Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin ~ fragrance review

musk deer

Parfum d’Empire is one of my favorite perfume houses, but on occasion, its references to warmongering dictators,1 brutal tiger hunts, and, now, a celebrated raw material from an endangered species, annoy me. I’ve written about musk and the musk deer before so I won’t repeat myself, but creating a perfume called Musc Tonkin, and taking that a step further and making the perfume a limited edition (which gives it the air of a “rare” commodity) strikes me as insensitive, especially right now as many wild animals around the world are in danger of being wiped out for their body parts: the elephants of Africa come to mind (please Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, don’t develop an “Ivory Tusk” perfume inspired by the Kingdom of Benin).

Rant over, I will say I’m always interested in smelling a Parfum d’Empire creation. Musc Tonkin2 goes on strong, with a fragrance reminiscent of leather scented with aromas that remind me of carnation-cloves/cinnamon and “hairy” musks (or should I say well-aged manure?) I grew up in a family of gardeners and I associate gardening with the scent of — chicken manure. Every February or March, my father and grandmother arranged to have a large quantity of fresh chicken manure delivered to the edge of a woods they owned. This manure was allowed to age before it was used in our garden. After a year spent in the sun, the rain, the heat and cold, the manure was ready to use around plants or to enrich the soil of flower and vegetable beds. The cured manure smelled sweet, not at all unpleasant; as I sit here remembering that scent I recall it having a floral character.

As Musc Tonkin develops on skin it has a mild “fertilizer” vibe: indoles mixed with earth. During the dry-down, Musc Tonkin’s syrupy opening becomes lighter and hazy…as if the aroma is no longer anchored on my skin by its heft, but has evaporated and is hovering like a haze or fog around me. In this phase of development, there is a background, edible component present: the scent of a meaty gravy perhaps — flavored with dollops of spicy amber and patchouli. (Ylang-ylang and a vanillic element are also discernible.)

As I wore Musc Tonkin during the course of two days I kept thinking, as often happens, “This reminds me of SOMEthing I’ve known or experienced....” Finally, I realized the problem with my memory was that Musc Tonkin reminds me of several fragrances: Yves Saint Laurent Opium’s “vintage” spicy ylang-ylang; Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan’s leather, castoreum, and oily-scalp musk; and Hermès Equipage’s clove, patchouli and faux/dirty tobacco.

If you are at all turned off by indolic or musky perfumes, you’ll probably dislike Musc Tonkin (on my skin, the fecal element lasts into the dry-down…it becomes very faint, but it never disappears). If you adore musk fragrances, you’ll certainly want to try Musc Tonkin.

Parfum d'Empire Musc Tonkin

Musc Tonkin is a well-crafted fragrance, but it doesn’t strike any new chords (or accords); it has a retro (and to my nose, feminine) vibe (think: 1970s); it’s well-blended and smooth (even giving a hint of powder in the extreme dry-down). Musc Tonkin’s lasting power is good and its sillage respectable (not too diffusive).

If Musc Tonkin is a great success commercially (supposedly only 1,000 bottles were made), one supposes it may join the permanent Parfum d’Empire line-up. If that doesn’t happen, this is one “extinction” I won’t lose sleep over.

Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin is available in 50 ml Extrait de Parfum, €120. It appears to already be sold out in some locations, but is still available on the Parfum d'Empire website; otherwise, for buying information, see the listing for Parfum d'Empire under Perfume Houses.

1. Eau de Gloire/Napoléon Bonaparte.

2. I’ve never smelled the raw material called Tonkin musk, so I have no idea if Musc Tonkin is a realistic re-creation.

Note: top image of Moschus moschiferus via Wikimedia Commons.

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44 Comments

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  1. lucasai says:

    Parfum d’Empire is one of my favourite brands as well. I sampled Musc Tonkin thanks to a friend who organized a bottle split and sent me a big sample of this one.
    I noticed the mightly strenght of this perfume, it’s long lasting power and quite majestic sillage. Unfortunately my nose belongs to the group that likes lighter, more harmonious perfume so it didn’t worked for me as well as other Parfum d’Empire I have in my collection or will have.

