Of late, I have found myself mysteriously fascinated by obscure notes, notes that often meet with anosmia when they arrive at the olfactory headquarters of even the great noses in the industry: musk and iris.
Distinct yet soft and unreachable, these notes have a long history of seduction, while at the same time can be very clean, polite and proper, their subtlety and vagueness interpreted as a virtue of humble and quiet shyness.
Although musk deers are now farmed rather than hunted, their musk pouch surgically removed as to not end their lives while being robbed of their scent, it is very hard to procure as it is rare as well as illegal in most countries, and raises many ethical questions in the natural perfume community. Vegetale musks are the alternative to both synthetic musk and true musk, they are notes that of botanical origin rather than from the endangered Musk Deer. Ambrette seed can be a substitute on its own for its delicate, light and subtle musky aroma; other darker oils and absolutes are used for a more intense animalic musk accord - costus, opoponax, vetiver, patchouli, labdanum, tobacco, sandalwood and more.
Known as the best musk substitute from the plant world, Ambrette seed comes from the seeds of a hibiscus species. It has a very soft, delicately sweet, vaguely woody and very much reminiscent of human skin. It is available as an oil, absolute and co2 extraction. The oil may be much stronger, sharp in an almost harsh way, and animalic. Perhaps this is due to other plant parts that sneak into this type of distillation which makes it so different than the absolute and CO2. The latter being very soft and even slightly powdery and woodier and quite similar to the absolute. The absolute is the sweetest of all and has a very subtle aroma that is oily and slightly vinegar-like (some refer to it as wine like, but to me it is much like apple cider vinegar!). Once matured, ambrette absolute becomes sweet and floral and musky in the most subtle and sublime manner. Ambrette seed is used as a light musk base for delicate floras, where it will support them gently without taking away from their cheerful lightness (as in Tamya and Rosebud). It also serves as an accessory note in oriental perfumes, where is adds a musky odor to the base. The essential oil’s intense animalistic character and forceful silage makes it a perfect companion in leathery, tobacco and other smoky compositions (such as Espionage).
Next to ambrette seed, costus root is another extremely important vegetale-musk. It is darker than Ambrette, with a fatty skin like undertones, reminiscent of goats, wet puppies or the subtle yet distinct scent of the scalp. When aged for a year or more, it has a sweeter aroma with rosy undertones. It is one of my most favourite notes ever – I loved the goats when I grew up and found their adventurous and energetic character quite inspiring. Unfortunately, costus was recently declared a skin sensitizer. I use it in my original formula for Espionage, which happen to be my signature perfume – there, along with ambrette, vanilla, tonka and opoponax it creates a skin-like musky-vanilla foundation adorned with only minimal amounts of orris, rose, jasmine and cedar.
Also known as Sweet Myrrh, Opoponax is a relative of myrrh, only sweeter and softer. It is sweet, balsamic, spicy, warm, musky. It is invaluable in oriental bases, and lends a musky and powdery base. When used in minute amounts, especially along with other musky or animalic notes, opoponax lends a soft, powdery, subtly animalic character to the perfume (as in Espionage mentioned above). However, it can also be used in larger quantities as a resinous, sweet, honeyed, animalic base - especially when paired with other resinous-incense notes such as frankincense, cedar, myrrh, sandalwood, honey, spices or narcotic florals (as in Epice Sauvage, Opium and Poison).
*Musk deer image courtesy of Alchemy Works
**Next time in this series: orris root