vendredi 9 mai 2008

The Paradox of Musk

Musk may be the point of maximum tension in perfumery. On the one hand, it’s a dirty, sexual, even excremental smell; on the other hand, the very scent of cleanliness, powder and fresh linen. It’s an essential note in perfumery, for the 3-D lushness and tenacity it brings to compositions; but as a compound, it seems to be under some evil spell. If it’s natural, it means death to the animals that produce it. In its various synthetic forms, it’s been proven to be photo-allergizing and even neurotoxic (the nitro-musks), and suspected of causing dire damage by accumulating in bodies and in the environment (the polycyclic musks).

It is a holy note, incorporated in the mortar of certain mosques to exhale its suave odour; it is an accursed note, and in the late 4th century, one of the doctors of the Church, St Jerome, warns Christian women against imitating pagan women who wear “mouse musk” (thought to be a mistaken identification of the pouch culled from musk deer).

Nevertheless, the West was musk-crazy for centuries. Strong aromatic or animalic smells were not only worn for adornment: they were thought to form a protective shield against the putrid miasma that carried disease, according to the medical beliefs of the time.

But sometime in the mid-18th century, animal substances such as musk, civet and ambergris were included in the medical anathema against putrid substances: the smell of musk was compared to that of manure or even of fermented human excrement. Its very strength was said to unsettle “our more delicate nerves”, claimed the French philosophers’ Encyclopaedia in 1765. Wearing animalic scents became the sign of depraved tastes or of doubtful hygiene. With the rise of bourgeois values, perfume itself was suspected of immorality, explains historian Alain Corbin in his groundbreaking essay The Foul and the Fragrant: it “vanishes, volatilizes, is the symbol of dilapidation. The fleeting cannot accumulate. The loss is irreparable. (…) Doubly immoral, it would be preferable for it to lose its references to animals, and for its provocative allusions to the reproductive instinct to disappear, along with musk.

Influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the new sensibility seeks communion with Nature; the deliberate artifice of the pungent fragrances fashionable in the preceding reigns is rejected. Only old libertines and courtisans reek of musk. In his 1777 Traité des Odeurs, Dejean decrees that “to conform oneself to today’s taste, one must totally suppress musk and only add a few drops of quintessence of ambergris.”

Vegetal and delicate smells are preferred to those that recall physical secretions or excremental functions. Smell, explains Corbin, is rejected as a sexual attractant. It must now be disguised: “There had never been such a major revolution in the history of sexual solicitation.”
Despite briefly becoming fashionable again after the French Revolution – the Royalist Muscadins douse themselves with it – musk is accused of causing hysteria in the 19th century. It is used, along with vanilla and sandalwood, to treat “sexual torpor” in women, reports the sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939).

Nevertheless, musk didn’t disappear from perfumers’ armamentaria, and the sex-obsessed 19th century hides in its fragrances like bourgeois men hide their venal lovers… In his 1857 treatise The Art of Perfumery, Septimus Piesse claims with a touch of irony that “It is a fashion of the present day for people to say "that they do not like musk;" but, nevertheless, from great experience in one of the largest manufacturing perfumatories in Europe, we are of opinion that the public taste for musk is as great as any perfumer desires. Those substances containing it always take the preference in ready sale—so long as the vendor takes care to assure his customer "that there is no musk in it."” Many of his recipes for toiletries thus include musk. In 1900, according to perfume historian Annick Le Guérer, prestigious perfumers such as “Houbigant, Lubin, Gellé Frères, offer many articles including soaps containing a grain of musk, prepared many months in advance.”

It this when musk makes its spectacular about-face in public perception, to become, as perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena writes, “the olfactory signal of cleanliness”?
Prohibitively expensive, natural musk, which was used in perfumery until the 1970s, was gradually replaced from the late 19th century onwards by different types of synthetic musk. Polycyclic musks were discovered in the 1950s: they are non biodegradable in water, and are widely used in detergents, as well as in toiletries.

Molecules with science-fiction names – Galoxolide, Tonalide, Habanolide, Helvetolide – now replace the nitro-musks discovered by Baur in 1888-91, and banned in developed countries because of the photo-allergenic and neurotoxic properties (the highly-prized musk ambrette is, however, still used in India).

Widely used in functional perfumery, polycyclic musks have also found their way into fine perfumery: the best-selling Lancôme Trésor composed by Sophia Grosjman is said to contain over 21% of Galaxolide. Jennifer Lopez Glow is rumoured to be half pure Habanolide. According to Luca Turin, Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Mâle is practically nothing but synthetic musks. Francis Kurkdjian’s Narciso Rodriguez for Her has brilliantly played on the halo of innocence of these artificial musks by associating them to an orange blossom note which is just as synthetic and no less innocent…

“White musks” have been so widely used in detergents, and for such a long time now, that they have virtually become synonymous with the smell of cleanliness. Nevertheless, they play a double game. By blending with the exhalations of a clean and deodorized body, they still evoke flesh. By denying our animal nature and replacing its smells with a label of impeccable hygiene, they still express the will to seduce, and thus, a body that lends itself to the games of desire.

However, perfumery has not entirely rejected the age-old attractions of dirty musk, as we will discover in the next episode…

References :
Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant
Annick Le Guérer, Le Parfum des origines à nos jours
Luca Turin, The Secret of Scent
Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery
Havelock Ellis, Sexual Selection in Man

Image: Pierre Bonnard, Nude Crouching in a Tub, courtesy

5 commentaires:

  1. What an amazing article! It makes me want to explore musk further. it's never been a passion of mine (except for Jovan Musk in high school :)) but maybe I should experiment with some musks.

  2. If you liked Jovan Musk (which I also remember from high school!), it might be an interesing perfume family for you to explore. There have been more and more in the past few years. Narciso Rodriguez for Her, Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely and Serge Lutens Clair de Musc are good "clean" musks I didn't review. It's a place to start to see if you like the note.

  3. I am just fascinated by this series...

  4. Thanks Tom. I think musk is just very mysterious because it's a "disappearing" substance: first because some people can't smell it, second because it's vanished, in its natural form, from perfumers' palettes. Truly ghostly.