dimanche 11 mai 2008

Filling the Musk Gap (I): Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan or Dionysus’ Panther

The disappearance of natural musk in perfumery has created a gap that various perfumers (not to mention every single aromachemical company) have tried to fill. But rather than use it to emphasize other notes, their compositions use musk as a solo player, either in a minimalist mode (Helmut Lang’s discontinued Velviona in 2001, which contained only Givaudan’s synthetic musk Velvione), or in the hyperbolic and orientalist mode of animal musk.

Musk “soliflores” are absent from classical perfumery: if they have any forebears, they can be found either in the pre-modern tradition of smelling musk grains (before the late 19th century) or in the various hippie-era “musks” (Jovan, Bonne Bell) – in turn partly inspired by the North African or Asian perfumery discovered by 60s flower children on their way to Marrakesh or Katmandu…

In any case, these musks are the polar opposite of the sweetish, white “detergent” musks, whose exquisite powdery blandness points to childhood rather than to Bacchanalia.

Within this rather restricted perfume family, Serge Lutens’ Muscs Koublaï Khan, launched in 1998, remains the benchmark of all dirty musks. Its name is inspired by Marco Polo’s detailed descriptions of musk in his memoirs about his journeys in the Mongol emperor’s Chinese realm.

This very controversial composition – which tends to make American forum commentators howl with horror or delight – is a cornucopia of animalic smells: stable, circus, wildcat cages and barrack-rooms… Fecal civet, leather and fur-smelling castoreum, costus with its whiff of dirty hair, armpit-reeking cumin, ambergris with its saline, female notes, patchouli and its dank earth facets, are barely lightened up by Moroccan rose and ambrette, with its powdery, floral and boozy pear tartness.

Added to this devil’s brew is a wide range of synthetic musks. Most of us are anosmic to one or the other: their molecules are too large to be perceived. Thus, to achieve a replica of natural musk, a perfumer must use a diversified palette. This phenomenon makes it hard to judge musk “soliflores”, because the tester may be anosmic to one or several compounds. On me, for instance, Muscs Koublaï Khan’s wilcat mellows into a purr, another example of the mysterious alchemy of perfumery, which transforms vile substances into fragrant elixirs.

If Muscs Koublaï Khan conjures up the smell of wildcats, it isn’t so much the stench of a circus menagerie as the suave aroma of the panther in Greek mythology – the panther of Dionysus, the god of drunken raptures.

According to the philosopher Theophrastus, the panther is the only animal that doesn’t stink: she uses the perfume she exhales to entice her prey. Her exquisite breath is a mortally seductive trap similar to the one that women lay out for men. This leads Aristophanes to call courtesans “panthers”.

Thus, the intoxicating Muscs Koublaï Khan seems to me closer to the enticements of Aphrodite’s huntresses than to the reek of a Mongol warrior after a six-month rampage spree. I have used up two full bottles without losing my friends or scaring off my lovers: from which I deduce that this fragrance is rather more pleasing than not…

Image: Dionysus riding a panther, mosaïc floor, courtesy of www.macedonian-heritage.gr

16 commentaires:

  1. Ahhh-
    I WANT TO BE A PANTHER, too....

  2. Aristotle had quite the commentary on panther and its delicious odour.
    He mentions that: "They say that the panther has found out that wild animals are fond of the scent it emits; that, when it goes a-hunting, it hides itself; that the other animals come nearer and nearer, and that by this stratagem it can catch even animals as swift of foot as stags".

    Like the Homeric "wine-coloured sea", this panther smell business is ground for speculation on what exactly the ancients meant.

    Love your inclusion of both Theophrastus and Aristophanes in one post and the ancient Greek* photos on both posts.

    *{and a little note for international readers: macedonian in this case refers to the Ancient Macedonia of Phillip and Alexander, with Pella being its capital, as is still named in Greece and not the modern day state which uses the geographical term to define itself)

  3. Chaya, wouldn't we all... but I'm sure you smell lovely too ! Just don't go hunting for gazelles, will you?

  4. Helg, I did run accross that quote, but in French, in Marcel Détienne's "Dionysos mis à mort"... Although as far as I've been able to ascertain through my readings, ancient Greeks didn't incorporate musk in their perfumery : the first proof of its use is in St Jerome, late in the 4th century, thus in the late Roman Empire. Still, I'd like to think of Dionysus' panther smelling of MKK.

  5. MMhhh.. comme tout cela donne envie à la pauvre néophyte que je suis de m'immerger dans ces odeurs.
    Cela éveille les sens et la curiosité.
    Idée qui depuis longtemps me hante: un spectacle dans lequel il y aurait des odeurs...
    Magnifique blog. Bravo.

  6. Wonderful post - on my BF and me, MKK is a sweet pussycat, no barnyards here... which is a good thing - I don't think I could tolerate anything too animalic!

  7. BB, merci mille fois! Je crois qu'un parfumeur du nom de marcel marin a conçu un spectacle parfumé (l'odeur se transformant au gré des actes), je te retrouverai la référence... C'est une idée complexe à mettre en oeuvre mais séduisante.

  8. Tara, thanks. I know you're both MKK aficionados and the living proof that panthers can be tamed... a bit!

  9. I'm really disapointed. I dabbed some MKK on my had at the weekend expecting to be blown away by the daring dirty smells coming from it.

    On me, it didn't smell any different to Kiel's Musk oil.

    Usually with me having a quite oily skin, it brings out all kinds of interesting notes, not this time though.


  10. Dear Prince, now that's a pity -- MKK has such mythical status, it's almost bound not to be up to it, isn't it? On me it's really quite different from Kiehl's, which I find headshop-heavy. But then, once more, much can be put down to chemistry + selective musk anosmia. Have you tried Miller Harris l'Air de Rien? I find that deliciously dirty, and the oakmoss has an astringent effect on the musky sweetness.

  11. I love L'Air de Rien and get an amazing Nagchampa note from it.

  12. Barry, I've thought in similar wise re the MKK, but I find the Kiehl's much more poudré and more "floral" (some geraniol in there, for sure).

    I'm loving your blog, D. Very interested in hearing about the Indult exclusive at Colette.


  13. Thanks, C. The French post on Musc Nomade is written and will come out shortly, I've yet to translate it. Life, work and travel got in the way (I *do* have to prostitute my brain on occasion to put food on the table, a roof over my head and scent on my body!).

  14. Yeah, I just couldn't do MKK. But I will periodically re-try, because I do love the idea of it. I also must confess a weakness for a good white musk, juvenile though they may be. Sometimes they just really hit the spot.

  15. Have you tried Clair de Musc in the Serge Lutens export line? That's much tamer. I also hear very good things about Santa Maria Novella Muschio (*not* to be confused with Muschio d'Oro). A good friend of mine who was on the prowl for musk but thought MKK was too feral bought the SMN and is very happy with it.