“Musky” has become somewhat of a go-to descriptor for smells. When sniffing perfumes, people will often lean on musky to describe something undefinable in a fragrance, but what does musky mean, and what is a musk? That’s a very good question, and I’m glad you asked. I would say that the musks (a group of materials) are a broad church, including the clean, laundry-esque musks that are popular today and the funky, animalic musks of the past. So, when we say “musky”, we refer to vastly different smells that are evocative of line-dried cotton or the backside of an animal. Broad church, people. Broad. Church.
Historically, musks were extracted using either invasive or non-invasive methods (dependent on the animal) from animals such as deer, civet cats, cape hyrax, and beavers. Nowadays, there isn’t a need to use the real thing (thankfully), and perfumers have access to a vast array of musk materials, the majority of which are synthetic, to add a sense of muskiness, whether that be the clean-as-a-whistle type or the downright filthy type.
One interesting thing about musk materials is that they aren’t always added to perfume for their odour profile. Instead, they can be included in a fragrance composition because of their effect on other materials. Musks can be used to extend the longevity of a fragrance but also to create space between the notes or add a diffusive quality. They are very clever materials, and most of the time, you won’t even notice that they are there.
Here is a selection of fragrances to expand your musk vocabulary! And yes, they’re all the stars of December’s #EscentualScents musk fragrance blind trial…
Scent A: The Gourmand Musk
GUERLAIN Mon Guerlain Eau de Parfum Intense
Lots of you will be familiar with the iconic Mon Guerlain fragrance. Well, this takes the original and offers a deep, sexy rendition. The Intense edition honours the key notes of the original – you get lavender, sambac jasmine, vanilla tahitensis and sandalwood here – but what Mon Guerlain Intense has that its predecessor doesn’t is lashings of soft, laundry-fresh white musks that snuggle in alongside a hefty dose of vanilla and make themselves at home on your skin. Sheer bliss!
Scent B: The Triple-Hit Of Musk
4160 Tuesdays Temptation Eau de Parfum
Musk fan? Then you’ve got to give into Temptation. Why? It’s got not one, not two, but three layers of musk. Equally, if you find it tricky to pick musk up out of a line-up, this is a great reference musk fragrance. It’ll prove that musk isn’t as heavy and dark as you might think.
The cool thing about Temptation is that it was created from the base of another one of their scents: Take Me To The River. All it took was a few drops on an apron for 4160s perfumer, Sarah McCartney, to realise it could be worn on its own. Wear alone for a light, flighty fragrance or layer with another scent to add longevity.
Scent C: The Clean Musk
Etro Musk Eau de Toilette
Etro’s Musk is another example of a cult musk fragrance. It has a sparkling, citrus freshness up top that bubbles like crisp lemonade (the clear Schweppes kind, not the cloudy kind – an important distinction) that leads gently into a spotless clean array of laundry musks.
Smelling it is like diving headfirst into your tumble dryer after your bed linen has been on an extended cycle. It’s warm, enveloping, and clean. Delightful!
Scent D: The Fresh Musk
Narciso Rodriguez For Him Bleu Noir Parfum
Many perfume houses use a particular accord or material to create a house signature, weaving this into their perfumes to create a recognisable thread that becomes inextricably linked with the brand. For Prada, that signature is iris; for GUERLAIN, it’s vanilla, and for Narciso Rodriguez, it’s musk. Narciso Rodriguez’s fragrances are powered by musks, showcasing this group of materials’ diverse and versatile nature.
For Him Bleu Noir celebrates the freshness of white musk. The ‘heart of musc’ at the core of the fragrance is adorned with greenery and woods, showing just how musks can be utilised to amplify and intensify other materials.
Scent D: The Floral Musk
Narciso Rodriguez For Her Pure Musc Eau de Parfum
In contrast to Narciso’s masculine take on musk, For Her Pure Musc blends white musks with jasmine and orange blossom to create a floral musk with a delicate, milky texture. It feels like perfect glass petals drifting along a gentle stream of milk, each one slowly dissolving. Both fragrances are so different, yet each of them is distinctly, undeniably ‘Narciso’, and that is all thanks to our wonderful friends: the musks.
Scent F: The Sensual Musk
Initio Magnetic Blend 7 Eau de Parfum
Magnetic Blend 7 is a textural musk fragrance that presents the tactile side of musks and discloses no notes other than “musk”, leaving the many facets of the composition down to individual interpretation. It’s an incredibly soft musk to my nose, with a plush, almost powdery texture and a distinctly woody character. Magnetic Blend 7 is a sensual musk evocative of human skin’s innate softness and warmth, wrapping the wearer in a gentle embrace.
Scent G: The Floral Musk
Anna Sui Sky Eau de Toilette
It’s hard to talk about Sky and not focus entirely on the beautiful hot air balloon bottle, which seems to defy gravity in your hands. But we will resist and, instead of talking about that delightfully ornate yet apparently weightless flacon, let’s talk about how it contains a stunning perfume that showcases a floral take on musk.
Sky the perfume is actually that rare thing: a photorealistic lily of the valley. Yielding no usable fragrant oil, these perfect little flowers have such a distinct smell and, in Sky, they are made lightweight, pushed into the ozone by a gentle breeze of white musk. The smell is dewy, fresh, slightly cotton-like and clean, but unmistakably lily of the valley.
I know that that’s all very interesting, but what does it smell like? I’d describe it as light, airy, slightly metallic, marine, sweet, powdery, woody and crystalline, with facets of white musk, clean cotton, pale woods, and powdered flowers. It’s a delightful aroma that showcases how something that appears so simple, such as a clean white musk, can still be wonderfully complex.
Scent H: The Calming Musk
BVLGARI Eau Parfumee Au The Blanc Eau de Cologne
BVLGARI’s Eau Parfumee collection of tea-inspired colognes is truly exceptional. Each one showcases a different style of tea, from airy green tea to sweet and nutty red bush tea, presented with the refreshing feel of a traditional eau de cologne. Eau Parfumee Au The Blanc is a transparent floral musk fragrance that captures the delicate clarity of white tea. It’s a misty, crystalline musk that adds a “fresh out of the shower” feel that is restorative and calming.