  2. Kevin says:

    Lucasai, for me this didn’t have a “spark” that set it apart from lots of other fragrances out there.

  3. Joe says:

    Hi Kevin. I really like this Musc and I’m happy to have a bottle (I split some off. I don’t find it much “dirtier” than Musc Ravageur — and to my nose it certainly doesn’t go as far as Muscs Koublai Khan, which I can’t wear — but it’s certainly more floral. I agree that it has a very vintage vibe, and to me, that’s a good thing. I’d be happy to see this added to the regular PdE line so that more people may enjoy it.

    Nice to see your review.

    • Kevin says:

      Joe: I’m betting it will join the line-up…it’s wait-and-see.

  4. Jaisalmer says:

    I adore musk but I adore animals better..so please let’s avoid this parfum…

    • Kevin says:

      Jaisalmer…as far as I know there is no real musk in this…I don’t like the glamorization of Tonkin musk…but sure many would say I’m overreacting.

      • Merlin says:

        I guess they were trying to invoke the original animalic source of musk with the name/concept. So far as I know it is illegal to use real animal additives like musk in a scent; so much so that if a perfumier does use real (precious) ambergris they are liable to keep it a secret – and as we know, no whales suffer from the use of ambergris.
        To me then, this is a bit of a defunct cause. The biggest issue in Africa, so far as I understand it, is the poaching of rhinos for their horns which is highly prized for supposed-near-magical-healing effects in the East.
        Regarding animals in general (again, from what I have understood) one of the biggest issues is the chronic leg pain suffered by battery chickens with oversized breasts.

        Sorry for harping on about something merely touched upon…

        • Kevin says:

          Merlin: no problem!…the elephant situation is DIRE in Africa.Hillary CLinton even brought up the subject in talks with China (a culprit in the use of ivory in China AND Africa.) I don’t think it’s illegal to use natural musk or ambergris…several natural perfume companies use some of each and advertise their use: in Europe.

          • Merlin says:

            Oh. Perhaps it was only illegal in America?I saw a youtube vid about it and perhaps the point was that any perfumes using such substances would be banned in America, which would exclude a rather large market? Then again, if its expensive enough, who needs a large market!
            Here, on the ground, its rhinos that are always in the news – horrible pics of them being illegally slaughtered, several times a week…

  5. hollyc says:

    I’m a little confused. Are you saying that this actually contains actual deer musc? I interpreted their website blurb as saying they created it from plant based ingredients? I hope I’m not wrong. However, I was most definitely wrong in getting hyped up and buying this blind. First spritz is vintage heaven, heavy, animalic, mature, sophisticated. Then, I couldn’t believe my nose, surely I was wrong, but no, there it was . . . melon. I prayed fervently it would dissipate and disappear, but alas it was not to be. That melon note has the half life of plutonium. I have no idea why someone would create a dirty, sexy scent like this and then try to put a lace doily on it. My bottle sits unused, but if it actually caused the death of some little Bambi, I’ll likely put it on eBay and give the proceeds to PETA. For a full bodied retro musk try Bruno Acamporia’s Musc. I’m enjoying that line very much (the oils).

    • Kevin says:

      Holly…no, was not implying this had real Tonkin musk. I didn’t detect even a molecule of melon…but lots of ylang-ylang.

      • hollyc says:

        Oh, I’m glad no four footed friends died for this, but I wish they had left the melons on the vine! I’m very jealous that your chemistry pulls ylang ylang, perhaps I’ll have more luck in warm weather! Thanks for choosing this one to review, I’ve been very curious what others thought.

    • HemlockSillage says:

      Holly, I’m glad someone else notes fruit! Ok, my nose reads it as currant, blackberry or some other mulled fruit thing as opposed to melon, but I reared back in indignation wondering who’d put fruit in my wonderful salty, leathery musk! The fruit note lasts for hours. Once it fades, I love the scent again. The long term dilemma for me is whether I want to wade through the fruity stage in the middle. I love the opening and the distant dry-down. I should have more care for the deer, but as long as all of this is synthetic, I’m ok with PdE trying to re-create the aura/impression of that scent. Hope that’s not too insensitive! Again, glad to hear someone else got a fruity vibe. Be well. I think I’ll go console myself with some MH L’air de rien

