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.