Perfumes

In Part 1 I critiqued how contemporary perfumery had commercialized the public realm with a battery of strong scents analogous to olfactory billboards, each vying to grab our attention. This widespread and “loud” use of perfumes in so many products has reversed what was once the traditional use perfume; as a way to draw us into the private realm of the individual. Instead, we have become (sometimes unwilling) participants in the private lives of the people we encounter throughout the day and have lost touch with the scent environments of our natural world.

Yet, I still love perfume. I enjoy the feelings they evoke, the memories they conjure and the beauty they offer. A world without perfume would quickly become boring and flat. Perfumes are virtually universal and timeless in their appreciation as they speak of culture. The ancients were crazy about them. Witness countless images of Roman ladies holding perfume bottles, Egyptians carrying perfumed cones on their heads, and exotic resins traveling the silk road. Perfume has been written into our sacred texts and even uncovered in tombs. There isn’t a culture that doesn’t have some form of scented experience. It is intrinsic to our human experience, and distinguishes us from animals but also ties us inextricably to the natural world. After all, our receptors register the same odor molecules that bees and other insects detect in flowers. If our noses only functioned to help us differentiate dangerous odors from benign, why would we have evolved such complex mechanisms to smell something as “superfluous” as a flower? It is this phenomena that compels us to create naturally derived aromatics. They connect us to the private life of the natural world where scent plays a major role in the complex dance between plants and animals.

Perfume Renaissance

A renaissance is taking place in perfumery that extends back to the ancient practice of using aromatics derived from plants and animal sources to create fragrant compositions. For lack of a better term, it has come to be known as “natural perfumery”. Others call it “traditional” or “botanical” perfumery, but what it refers to is the use of naturally or traditionally derived essences to create perfumes. It eschews the use of synthetically derived aroma chemicals and additives. However, instead of looking backwards nostalgically, natural perfumery has embraced the multitude of new extraction techniques and novel essences that have expanded the palette from some 200 notes to well over 600. It has also revived an interest in traditional extraction methods that have existed for thousands of years, such as the production of attars and is protecting these art forms from being lost.

Although natural aromatics were used exclusively up until the end of the 18th century when synthetic compounds such as vanillin were discovered, the commercial perfume world has reacted harshly to the efforts of natural perfumers. They have gone so far as to say that it isn’t possible to create a perfume with naturals because they diffuse too quickly, have limited longevity, don’t have enough lift or sillage, vary from batch to batch and end up muddy. Really?


Most natural perfumes are structured on the diffusivity of the essences used in a composition. Top notes are essences that dry down and disappear within an hour, heart notes are those that last for 2-3 hours and base notes linger for 3-4 hours or more. As a result, natural perfumes change as they dry down since they do not contain fixatives to prevent top notes from dissipating or chemicals to help give them lift and sillage. The dry down allows for interesting structures to emerge as the wearer discovers new layers that reveal themselves over time. It’s a very different experience from the primarily linear structure of contemporary perfumes. Contemporary perfumes tend to smell pretty much the same when first applied as they do by the end of the day. A natural perfume evolves over time and has to smell appealing through all of its dry-down phases, not just hold together as a composition.


The limited longevity of natural perfumes has been a subject of considerable debate and criticism. Why create a perfume if it’s only going to last for a few hours? Traditionally, perfumes were not only enjoyed on the body but also on handkerchiefs and gloves. The reason for this was the limited life of traditional perfumes on the skin. No one really knows why, but skin type and metabolism seem to be factors in how long a natural perfume will last. Dry skin tends to absorb scent molecules faster than oily skin. Warm skin diffuses scent better than cool. However, the same perfumes remain relatively “fixed” when applied to fabric or gloves. One could reach for a “mouchoir” and enjoy a perfume anytime without fatiguing ones olfactory receptors.

But there’s another argument in favor of perfumes with limited longevity and it has to do with how the nose perceives scent. In the morning, the nose is rested from it’s temporary paralysis of anosmic sleep and is most receptive to fresh, bright odors. By afternoon, the earlier hours of stimulation have somewhat desensitized the nose, so richer scents are needed. In the evening, the nose prefers the heavier scents typically associated with going out on the town. Natural perfumes lend themselves to this daily evolution of the nose. One can wear a citrus based cologne in the morning, a balsamic floral in the afternoon and a heavy oriental in the evening without fear of overlapping or muddling one’s perfumes.