      • hollyc says:

        You’re lucky Hemlock Sage that it fades for you, for me, the melon thing lasts on my clothes until laundered. And I’m with you, what on earth is this note doing in this retro vixen.?! Yes, I’m going to go dunk myself in some Onda extrait and maybe even add a drop or too of Brent Leonesio’s Untitled No. 8, pure poo but in the nicest way :)

        • HemlockSillage says:

          Hollyc, you may be my scent twin :) I adore Onda extrait! It’s more earth than musk to me, along with spices, but I love it. Unfortunately, no one in my immediate circle likes it, and one woman at work really hates it. I wear it just for me. Haven’t tried Untitled No.8, but really haven’t found any musk that makes me think fecal. I will put it on my to-try list. MKK was my first bell jar, and I love it. Bal a Versailles makes my cat, Cleo, growl and act oddly, but I love it. I’ve worried that I’m anosmic to some awful musk that offends others, but I think I smell it, and interpret it as fascinating! I keep joking about changing my moniker to Skankincense. There are a few musks I don’t love, and fatty or scalpy smelling is the word that I’d use for those, but they are rare. After reading your comment, I’m bustin out Onda as my SOTE. Be well.

          • hollyc says:

            Skankincense!! I LOVE it! Wish I’d thought of it. No. 8 is not musky to my nose, it’s more floral/fecal. It makes me think of being in a garden of flowers just after it’s been fertilized. I know many people think it disgusting, but I find the juxtaposition of ugly/pretty make both elements more intense and beautiful. I especially love layering it with Chanel No. 5, which to my nose has become quite bland. I too have had negative responses to Onda, particularly one 20ish SA who recoiled and immediately thrust a chemical fruity/floral at. Needless to say I recoiled! Any day with Onda extrait is wonderful and I hope yours is too!

      • Kevin says:

        Hemlock: I can see you detecting “fruit” easily…certainly flowers often have a fruity aspect. But no one fruit note struck me in this

  6. annemarie says:

    I’m glad you mentioned your discomfort over Parfum d’Empire’s historical references, and its valourising of an animal product. I’ve been wanting to say this for some time (although I know I’m being over serious): where there are ‘empires’ it follows that for all the benefits that empires may bring, there will also be oppressed and exploited people, animals and ecologies. There I’ve said it!

    I have a decant of Pd”E’s Eau Suave and I enjoy it.

    • quixoticcynic says:

      This. And thanks so much for saying it–I feel the same way, even though I love Cuir Ottoman to pieces (and enjoy Musc Tonkin enough too, come to that). And thanks also, Kevin, for calling attention to PdE’s naming issues in the first place. I’ve never been comfortable with the ‘empire’ part of their brand (and as an English PhD student, I was taught and believe that language matters…), but I didn’t know the translation of ‘Fougere Bengale’ and hadn’t thought about the ramifications of this name either.

      • Kevin says:

        Quixoticcynic: the Fougere Bengale references in Parfum d’Empire ad copy were dumb, I thought…does no one do any research?

    • Merlin says:

      It seems kind of harmless when the relevant empires are both ancient and extinct! I don’t mean to tread on anyones toes (having sensitive toes myself) but it seems counter-productive to focus on non-issues when there happen to be such serious on-going issues in the world. I heard this quote, but cant remember the source, that points out the fact that arbitrary laws weaken the necessary ones…

      • Kevin says:

        Merlin: history shows us all empires crumble…it’s tempting fate perhaps to be called the empire of perfume! HA!

        • Merlin says:

          Ha ha – the Emperor of Perfume better watch out!

      • It’s also crucial to recognize that many of the world’s problems today result from the ravages of modern (18th-20th century) imperial exploits, though…

        /end historian moment

        • Kevin says:

          Breathes, historian moments are welcome, of course.

        • annemarie says:

          Thanks, yes, I think that was what I was getting at. I am a historian and I live in a post-colonial society, and I can see the links quite clearly. Daily.

