I just read an Allure article about musk-centered perfumes. “Fragrance’s newest trend is a warm hug from an old friend,” the author writes. It’s a good article, despite certain predictable tics (why, why must every single piece of fragrance journalism include DS & Durga?) and I’m ready to accept its explanations for the current surge of interest in musk scents. (Musk-mania seems like a natural successor to the Santal 33 craze of the pre-Covid years, actually.)
The article includes some information about new-ish synthesized musk molecules and our cultural and psychological associations (in the US, at least) with musk, especially in its laundry-fresh iterations. One perfumer also observes that a musk trend meshes neatly with 1990s-revival trends that are happening in other fields—in fashion, for example.
But then I stopped hard on this quote from a brand owner. The article tells us that the retro 90s trend
“…has made this fresh-meets-sexy genre of fragrances a favorite on Instagram and TikTok, says [name], founder of [fragrance brand].
‘No one knew what musks were five years ago, but they’re so discussed on social, that’s changed.'”
It’s one thing to say that there’s a revival or an increasing interest in a certain product, style, or note. It’s another to state that “no one” was previously aware of an ingredient that’s been used in perfumery for a thousand years and shows up in note-lists for present-day perfumes at every possible price point.
Was this person misquoted somehow? I hope so, because they’ve been a beauty journalist (as well as a brand-owner, yes) for a while and they’ve surely seen trends come and go. I also hope they’re not just cynically assuming that “everyone” is hopelessly ignorant, because that would be an insult to their audience.
Sure, some people are only aware of the very latest thing that’s being pushed on them by brands with big marketing budgets and/or direct access to journalists. But don’t many other people have a broader view and more curiosity? and memories that stretch back to a time before 2016 or so?
Lastly, this kind of circular logic always stumps me. No one knew what musk was. But now it’s popular because everyone is talking about it, and everyone is talking about it because it’s popular.
If you want to dip into musk, you have plenty of options. You could go the drugstore route and pick up a cheapie bottle of Jovan Musk (which I got to know during my research on disco-era perfumes, and ended up liking) or Coty Wild Musk. You could stop by Whole Foods and sample the various oils from Kuumba Made. C.O. Bigelow also sells a Musk oil.
You could try Glossier You (Frank Voelkl and Dora Baghriche, 2017), for a millennial-friendly take on a clean “skin scent”—Glossier obviously realized five years ago that sheer musk was on-trend, even if the rest of were still living in musk oblivion. Or, if you’re as susceptible to whimsical illustrations of animals as I am, you could sample Zoologist‘s earthy Musk Deer (2020, Pascal Gaurin) or wintry-soft Snowy Owl (2021, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz).
Here are six more musky picks that have been around for a while. They all pre-date TikTok, incidentally. Yet I’m pretty sure people have known about these fragrances all along, or else they wouldn’t still be in production.
The cult-classic musk: Kiehl’s Original Musk Blend No. 1 (1963)
If you want a good old-fashioned bohemian/hippie interpretation of musk, head straight to Kiehl’s. Their Musk Blend No. 1 was first marketed in 1963 and still feels like something the Beatles might have worn on their trip to India five years later, although it’s surely been reformulated over the years.
(Kevin reviewed it for Now Smell This.)
The mall musk: The Body Shop White Musk (1981)
If 1990s nostalgia is your motivation, you should just head straight to The Body Shop and scoop up some White Musk. I was more of an Ananya girl back in the day, but I always stopped to sniff White Musk too.
Angela at Now Smell This says of TBS White Musk, “If the comfort and sexiness of a clean, soft musk for daily wear is what you’re after, it would be wrong not to give it a try.” (For something more upscale, she recommends Serge Lutens Clair de Musc.)
The niche musk: Editions de Parfums Musc Ravageur (Maurice Roucel, 2001)
The Frédéric Malle website modestly tells us that Musc Ravageur is “recognized today as the Sistine Chapel of the Soft Amber tradition.” Gaia (The Non-Blonde) once called it “a velvety skin scent,” although she found it a bit too vanillic for her taste. Sensual? Cozy? Somewhere in-between? Definitely expensive, but worth it.
The musk-by-any-other-name musk: Kenzo Flower (Alberto Morillas, 2000)
This Y2K-era fragrance was a hit for Japanese designer Kenzo Takada’s brand, and I’ve gone back to it multiple times, seeking its notes of violet, rose, and hawthorn but coming away every time with an impression of powdery white musk, and lots of it. I wouldn’t describe this as a “flower” perfume but it’s a contemporary classic. Bonus: that bottle!
The post-9/11 musk: Narciso Rodriguez For Her (2003, Francis Kurkdjian and Christine Nagel)
Rodriguez became a very familiar name when he designed the white satin slip dress worn by his close friend and former co-worker Carolyn Bessette for her wedding to John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1996. According to some accounts, Bessette often wore an Egyptian Musk perfume oil. So did Rodriguez, hence the inspiration behind this perfume.
(I think there was a spike in soft musk perfumes in the early 2000s, around the same time as the rise of gourmands.)
The indie musk: MCMC Fragrances Mociun (Anne McClain, 2014)
Mociun also reminds me of Egyptian Musk oils, with a more polished touch and the added brightness of a neroli topnote. MCMC offers Mociun as a roll-on perfume oil as well as an alcohol-based eau de parfum. Definitely androgynous and very modern.
What about you? Do you know what “musks” are? Do you have any favorites? Feel free to share!
Rachel Syme, “The New Softies,” The New York Times, March 14, 2018
Denyse Beaulieu, “The Paradox of Musk,” Grain de Musc, May 9, 2008
Victoria Frolova, “Musk in Fragrance: Salt and Butter of Perfumery,” Bois de Jasmin, November 3, 2005