Lift and Sillage

Natural perfumes have also been criticized for not having enough “lift”. While some naturals have moderate lift, most tend to remain close to the body and are rarely perceived unless one is embraced. As such, they define the private realm of the individual. The sotto voce whisper of a natural perfume is a welcome change for those fatigued by loud sillage. Commercial perfumes may dominate the public realm, but natural perfumes define the private.


Botanical extractions used in a natural perfume can vary fromseason to season and are dependent on the terroir or region where they are grown. Like wines, aromatic extractions can have “vintages” and some years may be better than others. Some extractions age well, while others oxidize quickly and this has to be taken into consideration when blending as no preservatives are added to natural perfumes. As a result, a natural perfume may not always smell exactly the same from batch to batch, unlike synthetic perfumes where many of the ingredients are created in a controlled environment so that a perfume will always smell the same. In effect, each natural perfume batch becomes a “limited edition” that is dependent on the subtle nuances offered by the elements used. These nuances may not always be perceptible to most. Like wine, variability in perfume editions can offer alternative dimensions that can be explored and savored. Each bottle of natural perfume is a unique entity. This differs greatly from the concept of mass-produced objects and is accepted for most artisanally produced items such as wine or cheese. So why not perfumes? After all, our sense of taste is wholly dependent on our nose, so why not view perfumes as an extension of our palate? That way a wearer can develop an expanded vocabulary of scent variability and, like a gourmet, be able to appreciate the subtle complexities, differences and finitude of a particular scent from edition to edition.


Botanical extractions used in natural perfumery are complex entities often containing hundreds of naturally occurring chemical constituents. Synthetic perfumes, on the other hand are made with mostly individual chemical constituents that have to be blended into complicated formulas in order to approach the equivalent of a natural. Many botanical extractions are already “rounded out” with their own top, middle and base notes and can be viewed as complete perfumes in and of themselves. Such is the case with attars that are by made by steam distilling a single aromatic into sandalwood essential oil. Two constituents, yet deliciously intricate.

Blending naturals can be challenging as not all notes like to play well together. In addition, blends have to marry for a couple of months before they can be evaluated. A natural perfumer learns through experience which elements work together harmoniously, but after that it is up to the chemical reactions that take place in the bottle. There is an element of alchemy involved in this process that makes working with naturals so exciting, mysterious and unpredictable. Blends that start out coherent on the scent strip can end up muddy and those that smell off can end up brilliant. Simple combinations can end up better than elaborate formulas. So far, no one has quantified the process of creating natural perfumes, but why tamper with this inherent complexity and contradiction? Natural perfumery requires circular thinking and the willingness to work with variability, failure and change. It is the antithesis of structured linear thought associated with a scientific approach. A natural perfumer does not seek to tame or master his medium but rather strike a balance between the desires of the will and the outcome of circumstance.


Commercial and natural perfumes differ greatly from one another. One dominates the public realm while the other defines the private. One clings to the body while the other transforms it. One sparkles with the virtuosity of our scientific age while the other speaks of fragility, subtlety, nuance and changeability. One is made by a chemist, the other an alchemist.

Older commercial perfumes used higher percentages of natural ingredients in their blends. Many were eventually reformulated in the 1980‘s with synthetics because of skyrocketing costs, seasonal variability, discontinued ingredients, crop failure and even political unrest affecting the availability of natural ingredients. Cheaper and easier to obtain synthetic substitutes were no longer dependent on the vagaries of life. Recently, many of these classic perfumes have been reformulated again to satisfy the stringent requirements of IFRA. The result has changed the world of commercial perfumery to the extent that some scents are almost unrecognizable from their originals. When Luca Turin waxes poetic over the original version of a particular perfume, I can’t help but think the difference has to do with the naturals in the juice. But I also think about the history of older perfumes and how they captured a moment in time that can never be recreated. To me, that is art.