        • Merlin says:

          I see your point, but is it wrong then to be inspired by a kind of poetic ideal of these empires? After all, ‘empire’ is not just in the name – the perfumier supposedly used the notion of the French, Russian, Ottoman empire to produce these fragrances.
          I guess I would be uncomfortable buying a perfume called ‘Third Reich’!

          • annemarie says:

            No, not wrong, just something that causes me a degree of unease, and which has prevented me from exploring the Parfum d’Empire line as fully as I might otherwise. And after all, you can explore French, Russian, Ottoman history without having to reference empire.

            Also, as I say, I think it depends on your perspective. Where I live, these issues are not non-issues at all, they are alive and acute.

          • Merlin says:

            Well thanks for the extra perspective – guess I’m a little politically myopic!

    • Kevin says:

      AnneMarie: and I certainly enjoy my Yuzu Fou too!

  7. jirish says:

    I’ve been wanting to try this for awhile, but now, oddly, I also find myself wanted to smell some cured chicken manure!

    • Kevin says:

      Jirish! I do too..for then it would be SPRING and I would not be freezing outside, with my living room full of potted gardenias, jasmines and the like who can’t bear the cold.

  8. Lys says:

    Nice review! I don’t have a problem with the name since Tonkin musk is long gone from Western perfumery anyway; I like that they are honoring the musk by reintroducing it as a theme to an audience that probably will not get to smell the real deal. Maybe such a reconstruction would embolden the audience to consider more “animalic” notes in their scents (the animalic now always being a reconstruction).

    • Kevin says:

      Lys: true…but there are more animalic scents than Musc Tonkin for sure.

  9. nozknoz says:

    Well, the challenges of composing a musk perfume, which relies on notes at the edge of olfactory perception, are clearly illustrated by how different this smells to the different commentators. I think I’m mostly anosmic to it, as I am to SL MKK.

    • Kevin says:

      Noz: any musky perfumes that you can smell?

      • nozknoz says:

        Kiehl’s Original Musk comes through loud and clear. I think I smell the real musk in old perfumes, and I’m hyperosmic to some of the white musks, like the ones in Guerlain Vetiver pour Elle. I can’t smell L’AP Mure et Musc very well. I’m also hyperosmic to some of the woody ingredients. For example, while L’AP Timbuktu smells fresh to some commenters, I usually get a strong celery-cumin-sweat note.

        LT has said that it’s not uncommon for people to be anosmic or hyperosmic to musks and woody notes. The frustrating thing, to me and I assume to perfumers, is that it upsets the balance and changes the perceived structure of the composition. Not to underestimate differences in tastes, but we are all to some extent smelling different perfumes due to these kind of hyperosmias and anosmias, I believe.

        • Kevin says:

          Noz: usually when I come across a troublesome musk, and it is rare, my whole nose shuts down…cannot smell a thing for a few minutes.

          • nozknoz says:

            Wow! Now I’m wondering if that happens to me, in a way. With Mure et Musc, for example, the whole thing feels sort of subliminal. Perhaps the musk is affecting my ability to smell the berry part of it, too.

  10. Rictor07 says:

    Okay, so i just like to play devils advocate from time to time. The following statements do not reflect my personal beliefs.

    What if it were spiders? Hypothetically, if we had to grind up 250,000 musk spiders to extract 1oz of some amazing smelling fragrance note, would anyone care? How many creepy crawlies are you yourself guilty of crushing, flushing, or burning with a magnifying glass? Do we only have a conscience when it comes to harming cute and innocent looking creatures?

    • Kevin says:

      Rictor, I don’t think spiders look guilty of anything…and I can’t believe many people would be happy with hundreds of thousands of them being crushed. Anyway…I’m from the South, and if you kill a spider …bad luck!

      • 50_Roses says:

        I hadn’t heard of killing spiders being bad luck, but I generally leave them alone. If it were a black widow, or course, or a brown recluse, I would kill it in self-defense. I do confess to being guilty of killing a great many fire ants and roaches, some wasps and hornets, and I pay an exterminator to kill the termites.

        • Kevin says:

          50Roses: I might have to draw the line myself at the recluse! A friend had an infestation and the spiders would actually “attack” her (or attempt to)…their movements are scary. Thankfully, I’ve never encountered one or a black widow either.

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